Most of the analyses I’ve read start from the implausibility of Brexit as a way of doing politics which couldn’t possibly achieve all the wonders which have been promised of it. It is argued that Boris Johnson has so closely associated himself with Brexit that he must fail. They go on to say that he faces an unsolvable crisis: he must agree something with the EU, and whatever the EU offers will be unpalatable to his own party. Therefore, and in particular since Johnson has given himself a deadline of October to resolve the Brexit crisis, he will be out of office relatively soon.
I get where people are coming from. In particular now that we have – at last – a rising movement against the Tories which is able to bring thousands of people to the streets, it is hard not to feel that our strength must connect, somehow, to their weakness. But the above approach risks underestimating Johnson. He brings to his new position certain strengths, which are worth spelling out:
We live in a time which repeatedly rewards amorphous leaders who don’t care about resolving our ecological and social crises, but do care about the people who vote for them, and who indulge the cruellest fantasies of their base. Across the world, people like Johnson are winning elections, and people unlike him are losing them.
To this context, Johnson brings the skills of an illusionist, the ability to say “look over there,” while simultaneously taking the pound coin out of your hand and hiding it in his pocket. This is the purpose of the Johnson gaffes, his jokes. And this is the place at which the comparison with Trump belongs. Indeed Johnson’s method worked for him often enough in the past. If you don’t believe me, try this thought experiment. Ask yourself how many left-wing voters (by which I mean everyone from anarchists to people who’ve deserted Labour for the Liberal Democrats) refer to Jeremy Corbyn, without cringing, as “Jeremy”. Now ask yourself how many right-wing voters are willing to say “Boris” and smile wryly? Prepare to see any number of Boris Johnson speeches making all sorts of policy proposals which ought to appeal to people far from Johnson’s natural base. Their purpose will not be to recruit swing voters, so much as to neutralise opposition, to shove debate to the places where Johnson feels most comfortable, to prevent people from focussing on the policies which hurt him the most.
While Brexit has corroded the support of the Conservatives, it has done equal damage to the Labour vote. In fact, it offers an unequivocally pro-Brexit Tory party at least the possibility of a very quick fix solution (an electoral pact with the Brexit party) that would be much harder for Labour to match (a pact with the Liberal Democrats, anyone?).
Although Johnson is notoriously lazy and uninterested in detail he has survived in less pressured contexts (the London Mayor) by leaving policy to subordinates, and trusting their judgment. Among the likes of Dominic Cummings are people with a sustained political vision. They have been in internal opposition since 2016 and they bring all the ambition and hunger of frustrated people – a virtue which Johnson himself patently lacks.
While Johnson faces all sorts of obstacles over the next three months; should he survive that initial period – any number of institutional arrangements will start pointing in his favour: eg the fixed term parliaments act, which means that he can repeatedly lose votes in parliament without being forced out of power; the success Johnson has had in purging the May ministers and painting his new Cabinet as a new government; the tendency of the electorate to allow a new government a honeymoon period; the general effect that incumbency has in conveying authority on even unpopular leaders.
Although Johnson appears to face the pressures of an unmovable object and unstoppable force, these are not in face equal opposites. The EU has compelling reasons for not agreeing to a free trade agreement in which imported goods from the US could trade in France behind the advantages of US protection and a soft US-UK trade deal. It has all the fixity, in other words of Scylla. But the Tory party has nothing of Charibdis. (If you don’t believe me, think of the last time you read about the Never-Trumpers in Congress revolting against their President Trump).
Fitting all this together, it is possible to imagine the outlines of a Johnson strategy for the next three months which might succeed. He could begin by negotiating with the EU, testing if there is any possibility of a MayDeal2 (i.e. the same as present, but with the backstop watered down by some technological fix to the problem of Irish trade). If Johnson can produce that deal he has a significant advantage over May: the allies in the Cabinet and the DUP to persuade the Brexiteer MPs to vote for it.
If that deal cannot be made, then Johnson could sensibly test the resolve of the Remain Conservatives. He starts from such a low point of comparison (the defeats repeatedly suffered by Theresa May) that even a narrow loss could be packaged as a quasi-victory.
If I am wrong and there are enough Grieves to prevent a No Deal Brexit, Johnson has one last asset which May lacks: the ability to speak to the Brexit party as one comrade to another, and to negotiate with them an election pact which would purge the Remainers from Parliament.
Any number of my friends are reading Johnson’s weakness from an assumption that a group of Tory MPs will be principled and show backbone in the defence of what they believe – but if your hopes for the future depend on them, then you’re starting from the wrong place.