Brexit and the Tory leadership race

The contenders are busy promising the earth, but the poisoned challice of Brexit could quickly see off May’s successor.

Lalkar writers

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Lalkar writers

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The donkey derby to replace the outgoing Theresa May as British prime minister is fast approaching the final furlong, with only two riders left from an initial pack of thirteen.

Before the race even began, three of the contenders withdrew after failing to receive the requisite support of even the eight MPs required to enter the race, while another, Matt Hancock, fell at the first hurdle, leaving the rest of the pack to be whittled down until only Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt remained.

With Johnson and Hunt now fighting it out to be elected as the next British PM, the race is anything but neck-and-neck. Johnson has dominated the contest from the very beginning. His share of votes among Conservative MPs rose from 114 in the first ballot to 160 in the fifth and final vote. However, with all rounds til now having been decided by parliamentarians, the final round will be decided upon by the wider membership of the Conservative party.

That said, Boris is far more popular among the party rank and file than Jeremy Hunt, which is expected to ensure his victory. Additionally, the party membership is overwhelmingly made up of Brexiters. Boris led the official leave campaign in 2016, and Hunt voted remain, so a leadership race fought principally over Brexit undoubtedly favours Johnson.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that Boris is viewed by many in the country as at best a bungling gaffe-prone buffoon and at worst a toxic figure and borderline racist. He has defended himself from such accusations as the grandson of a muslim migrant, although he is also a descendant of German royalty, and it is from this tradition that he has previously spoken of Africans’ “watermelon smiles” and compared muslim women to letterboxes. Whilst there are those in the country hypocritically baulking at the idea of such a man becoming PM, the extent to which such comments will affect the votes of Conservative party members is another matter altogether.

Foreign secretary and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, despite holding one of the great offices of state, is somehow the lower-profile candidate in the race. Typically, the foreign secretary would be a political heavyweight, a ‘big beast’ recognisable across the country and, indeed, the world. However, most of the country would struggle to recognise the current incumbent in a line-up. Those who would recognise the runner from the remain camp – junior doctors for example – do not exactly look upon him favourably.

Moreover, whilst Boris appeared to display a semblance of integrity in resigning from the cabinet last year over the Brexit mishandling by May’s government, Hunt instead stuck with May until the bitter end. Indeed it was Johnson’s resignation that facilitated Hunt’s rise to foreign secretary. Therefore, Boris is seen as a break with the previous regime, whilst Hunt has been labelled ‘May 2.0’ or ‘Theresa May in trousers’. Johnson is thus seen as representing a change in Brexit strategy while Hunt is viewed as the continuity candidate.

Media attempts to undermine Johnson

It is of little surprise then that the pro-remain media have been conducting an anti-Boris campaign throughout the leadership contest. Whilst a crescendo is yet to be reached, the high point of the campaign to date came on the back of Johnson and Hunt being named as the last two candidates standing. It also corresponded with the Guardian delving into the gutter.

On the evening of his reaching the final two, police were called to Johnson’s girlfriend’s plush south London flat by nosy neighbours. They arrived at the scene to find that no crime had been committed during what was assessed as a mere domestic argument, however undignified such things might be. Nonetheless, the neighbours who called the police had recorded the argument through the walls separating their apartments, and, being ardent remainers, chose to pass their recording to the Guardian.

Whilst the Guardian ran with the story, it is worth noting that the editors did not release the recording, leaving much room for speculation over its true content and casting doubt onto who was the aggressor in the argument (if there even was one) and how the parties conducted themselves, as well as showing the Guardian’s hesitancy with regard to the legality of breaching privacy in this way.

The neighbours, who called the police and demanded they take the recording as evidence before passing it to the Guardian, have since come under scrutiny. Attacked by Jacob Rees-Mogg as “Corbynista curtain twitchers”, it seems they certainly have a strong pro-remain political agenda and found a willing conduit for their tittle-tattle in the Guardian.

As described by the Daily Mail: “Ms Leigh is the daughter of multimillionaire musical theatre producer Mitch Leigh. A successful writer, she was the star of a theatre project called Brexit Stage Left, which received financial backing from Eurodram, a cultural campaign funded with Brussels cash …

“Last night he confirmed that he had backed remain in the EU referendum, but insisted that had nothing to do with the weekend’s events.

“Ms Leigh was described by one interviewer as an ‘American leftist buddhist jewish playwright’.” (Boris’ girlfriend is ‘too scared to go home’ by James Gant, Ian Gallagher, Harry Cole, Michael Powell and Jonathan Bucks, 23 June 2019)

The campaign against Boris Johnson is but one small component of the campaign against Brexit. With Johnson the only candidate remotely likely to implement a proper Brexit (in so much as any candidate even wishes to do so), he is feeling the wrath of the well-organised, well-funded, metropolitan liberal, pro-remain elite. Whether these individuals are or are not ‘Corbynistas’, Jacob Rees-Mogg is quite justified in making the comparison. Such is, indeed, the nature of Jeremy Corbyn’s political base.

Moreover, such ‘journalism’ on the part of the Guardian is indicative of the current bourgeois media trend continually to move political discourse away from policy and onto personalities. It is the product of a weak and decadent, self-absorbed society, bathing in the sewers of individualism. Heaven forbid that in a so-called democracy the demos may actually be informed. Much better to reduce debate to personality, lest we expose the real lack of choice existing within our ‘democratic’ system.

Sham democracy

On this real lack of choice before us, there is much that could be written. Firstly, and most obviously, the vast majority of people in the country have absolutely no choice in who will be their next prime minister. Instead, in our much-vaunted (by our own bourgeoisie only) democratic system, our prime minister will be chosen by around 160,000 Conservative party members – that is to say, around 0.3 percent of the total population.

Yet we are told it is the socialist system of the dictatorship of the proletariat that is undemocratic. We are told it is Venezuela, the DPRK and Syria, with their vibrant mass political participation and popular leaderships, that are undemocratic.

To compound this, entry to the race was decided upon by only 313 members of parliament. This is a sham democracy, where the people have literally no choice in the most significant political matters affecting them.

The point was not missed by astute Russian president Vladimir Putin:

“They seem to poke a finger at us all the time over the democratic processes in Russia, the electoral law and so on and so forth,” he reportedly said.

“But let’s look at the method of bringing actually the country’s top person, the top person of the executive branch to the supreme power in Great Britain.

“Is this done through general elections? No. This is done with the help of the party’s gathering.

“This is, of course, strange for me, honestly speaking. But such is the British system.” (Putin derides ‘strange’ Tory leadership race to choose new PM by Zamira Rahim, The Independent, 23 June 2019)

The political differences between the candidates may also have been greatly overplayed. These political differences, and the extent to which they may exist, are really only on the single issue of Brexit, which of course is the important political matter of a generation.

That Johnson campaigned to leave the European Union in 2016 and Hunt campaigned to remain, on the surface highlights a tangible difference in attitudes towards Brexit between the two. That Johnson is the man who penned two letters before coming out for the leave campaign, one announcing his support for leave, and the other his support for remain, highlights that his position was one of political opportunism rather than conviction, however. Furthermore, he has secured the support of both leavers and remainers in the Conservative party, rather suggesting that he is promising different things to different parties.

In this regard, his firm pro-Brexit promises to the European Research Group (ERG – the organised pro-Brexit faction within the Tory party) may be no more than a ploy, and his apparent willingness to accept a Brexit deal on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms (also known as ‘no-deal’) may be entirely hollow. Indeed, in the absence of a general election it is possible that, even if his promises were genuine, parliamentary arithmetic could render them redundant regardless.

Given that parliament has continually voted against such a no-deal scenario, it may well be that unless the parliamentarians are changed (via an election) government policy will not be allowed to change either. Even with a new prime minister, it is the case that a weak government – dependent on the support of the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) for its survival, and on everyone obeying the whip in order to scrape the tiniest of majorities – will be in the frailest of positions.

So frail, in fact, that there is much discussion of the possibility that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn could call a no-confidence vote as soon as the new PM takes office. A number of Tory rebels – a dozen or so, according to Ken Clarke – are said to be willing to vote against a Johnson government in any such vote, which would be enough to bring it down.

For all his verbal commitment to leaving without a deal, there are several factors that may cause Johnson to think again adding to his party’s insecurity. Should Johnson fail to satisfy the ERG and leave on 31 October with or without a deal, there could be a real political bloodbath in the Conservative party, the flavour of which has been anticipated by the Daily Telegraph:

“On paper, installing Britain’s most famous Brexiteer as the new PM is an extraordinary win for the European Research Group of leave MPs, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg …

“The ERG know that nobody symbolises the seething determination and defiant patriotism of the Brexit project quite like Boris, and at a time when the public is losing the will to live, they couldn’t ask for a more powerful poster child for their mission. Leaver MPs also calculate that Boris’s strong-willed personality will be a massive asset in the next round of negotiations with Brussels.

“But they are jumpy nonetheless. In recent days they have vacillated between giving MPs rather desperate ankle-flashes of their ‘spartan’ fundamentalism – tweeting that the backstop isn’t the only thing wrong with Mrs May’s deal, for example – and falling over themselves to demonstrate their unwavering devotion to Boris, not least by whipping against tactical voting in favour of rival candidates during this week’s leadership ballots.

“The latter, in particular, betrays a strategic ineptitude. Once it was clear that Boris had more than enough support to secure his place in the final round, the ERG should have shifted votes to one of his pro-Brexit rivals (Dominic Raab, and if he hit his ceiling, then perhaps Sajid Javid, who has previously pitched himself as a dependable pair of hands in a no-deal scenario). This could have engineered a more robust contest, in which Boris could have been pressurised to properly flesh out his Brexit plan and reassure Tory members of his unwavering commitment to no-deal should talks with Brussels turn south.

“But the ghastly truth is that the ERG do not trust Boris not to double-cross them, and they are going about preventing their betrayal in the worst possible way. They have concluded that the best method for ensuring that Boris takes Britain out of the EU with or without a deal by 31 October is to throw the full weight of their support behind him so that he feels beholden to them. The logic goes that, even if Boris loses his bottle when Tory remainers inevitably resume their sabotage of Brexit, he will remember who put him in power and feel compelled to side with the leavers.

“Their strategy is a leap of faith born out of naive desperation. Boris may well be a true Brexiteer, and consumed by searing desire to ‘get the job done’. But high power has a habit of ravaging the most honourable individual’s principles – not least when they are presiding over a minority government in which implosion has replaced direction, and craven plotting now fills the chasm of its long-abandoned principles.

“Plus, the Brexit wunderkind will not want to be the movement’s sacrificial offering. Although he is nothing like Theresa May, Boris might well be haunted by the way her cabinet let her dig her own grave, effectively hiding away for months.

“He will also be keenly aware that even if it is possible to make no-deal a practical success, it will be a torrid battle indeed to execute such an anti-establishment project and politically survive. When the remainer ruling class goes nuclear with anger, colleagues will be only too happy to have Boris absorb the brunt of the fallout, before ditching him as ‘toxic’ several months down the line.

“That is why the ERG must now move to make sure that it is impossible for Mr Johnson to betray them. Brexiteers should promise to unite behind the new PM and shame those in the government who attempt to hide away in the event of no-deal. But they must also make it clear that there is a new backstop in town, and it’s called the Brexit party; if the new leader fails to negotiate a better deal with the EU, and then falls back on to the withdrawal agreement, there will be mass defections to Nigel Farage’s new movement.” (Brexiteers risk a ‘Boris betrayal’ unless they play a ferocious final hand by Sherelle Jacobs, 22 June 2019)

Damned if they do and damned if they don’t

A rising Brexit party threatens the new prime minister from the leave camp. The remain camp brings its own threats, the most significant of these being an ‘independent’ Scotland (within the EU) and a united Ireland. The further the crisis deepens, the more likely both scenarios become. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon threatens a second independence referendum at every opportunity. As someone so keen on referendums, she is yet to accept the result of one. No doubt, should she finally win one, that will quickly change.

The Irish issue has been driven primarily by the backstop put into Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, or what Nigel Farage more accurately describes as ‘Mr Barnier’s European treaty’. Whilst both candidates say the backstop can be got rid of, the veracity of this claim is yet to be proven.

Meanwhile, “There has been a welcome in Ireland for the result of a survey of Britain’s ruling Conservative party which revealed that most of its members would be willing to see Irish reunification if it meant that England could leave the European Union. The poll puts the Tories completely at odds with their DUP allies in the London government.

“A survey of Conservative party members found that 59 percent would prefer to see Ireland united if it secured Brexit, while an even greater number, 63 percent or almost two in three, would be happy to see an independent Scotland if it meant Brexit would go ahead …

“While both candidates could be tempted to call for an ‘England First’ Brexit in the wake of the YouGov poll, one of the first tasks of the future Conservative leader and prime minister will be to tackle the hardline unionist DUP, who are keeping the party in government through a confidence-and-supply arrangement.

“The DUP’s Brexit stance is to remilitarise the border between the north and south of Ireland by pulling the six counties out of the EU, regardless of the damage to the economy or the wishes of the people in the north, most of whom want to remain.

“Only a new general election could allow a new parliament to end the DUP’s blocking tactics, although the strategy of going to the people backfired spectacularly for Theresa May two years ago, weakening her position and delaying Brexit.

“Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski, who is supporting Boris Johnson, told BBC Radio that if Johnson becomes prime minister, he has an opportunity to win a general election to ensure the British government is ‘not at the beck and call of the DUP’.

“‘I have to be careful what I say about the DUP because hitherto if I’ve been critical of them then noises are made back here at Westminster,’ he said.

“‘We have still not left the European Union, in part because the DUP absolutely categorically refused to contemplate the northern Ireland backstop’ …

“Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd welcomed signs that the Conservative party were willing to rethink the partition of Ireland.

“‘Clearly, it is now dawning on many Tory party members that, if they are to have the kind of hard Brexit they wish to have, then the obvious solution to the impact of that on Ireland is Irish reunification.

“‘It is a conclusion that more and more people are coming to every day, which is why poll after poll is showing greater support for Irish reunification, particularly in the context of Brexit.

“‘Theresa May herself said last year that she would expect an Irish unity poll to be passed. And with such overwhelming support for reunification within the self-declared Conservative and Unionist party, it is obviously time to begin preparing for an Irish unity referendum.’” (Unite Ireland so we can have Brexit, say Tory members, Irish Republican News, 22 June 2019)

Whilst there is rationale in this argument, and a united Ireland is the correct historical position, it remains unlikely that any leader of the Conservative and Unionist party would want to go down in history as the prime minister who oversaw the loss of the six counties of northern Ireland. Neither would they wish to be the prime minister who oversaw the crumbling of the union of crowns.

History is being written today, and whoever emerges as the victor from the leadership contest will be hoping to carve out their own ideologically-driven legacy as a great British statesman. Therefore, they are highly unlikely to simply throw away both regions in order to secure Brexit.

Failure to deliver Brexit may see both these losses thrust upon them anyway, by strengthening the hand of Nigel Farage and his Brexit party.

Whichever donkey crosses the line in this not-so-grand, not-so-national race, it could well be the winner who becomes the loser, and who ends up being figuratively shot and put out of their misery.