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Boris, the Churchill of Brexit, has Corbyn on the ropes

Niall Ferguson

But PM’s road out of the EU is paved with rocks and hard places

‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice,” wrote Karl Marx in a justly famous passage from his essay The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. “He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Marx had in mind the immense discrepancy between Napoleon I and his nephew Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, later Napoleon III. A latter-day Marx might make precisely the same point about Sir Winston Churchill and Boris Johnson, except that Johnson pre-emptively published his own biography of Churchill, insisting on a parallel that could only be unflattering to himself.

So here I sit, unable to shake off the sinking feeling that we are about to witness the Monty Python remake of the film Darkest Hour.

Yet it would be a mistake prematurely to write off Johnson’s premiership. Boris has needed a lot of luck as well as charisma to get to the top of the greasy pole. In the course of his career he has survived a dozen scandals and fiascos, any one of which would have destroyed a common-or-garden political hack. He has that unlearnable magical power that elicits affection and limitless forgiveness from a substantial proportion of voters.

Moreover, despite his reputation for disorganisation, he opened strongly last week. The purge of Theresa May’s cabinet was impressive. The return of Dominic Cummings — the mastermind of the campaign to leave the EU and now the capo dei capi special adviser at
No 10 — was clever, as was the decision to put Michael Gove in charge of the Cabinet Office. And the appointment of Sajid Javid as chancellor of the exchequer, with a strong team of junior ministers, was the right way to reassure financial markets.

Almost as important, on Thursday Johnson delivered a barnstorming performance in the House of Commons, reassuring his own party that he has what it takes at the dispatch box.

We have all seen too much of Boris the bluffer and bungler, not least in his recent wretched stint as foreign secretary. It was easy to forget that, when he is conductor as opposed to second fiddle, he knows how to assemble a strong team and inspire its members to give their best. Those who worked with him when he edited The Spectator and served as mayor of London testify to this.

This is not May 1940. France is not collapsing as the Wehrmacht sweeps westwards. We don’t need to rescue our army from the beaches or brace ourselves for invasion or blitz. Nevertheless, the new prime minister finds himself between more rocks and hard places than a lost hiker in the Cuillin hills of Skye.

The stated game plan is to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement laboriously if unskilfully negotiated by May. What are the chances that the European negotiators will agree to scrap the dreaded backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland under single market regulations and the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU until an alternative arrangement can be found that avoids a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic? I’d say pretty much nil, even if Johnson persuades the Europeans that he is in earnest about a no-deal Brexit, with all the attendant damage to the Irish economy.

Why would they give Boris (whom they all despise) the break they denied May? Why would they give up the united front they have maintained for more than three years? I therefore expect a summer of phoney talks with Brussels, Berlin and Dublin. I’d guess the most he can hope for is a reworded political declaration, and that will not satisfy the true Brexit believers.

If there are rocks overseas, there are hard places at home. Parliament is now in its summer recess, but when it returns on September 3 the Johnson government will swiftly feel the weakness of its position. All those ministers dismissed from the government will form a buzzing hive of resentment — and opposition to a no-deal exit — on the back benches. With his majority (including the Democratic Unionists) probably down to one, Johnson may be forced into an election soon after parliament reconvenes, through a vote of no confidence.

Johnson knows this, which is why his government already has the look of a campaign machine. But the road to an election victory — before or after October 31 — looks pretty rocky, too. Yes, I get it: Johnson is candyfloss the way May was cough medicine. He looks like an election winner. And a bounce in the polls is guaranteed.

But let’s look a bit more closely at the British electoral map. The Tories are not the only party with a new leader. Even before the Liberal Democrats picked Jo Swinson, their revival was cutting into Conservative support across centrist, professional Britain.

Moreover, another leader has a new party. Nothing short of an electoral pact with the Brexit Party will prevent the Tories from losing seats to — or because of — Nigel Farage and co.

Speaking of the Isle of Skye, I would say the whole of Scotland looks hard and rocky for Boris, who is uncordially loathed by the dour folk who dwell north of the border. The Tories will struggle to hold the 12 seats they gained there in 2017, especially if the central issue of the campaign is do-or-die Brexit. Remember, Scotland voted remain by 62%.

If Johnson can win a majority, he can free himself from the Democratic Unionists and tack towards the EU’s opening offer of a trade deal for Great Britain and a special status for Northern Ireland within the single market. But that’s an “if” the size of Boris’s ego. The Tories need to win more than 50 pro-leave Labour seats while fending off the Lib Dem resurgence.

And I haven’t even mentioned the crisis precipitated by Iran’s seizure of the Stena Impero, or the mounting evidence that the UK economy is slowing (factory orders down, industrial output down, investment intentions down).

The one crucial piece of luck Johnson has going for him is the parlous state of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its history. Two years ago Corbyn enjoyed a strange bout of popularity that scuppered May’s bid for an increased majority. Today, irreparably damaged by charges of anti-semitism and rumours of ill health, Corbyn is the perfect opponent for the rambunctious Johnson.

Also in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx wrote one his most famous observations: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past.”

It is not too much to say that Johnson is about to put the Marxist theory of history to the test. I wish him luck — because if he loses, a Marxist wins.

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