The commentariat has been utterly convulsed by the composition of new prime minister Boris Johnson’s government.
As Remainer ministers and those disloyal to Johnson were either sacked or fell on their swords to be replaced by Brexiteers in every key position, Brexit supporters were as ecstatic as Remainers were choked with horror and rage.
Johnson’s purpose in effecting this ruthless transformation was clear: to send an unequivocal signal that the Remainers’ game is now up. Britain will be leaving the EU on October 31, “do or die”.
The purpose of this signal was threefold. First, to tell the public that they finally had a prime minister who believed in the democratic right of the people to have their decision respected by the government after the government itself had asked the people to make it.
Second, to make the EU understand that the British government really is prepared to leave with no deal. This aims to create such panic about the likely effects of no-deal upon member states that the EU may be driven to negotiate withdrawal terms in the UK’s interests. That’s why planning for no deal is being conspicuously ramped up, with the Cabinet Office having been made specifically responsible for no-deal preparation.
Third, to face down Remainer MPs intent upon thwarting no-deal. By boxing himself into Brexit on October 31 even with no deal, Johnson is leaving himself no room for manoeuvre. Since he rules out another referendum, he is effectively telling Remainer MPs that if they stop Brexit he will call a general election. He will doubtless be calculating that their terror at facing the electorate against a Johnson platform of defending democracy and the sovereignty of the people may well force them to abandon their anti-Brexit insurgency.
On this analysis, he has created nothing less than a war cabinet to defend democracy itself against the attack by MPs and civil servants who have shown they will stop at nothing, even ripping up Britain’s constitutional rules governing parliamentary procedure, to thwart the will of the people to leave the EU.
And yet. The signalling is clear enough. But I’m still counting my spoons.
As I wrote here, the danger is that Johnson will try to present some kind of EU compromise as Brexit, even though such a deal may once again leave the UK at the mercy of the EU.
But this time there will be no organised Conservative party Brexiteer “European Research Group” outside government to hold its feet to the fire. Putting so many Brexiteers into government means he has neutralised the ERG as a potential Brexiteer insurgency. This means he would be more able to force them to accept the “painful compromises” that he would present as “inescapable”.
Some of his appointments themselves carry a whiff of that dangerous ambiguity. The ERG’s ostensible leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has now been appointed Leader of the Commons, actually voted for Mrs May’s treacherous deal on its third appearance.
By cruel contrast the principled and courageous Steve Baker, who unlike a number of his fellow ERG members refused to vote for Mrs May’s deal in its third incarnation but instead led 28 “Spartans” through the “no” lobby once again, has been left out of government altogether.
Meanwhile Michael Gove who, despite being the original parliamentary Brexit leader alongside Boris Johnson was not only Mrs May’s most pivotal Cabinet member to support her deal but also resisted a no-deal Brexit to the hilt, has actually been put in charge of no-deal preparations in the Cabinet Office. Fox and hen-house, anyone?
Johnson says he will pursue a renegotiation with the EU and expects it to be successful. You could say he’s merely being pragmatic by keeping his options open: simultaneously seeking a renegotiated deal and preparing to leave with no deal.
But since (barring a total capitulation to panic) the EU is unlikely to offer any variation that is in the UK’s interests and which would therefore be by definition against the EU’s own, any renegotiated “compromise” will be bad for the UK.
So the fact that Johnson is even prepared to contemplate this means that he cannot be relied upon for the clean Brexit he has implied he can be trusted to deliver.
It seems that Brexiteers must therefore sweat on the EU remaining bone-headedly intransigent. But what if they are not? What if they become smart and manipulative?
As ever, we are left guessing about what Johnson’s actual bottom-line position is. The one real cause for optimism among Brexiteers, however, is his most significant appointment of all: Dominic Cummings as his principal adviser.
Cummings was the strategic brain behind Vote Leave. He is the ultimate true believer for whom enabling the UK to leave the EU drives all else before it. His appointment will be the one that most alarms the senior civil servants, the Sir Humphreys whose serpentine skills until this moment have been deployed to deliver Brexit in name only while keeping the UK tied to the EU in perpetuity.
Now Cummings, has been brought in to stop them. The Times reports:
“Last month he wrote a 10,000-word blog post calling for a revolution in Whitehall and an end to the ‘Kafka-esque’ influence of senior mandarins on elected politicians. He called for the creation of “elite red teams” outside the control of the civil service, whose job would be to challenge official advice to ministers and pick apart policy proposals. He said that ministerial red boxes should be scrapped and existing Whitehall power structures dismantled, arguing that senior civil servants such as the late Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood did not have the skills to run a modern government.”
My guess is that, given the fragility of the government’s overall majority, Cummings will also be pressing for something I have been advocating repeatedly over the past few weeks: that the prime minister should declare at an early juncture that no acceptable renegotiated terms are possible, and so the UK will be leaving the EU with no deal on October 31; and then call a general election on a platform of the defence of democracy and the sovereignty of the people.
This titanic battle for Britain now moves into yet another phase.