Boris Johnson, you may have heard, enters No 10 Downing Street this morning as the next leader of a country riven by a crisis that many argue is the most intractable and complex it has faced since 1945.
The new prime minister, however, does not believe this is a problem and will trundle through the falling gloom with the help of his trusty bicycle lamp and a certain Churchillian mien. There is, he argues, no hurdle so insurmountable that it cannot be overcome with a slice of Brit brio and a side order of tally ho, pip pip from the optimism department.
You may also have heard, from his many critics, that lying is second nature with Johnson, if not his first, and that he is notoriously deceitful, reckless, opportunistic, untrustworthy, treacherous, destructive and just plain lazy. But in a well-schooled way.
You may on occasion have seen him on TV, blustering away as he ignores interviewers’ questions and trumpets over debating opponents, and you will agree that his obfuscations and dismissals are often couched in phrases that are well-turned, if arrestingly unusual, and point to an expensive education.
Earlier this year, for example, he complained that resources were wasted on investigating old paedophile crimes.
“I think an awful lot of money and an awful lot of police time now goes into these historic offences and all this malarkey,” he told a London radio station. “You know, £60-million I saw was being spaffed up a wall on some investigation into historic child abuse and all this kind of thing. What on earth is that going to do to protect the public now?”
Spaffed up a wall? I must confess I had to look that one up just to make sure it was what I thought it was. A bit of privilege and meritocracy here, I supposed, something to do with age-old traditions in the better private school toilets…
But I digress. For here was Johnson yesterday, spaffing away after his election as Conservative Party leader. And, true to form, he was all raffish charm and chuff as he geed up the Tory faithful in a Westminster convention centre. The wiffle-waffle was welcome and warming, and there was a whiff of old Winston about the place:
“I read in my Financial Times this morning that there is no incoming leader… no incoming leader has ever faced such a set of daunting circumstances, it said. Well, I look at you this morning and I ask myself, ‘Do you look daunted? Do you feel daunted?’ I don’t think you look remotely daunted to me.”
Then — spaff! — out came the “mantra” of Johnson’s leadership campaign. “In case you have forgotten it,” he chortled, “and you probably have, it is to deliver Brexit, unite the country, and defeat Jeremy Corbyn — and that is what we are going to do. We are all going to defeat Jeremy Corbyn.
“I know that some wag has already pointed out that ‘Deliver’, ‘Unite’ and ‘Defeat’ was not the perfect acronym for an election campaign, since it unfortunately spells ‘Dud’. But they forgot the final ‘E’, friends: ‘E’ for ‘Energise’. And I say to all the doubters, ‘Dude, we are going to energise the country!’
“We are going to get Brexit done on October 31. We are going to take advantage of all the opportunities that it will bring in a new spirit of ‘can-do’. And we are once again going to believe in ourselves and what we can achieve.
“And like some slumbering giant, we are going to rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity, with better education, better infrastructure, more police, fantastic full-fibre broadband sprouting in every household — we are going to unite this amazing country and we are going to take it forward!”
A few reality checks, if I may. (And sorry for the post-spaffing tristesse.)
Johnson’s one deliverable, I’d argue, is defeating Jeremy Corbyn. The bar here is currently very low. Labour is in the worst position it has been for years, thanks to Corbyn’s ambivalence on leaving the European Union and his woeful attitude regarding the poisonous anti-Semitism that has apparently thrived in the party under his leadership.
Dissatisfaction has grown to such an extent that Labour lords have been in open rebellion; more than 60 peers recently signed a full-page notice in the Guardian, attacking the leader over his failure to address anti-Semitism.
“The Labour party,” it read, “welcomes everyone* irrespective of race, creed, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation. (*except, it seems, Jews). This is your legacy, Mr Corbyn.”
It should come as no surprise then, that support for the Liberal Democrats has been growing. It elected a new leader on Monday, Jo Swinson, the first woman to hold the job, and is currently riding its own wave of spaff. Regard for a party that is usually seen as a distant, third-placed also-ran in UK politics is steadily growing.
Boldly, it has placed stopping Brexit at the top of its political agenda — a stance that admittedly may yet leave the Lib-Dems in an embarrassing position before the next elections should Britain actually leave the EU by Halloween.
As it stands, there’s a good chance there’ll be no leaving without a deal. Nigel Farage and his fellow ultra-nationalists can shout and perform all they will about treasonous elites and the like, but the numbers in the House of Commons don’t add up in Johnson’s favour should he wish to strike out for a No-Deal Brexit.
Simply put, the situation is this:
There are 650 MPs in the House of Commons. Seven of them, Sinn Fein members, don’t take their seats. Speaker John Bercow and his three deputies are required to be impartial so they don’t vote. That leaves 639 remaining voting MPs, meaning 320 votes are needed for a majority decision. Of the 639 seats, then, the Tories can probably count on 321 votes. This includes 10 from the Democratic Unionist Party, the other extremists from Northern Ireland.
Their opposition can probably count on 317 votes. Labour has 245 MPs who can vote, the Scottish National Party 35, the Lib-Dems 12, and there are 25 various other minor parties and independents, including Tory defectors.
BoJo can, therefore, count on a majority of maybe two. But factor in a couple of by-elections which could swing this way or that, and it looks fairly even-stevens.
However, the overwhelming majority of MPs do not support a No-Deal Brexit, which they fear will be immensely damaging to the economy and plunge the country into a recession the like of which was last seen when the IMF stepped in. This has been made abundantly clear to Johnson in recent weeks, but he has brushed aside such “negativity” with noises of pish and pother.
On top of this, a number of senior government members have resigned in recent weeks and ahead of the announcement of Johnson’s premiership. They include international development secretary Rory Stewart, justice secretary David Gauke, education minister Anne Milton and foreign office minister Sir Alan Duncan, with chancellor Philip Hammond expected to announce his departure soon. There could well be more in the days ahead.
So much, then, for proroguing parliament to force through a No-Deal Brexit with this bunch. As for uniting the country, there is considerable opinion that a reckless and damaging departure from Europe will, in effect, hasten the demise of the United Kingdom. This, cynics suggest, is no great shakes as many of Johnson’s supporters believe the country ends somewhere around Yorkshire anyway.
As far as the European Union is concerned, the Irish backstop is non-negotiable. A No-Deal Brexit would endanger the Good Friday Peace Accord and could, therefore, result in a unified Ireland. That’s on the plus side. On the downside, well, the five parcel bombs mailed to addresses in London and Glasgow in May 2019 by a group calling itself “the New IRA” is not exactly a welcome development, is it?
The Scottish, meanwhile, grow more and more angry at developments to their south. They clearly see a brighter future with Europe than with their closest neighbours. Andrew Tickell, a columnist with the Times, put it thus on Monday:
“Tory leaders come and go. In the past decade all have been largely unpopular across the UK, but Johnson may be different. For many Scottish voters, traditionally queasy about independence, the idea of him in No 10 represents a failure which, like Brexit, raises fundamental questions about how the Union project is engineered. On the cusp of a new regime, Brexit unfinished, rocky roads ahead, there’s no sign that anyone, anywhere in the Conservative and Unionist Party has any idea how to fit the springs and sprockets back together.”
Last, Johnson has this slight problem on his plate as well: he moves into No 10 with no furniture, least of all a bed. All was lost, it has been reported, when said possessions were tossed overboard on the stormy seas of recent marital upheavals and that highly publicised row with the mistress.
Partner Carrie Symonds, meanwhile, has told the Daily Telegraph she won’t be joining dearest Bozzer in Downing Street anytime soon. She doesn’t want to be a distraction, she has said, on this, the most important day of his life. DM
Andrew Donaldson has been a journalist for more than 37 years, but still has all the wrong contacts. He is now based in the United Kingdom.
Penguins push other penguins into the water to check if it is free of predators.