Australian Outlook

The Fall of Boris

13 Sep 2019
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
Boris at the Chatham House London Conference, Source: Chatham House, Flickr,

Boris’ unshakeable persona has been tainted by the Brexit spectacle, and he could potentially be the shortest surviving UK prime minister since 1827.  

To change the metaphor, the British prime minister is no longer parading as a latter-day Caligula — the Roman emperor who turned out to be too good to be true — or strutting his stuff about sunlit uplands in a new golden age for the United Kingdom. For good or ill, at least temporally, Boris Johnson has had to come to terms with the harsh reality that his premiership may soon come to an end. He could, in fact, turn out to be the shortest surviving UK prime minister since 1827.

He surely already holds the record for the number of serious setbacks by any prime minister in a six week period after striding purposefully into 10 Downing Street amid a wave of populist adulation. Like Caligula, he was tousle-haired and trendy, claiming a reputation for  getting things done. “I will get Brexit done on October 31, with or without a deal, do or die,” he proclaimed.

It has not turned out that way. It is a little bit too early to say that Brexit is doomed, because we will not know if that will be the case until at least after a general election, probably in mid-November at the earliest. In the past month Johnson’s faltering administration has lost control of Parliament, having lost its slender majority in the House of Commons, where it has been defeated not once but three times in the past week.

The catalyst for what turned out to be astonishing acts of self-harm, when Johnson first of all announced without consultation that Queen Elizabeth II had agreed to his request that Parliament should be prorogued for five weeks from October 10, thereby attempting to prevent MPs and peers from debating the political crisis brought about by Brexit, and, in particular, the declared wish of right-wing Tories to have Britain crash out of the EU with a deal on October 31. 

He also announced a general election would be held on October 15 , a move which required parliamentary legislation because of fixed-term laws. The government calculated that Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who had been clamouring for an election almost daily, would lend Labour support for the enabling bill. 

Both tactics, advocated on the advice of his ruthless chief adviser, Dominic Cummings from all, had achieved the opposite of the intent. MPs from all parties and the Speaker, John Berkow, expressed fury at the gagging of Parliament in critical times, also expressing concern that the Queen had been dragged into the Brexit issue. Already the producers of Netflix are plotting a new episode of The Crown on the matter for a future series 

MPs retaliated quickly, with an all-party group framing a bill preventing the government from running down the clock to allow a damaging no-deal Brexit on October 31 and to mandate Johnson to seek an extension of the UK’s EU membership until the end of January 2020, unless he was able to achieve an acceptable deal with Brussels before the next EU summit on October 19.

Johnson’s response was pure Caligula. He accused all MPs supporting the anti-no deal Brexit bill of sabotaging his negotiations with Brussels — there had not been any — and warned all Conservatives that if they voted against the government they would lose the Tory MP, and would not be allowed to stand at the general election he proposed to call.

Observers expected there to be seven or eight Tory dissenters, but in the end, 21 people voted against the government. The attempt to call an early election suffered a similar fate, twice in fact. 

Johnson then made a fatal mistake. He carried out his threat to remove the whip from the Tory dissidents, thereby ensuring his Commons majority was finished. Some ministers expressed disquiet at this move, and his own brother, Jo Johnson, in the Cabinet as Universities, Science, Research and Innovation minister, called it quits, citing the need to put the country before filial loyalties. One by one those who voted against the government cited distrust in the prime minister, and the belief that, had he obtained an election for his proposed October 15 date, he would have then shifted it to beyond October 31. This would mean that Britain would automatically crash out without a deal.

Chief adviser Cummings added to the calumny when he said that Johnson would ignore the Commons mandate to seek an extension beyond 31, which the prime minister later endorsed by saying he “would die in a ditch” before doing any such thing.

Amber Rudd, a senior Cabinet  minister who added her name to the growing list of defectors on Sunday, told the BBC she saw no evidence of planning for a serious negotiation, and when she asked the PM for a progress report she was sent a one page.

What is certain now is that there cannot be a no-deal Brexit on October 31, and the prospect of a new agreement is unlikely. The EU may agree to the idea of a three month extension, but Europe’s strongest leader, Emmanuel Macron, president of France, favours a binding  two year extension, which effectively keeps Britain in the EU.

Either way there will be no early trade deal with Australia, or, for that matter, with the United States.

Colin Chapman FAIIA is a writer, broadcaster and public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.