John Oliver explains how Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, has succeeded – not despite his bumbling persona, but often because of it.
In the postindustrial wasteland, the working class embraced an old Etonian mouthing about unleashed British potential.
Donald Trump, in his telling, could have shot somebody on Fifth Avenue and won. Boris Johnson could mislead the queen. He could break his promise to get Britain out of Europe by Oct. 31. He could lie about Turks invading Britain and the cost of European Union membership. He could make up stories about building 40 new hospitals. He could double down on the phantom $460 million a week that Brexit would deliver to the National Health Service — and still win a landslide Tory electoral victory not seen since Margaret Thatcher’s triumph in 1987.
The British, or at least the English, did not care. Truth is so 20th century. They wanted Brexit done; and, formally speaking, Johnson will now take Britain out of Europe by Jan. 31, 2020, even if all the tough decisions on relations with the union will remain. Johnson was lucky. In the pathetic, emetic Jeremy Corbyn, the soon-to-depart Labour Party leader, he faced perhaps the worst opposition candidate ever. In the Tory press, he had a ferocious friend prepared to overlook every failing. In Brexit-weary British subjects, whiplashed since the 2016 referendum, he had the perfect receptacle for his “get Brexit done.”
Johnson was also skillful, blunting Nigel Farage’s far-right Brexit Party, which stood down in many seats, took a lot of Labour votes in the seats where it did run, and ended up with nothing. The British working class, concentrated in the Midlands and the North, abandoned Labour and Corbyn’s socialism for the Tories and Johnson’s nationalism.
In the depressed provinces of institutionalized precariousness, workers embraced an old Etonian mouthing about unleashed British potential. Not a million miles from blue-collar heartland Democrats migrating to Trump the millionaire and America First demagogy.
That’s not the only parallel with American politics less than 11 months from the election. Johnson concentrated all the Brexit votes. By contrast, the pro-Remain vote was split between Corbyn’s internally divided Labour Party, the hapless Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party. For anybody contemplating the divisions of the Democratic Party as compared with the Trump movement’s fanatical singleness of purpose, now reinforced by the impeachment proceedings, this can only be worrying.
The clear rejection of Labour’s big-government socialism also looks ominous for Democrats who believe the party can lurch left and win. The British working class did not buy nationalized railways, electricity distribution and water utilities when they could stick it to some faceless bureaucrat in Brussels and — in that phrase as immortal as it is meaningless — take back their country.
It’s a whole new world. To win, liberals have to touch people’s emotions rather than give earnest lessons. They have to cease being arid. They have to refresh and connect. It’s not easy.
Facebook reaches about one-third of humanity. It is more powerful than any political party — and it’s full of untruths, bigotry and nonsense. As Sacha Baron Cohen, the British actor, said last month of the social media behemoths: “The truth is that these companies won’t fundamentally change because their entire business model relies on generating more engagement, and nothing generates more engagement than lies, fear and outrage.”
That’s the story of Brexit, a national tragedy. That’s the story of Johnson, the man of no convictions. That’s the story of Trump, who makes puppets of people through manipulation of outrage and disregard for truth. That’s the story of our times. Johnson gets and fits those times better than most. He’s a natural.
“Brexit and Trump were inextricably linked in 2016, and they are inextricably linked today,” Steve Bannon told me. “Johnson foreshadows a big Trump win. Working-class people are tired of their ‘betters’ in New York, London, Brussels telling them how to live and what to do. Corbyn the socialist program, not Corbyn the man, got crushed. If Democrats don’t take the lesson, Trump is headed for a Reagan-like ’84 victory.”
I still think Trump can be beaten, but not from way out left and not without recognition that, as Hugo Dixon, a leader of the now defeated fight for a second British referendum, put it: “There is a crisis of liberalism because we have not found a way to connect to the lives of people in the small towns of the postindustrial wasteland whose traditional culture has been torn away.”
Johnson, even with his 80-seat majority, has problems. His victory reconciled the irreconcilable.
- His moneyed coterie wants to turn Britain into free-market Singapore on the Thames. His new
- working-class constituency wants rule-Britannia greatness combined with state-funded support. That’s a delicate balancing act. The breakup of Britain has become more likely. The strong Scottish National Party showing portends a possible second Scottish referendum on independence.
This time I would bet on the Scots bidding farewell to little England. And then there’s the small matter of what Brexit actually means. Johnson will need all his luck with that.
As my readers know, I am a passionate European patriot who sees the union as the greatest achievement of the second half of the 20th century, and Britain’s exit as an appalling act of self-harm. But I also believe in democracy. Johnson took the decision back to the people and won. His victory must be respected. The fight for freedom, pluralism, the rule of law, human rights, a free press, independent judiciaries, breathable air, peace, decency and humanity continues — and has only become more critical now that Britain has marginalized itself irreversibly in a fit of nationalist delusion.
A Brexit ultra and profound reactionary, the eccentric MP is a strong contender to be the next prime minister. How dangerous is he?
Jacob Rees-Mogg calls it “God’s own country” – that swathe of rural Somerset south of Bath and Bristol where he was raised, and that he now represents in parliament. It is easy to see why the Tory backbencher, who conceivably could become prime minister before too long, loves it so much. When not in his Mayfair town house, or dwelling in some glorious imagined past, he, his wife and their six young children live in Gournay Court, a splendid 400-year-old mansion in the picturesque village of West Harptree at the foot of the Mendip Hills.
A short drive down the Chew River valley in one of his two vintage Bentleys, along narrow lanes flanked by neat hedgerows and pretty stone cottages, takes him back to Hinton Blewett, where he grew up in the Old Rectory with views across rolling farmland. A few miles beyond that is Ston Easton Park, an imposing Georgian pile with landscaped grounds that is now a luxury hotel. There, young Jacob – fourth of the five children of William Rees-Mogg, the distinguished former editor of the Times – spent the earliest years of his life, and was taught the Catholic catechism by his governess.
This is the storybook England of great estates, farms and elegant villages clustered around ancient, steepled churches. Here, the young Rees-Mogg was marinated from birth in English history and tradition. And now, aged 48, he would doubtless consider himself the embodiment of traditional English values.
He has never been seen (except perhaps by his wife) in anything other than a suit and tie. He speaks in sonorous Edwardian English and is unfailingly courteous. To be born British, he says, is “to win first prize in the lottery of life”. Not long ago he asked the House of Commons: “What greater pleasure can there be for a true-born Englishman [than] to listen to our national anthem… to listen to those words that link us to our sovereign who is part of that chain that takes us back to our immemorial history.” The Economist recently described him as “the blue passport in human form, the red telephone box made flesh, the Royal Yacht Britannia in a pinstripe suit”.
But Rees-Mogg’s many foes insist his values are those of a zealot, not those of modern Britain such as moderation, tolerance, inclusivity and compassion for the needy. His critics like him as a person and enjoy his intelligence, humour and self-deprecation, but contend that his old-school charm and civility mask extreme, doctrinaire positions not just on Brexit, but on almost every other social and economic issue including abortion, welfare and climate change. Rees-Mogg certainly has no time for “One Nation” or “compassionate” Conservatism, or for the “modernising” project begun by David Cameron. He unashamedly champions what he calls “full-blooded Toryism”. He has gained a passionate following among young Tories for whom – in an age of technocratic career politicians – the fact he is a character with strong beliefs appears more important than what those beliefs may be. But older, more centrist members of the party are appalled.
“You would only elect him leader of the Conservative Party if you didn’t want to win an election ever again,” one grandee and former cabinet minister told me.
“I couldn’t stay in a party led by somebody like him,” said Anna Soubry, the prominent backbench Remainer, earlier this month. Heidi Allen, another Conservative MP, has said the same, adding: “He’s not the modern face of the Tory party I and colleagues are desperate to prove is out there.”
Matthew Parris, the commentator and former Tory MP, was even blunter in the Times: “For the 21st-century Conservative Party Jacob Rees-Mogg would be pure hemlock. His manners are perfumed but his opinions are poison. Rees-Mogg is quite simply an unfailing, unbending, unrelenting reactionary.”
Rees-Mogg declined the New Statesman’s requests for an interview for this profile, citing a lack of time. However, he did find time last year for an hour-long podcast interview with Breitbart, the ultra-right-wing US website that helped to propel Donald Trump into the White House. Host James Delingpole introduced Rees-Mogg as his “most exciting guest ever” and “the sexiest thing from a right-wing perspective in British politics”. Rees-Mogg, an early supporter of Trump, also found time before Christmas to meet Steve Bannon, the US president’s former chief ideologue, in a Mayfair hotel. Raheem Kassam, the former Ukip luminary who brokered the meeting, said “the discussions focused on how we move forward with winning for the conservative movements on both sides of the pond”.
It may not be his fault, but Rees-Mogg has led a relentlessly privileged life. He spent his early years as a pupil at Westminster Under School, which educates boys aged seven to 13. While there, he played the stock markets using a £50 inheritance from a relative, standing up at the General Electric Company’s annual meeting and castigating a board – that included his father – for the firm’s “pathetic” dividend. A contemporary newspaper photograph showed the precocious 12-year-old solemnly reading the Financial Times beside his teddy bears.
He proceeded, inevitably, to Eton, and from there to Trinity College, Oxford, to read history. An ardent young Thatcherite who had imbibed Euroscepticism at his father’s knee, he became president of the university’s Conservative Association, debated at the Oxford Union, and would nip down to London to help out at Conservative Central Office. He had his own telephone installed in his college room. He incurred mockery for suggesting students should wear a “full morning suit”, and embraced the mortarboard – “I do so like to cycle around Oxford with it on.” One former student who knew him at university called him a “ghastly snob”. After graduating, he worked briefly for the Rothschild investment bank. He then spent three years with Lloyd George Investment in Hong Kong, before returning to London to run some of that firm’s emerging market funds. Surprisingly, since Rees-Mogg so passionately supports the reckless gamble with the British economy that is Brexit, a recent FT investigation described him as a cautious investor whose performance was “less than stellar”.
In 2007, Rees-Mogg and several colleagues left Lloyd George to set up Somerset Capital Management – one source of his estimated £100m personal fortune. Another source is his wife, Helena, the only child of the former Tory MP Somerset de Chair and Lady Juliet Tadgell, an heiress and former Marchioness of Bristol who is said to be worth £45m. Rees-Mogg met Helena while campaigning for a referendum on the EU constitution. He proposed in front of one of the half-dozen Van Dyck paintings that hang in her family’s stately home, Bourne Park in Kent. They were married in 2007 before 650 guests in Canterbury Cathedral, the archbishop having authorised a Tridentine mass in ecclesiastical Latin in light of Rees-Mogg’s fervent Catholicism. The couple now have six children aged between seven months and ten, all bearing the names of Catholic popes and saints. Following the birth of Sixtus last July, Rees-Mogg admitted he had never changed a nappy, adding: “Nanny does it brilliantly.”
The first recorded instance of him mingling at length with common folk came when he was selected, somewhat improbably, as the Conservative candidate for Central Fife in 1997. He toured council estates with the aforementioned nanny, Veronica Crook, in tow (she was his nanny, too, before looking after his children). Something was lost in translation, however, for Rees-Mogg came a distant third, securing just 3,669 votes. “The number of voters in my favour dropped as soon as I opened my mouth,” he said.
Four years later, Rees-Mogg stood again, this time in The Wrekin in Shropshire. He came second with 38 per cent of the vote, down 2 per cent on the Tories’ performance in 1997, despite a small uptick in the party’s national vote. Thereafter, the Kensington and Chelsea Conservatives rejected him for “lacking the common touch”, but he was eventually selected as the Tory candidate in his native North East Somerset, despite opposition from the party leadership. Cameron allegedly felt Rees-Mogg’s exceedingly patrician mien would undermine his efforts to modernise the party. The then Tory leader certainly encouraged Rees-Mogg’s sister, Annunziata, the party’s unsuccessful 2010 candidate in neighbouring Somerset and Frome, to shorten her name on the campaign trail to Nancy Mogg, but she refused.
Jacob Rees-Mogg was elected to parliament in 2010, with a majority of 4,914 that he has since doubled. He and his family spend about three weekends a month in the constituency. He responds to constituents by letter, not email, because – an aide told me – “he thinks people should get their own personally signed reply”. Even his political opponents concede that he is a diligent constituency MP, though they question his ability to understand the less affluent.
“I’ve always found him very polite. He obviously cares about his family,” said Robin Moss, Labour’s candidate in the constituency last year. “But he hasn’t the remotest idea of what it’s like to live on Universal Credit or be homeless. He’s never put his hand in his pocket and realised there’s nothing there.”
At first, Rees-Mogg was regarded in Westminster as a colourful, eccentric and entertaining MP, but hardly leadership material. He broke the record for the longest word uttered in the Commons chamber with “floccinaucinihilipilification” (the action or habit of estimating something as worthless). He called for Somerset to be allowed to set its own time zone, as it could before all British times were harmonised in the 1840s. He suggested council officials wear bowler hats to identify themselves as “thorough-going bureaucrats”. He joined the all-party parliamentary group for historic vehicles. He wore a top hat to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. In one interview, “the honourable member for the 18th century” struggled to name a single pop group, and he began appearing on Have I Got News for You as some sort of amusing relic from the age of Downton Abbey.
Occasionally, he went too far. In 2013 he addressed a dinner of the Traditional Britain Group, which favoured the voluntary repatriation of black immigrants. That was “clearly a mistake”, he admitted. He also angered his party leadership by supporting an electoral arrangement with Ukip ahead of the 2015 general election.
But it was the 2016 EU referendum that raised his stature from that of a backbench ornament. Rees-Mogg campaigned vigorously for Leave, and has continued to fight for the hardest, purest form of Brexit ever since. In the wake of Theresa May’s insipid general election performance in 2017, he was seized on by young Conservatives desperate for a bold, colourful leader to take on Jeremy Corbyn – and so, the personality cult of “Moggmentum” was launched. (He joined Instagram and Twitter around the same time.) To persuade him to run for leader, two young activists, Anne Sutherland and Sam Frost, set up an online petition – “Ready for Rees-Mogg” – that now has more than 41,000 signatories, making it the biggest right-leaning campaign group in Britain. “We have a bunch of very, very boring people at the top of the Conservative Party, so someone who’s a bit different and not a classic cookie-cutter Tory minister is very exciting,” Frost told me.
Rees-Mogg’s rise continued. In September 2017 he emerged as the most popular potential leader in a monthly poll of more than 1,300 Tory members run by the website ConservativeHome, and has remained top in nearly every survey since. In October, he was the star of the party conference in Manchester, addressing packed fringe meetings while the main hall was half-empty. He has become something of a media celebrity, and gained a valuable new platform in January when he was elected chairman of the European Research Group, a cabal of 30 to 60 ultra-Brexiteer Tory MPs recently described by Peter Wilby in this magazine as “more of a party within a party than [Labour’s] Momentum”.
As the standard-bearer of the “swivel-eyed” brigade, he exerts relentless pressure to prevent May backsliding as she negotiates Britain’s departure from the EU. He speaks out when her red lines “are beginning to look a little bit pink”. He rejects any deal that would turn Britain into a “vassal state” or amount to “Brino” (an acronym for “Brexit in name only”). He objects to the negotiations becoming a “damage limitation exercise”, or to any suggestion that Brussels is dictating to Britain. He wants the UK out of the single market and customs union, even if that means crashing out of the EU without a deal. He is admired by Ukip supporters and is Nigel Farage’s preferred choice as the next Conservative leader.
In much the same way that Trump trashes the FBI to discredit its investigation of his Russian links, Rees-Mogg recently accused the Treasury of “fiddling the figures” to exaggerate the economic damage of Brexit. “He’s theologically opposed to having policy driven by evidence and facts, insisting that anyone who disagrees must be lying or relying on false information,” one former Tory minister complained. But Rees-Mogg has uncompromising views that extend far beyond Brexit. He opposes the 1998 Human Rights Act, gay marriage and all abortion, even in cases of rape and incest – though he insists he would not seek to re-criminalise it. “I take my whip from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church rather than the Whips’ Office,” he says.
He believes that “you alleviate poverty by trickle-down economics” or what some might call “sink-or-swim”. To that end, according to the website TheyWorkForYou, he has voted against a “mansion tax” on homes costing more than £2m, a bankers’ bonus tax, and tax increases for those earning more than £150,000. He has voted in favour of reductions in corporation and capital gains taxes, as well as greater regulation of trade unions.
Rees-Mogg has opposed increases in welfare benefits, even for the disabled – “the safety net [has] become a trap”, he contends. He supports zero-hours contracts, arguing that they benefit both employers and employees. He backed the controversial “bedroom tax” on council tenants deemed to be living in properties larger than they needed, and caused anger last autumn by appearing to welcome the fast-growing number of food banks. “To have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are,” he told LBC radio. Rees-Mogg is also a climate change sceptic who opposes costly measures to reduce greenhouse gases. “Even if the greens are right, Britain will make very little difference on her own,” he said. “I would rather my constituents were warm and prosperous than cold and impoverished as we are overtaken by emerging markets who understandably put people before polar bears.”
And so the list goes on. He opposes foreign aid because “this is not the job of the government but ought to be a matter of private charity”. He regards fox hunting as “the most humane way of controlling the fox population”. He supports the sale of state-owned forests, the mass surveillance of communications on security grounds, and restrictions on legal aid. He opposes any more devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales.
He wants tougher immigration and asylum rules, and is no fan of positive discrimination. In 2006, he resisted Cameron’s efforts to increase the number of Conservative parliamentary candidates from ethnic minorities. “Ninety-five per cent of this country is white,” he said. “The list can’t be totally different from the country at large.”
“He had these sort of views when he was eight or nine. To still have them when he’s 48 seems to me to be pushing it a bit,” Chris Patten, the former Tory chairman, fellow Catholic and old friend of Rees-Mogg’s family, told me. “I don’t think they
have very much relevance to Britain’s problems in the 21st century, and the idea he could lead his party in this century is completely absurd.”
On the face of it, the idea is indeed absurd. Rees-Mogg has never held ministerial office (nor had Cameron when he became prime minister, but he had spent four years as leader of the opposition before forming a government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats). Except for his indisputable charm, Rees-Mogg comes across as a cartoon caricature of a Tory right-winger, and the ultimate toff in what is supposed to be a modern, egalitarian country. How he would play in Swansea, Sunderland or Stoke is anyone’s guess, for he seldom visits such places. Moreover, Rees-Mogg denies any interest in replacing May. If he threw his hat into the ring it would be thrown straight back at him, he protests. He has six young children, he adds.
And yet it might happen. “Yes it’s fanciful, but it’s not impossible,” says Paul Goodman, the former MP who edits ConservativeHome.
Few take Rees-Mogg’s protestations of disinterest seriously. As an 11-year-old he declared his intention to be “a millionaire by 20, a multi-millionaire by 40 and prime minister by 70”. He is now the bookies’ clear favourite as well as ConservativeHome’s frontrunner. He is speaking regularly at universities. “I’m absolutely sure he will stand,” a friend of his told me.
Rees-Mogg’s challenge will be to persuade the right of the parliamentary party to select him, rather than a cabinet-level Brexiteer, as one of the two candidates to be presented to the party membership.
He would be their riskiest choice, and Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, doubts he would prevail. “It’s one thing for a lot of members of the public, or the party, to think it’s great fun and admire him for never mincing his words and speaking 18th century English,” he told young activists in an unguarded moment at University College London in January. “It’s another to see that translating to being the prime minister and connecting with the whole of the country. So, no, I don’t see it happening.”
However, Rees-Mogg is a polished public performer and is untainted by last summer’s disastrous election. He has more charisma than Michael Gove, none of Boris Johnson’s personal baggage, and a substantial following among young Conservatives and those older, pro-Brexit party members who will have the final say. “In the end he’s a bit of a radical punt for his colleagues, but if he gets in the last two he will win,” said one supporter who follows the party’s internal machinations closely. Whether Rees-Mogg could win over the wider electorate is a moot point. He might prefer the fountain pen, but he is increasingly adept at social media. Supporters believe voters would warm to a politician who gives straight answers, who is funny and engaging, and whom they see as sincere and authentic even if they disagree with his views. They point to the equally improbable rise of Corbyn.
But the Jacobite rising faces fierce opposition. Late last week, Rees-Mogg was greeted by two separate sets of protesters when he arrived for a debate at the Cambridge Union – EU supporters and gay rights activists. “I never entertained the idea I’d see a politician like him so close to power. That’s absolutely terrifying for the future of this country,” Jessamyn Starr, one of the former, said. “He stands for bigotry and intolerance,” said Matt Kite, organiser of the LGBT “Kiss-in for Rees-Mogg”. “We won’t stand for people like him being wined and dined and applauded when his words have real consequences for people like us.”
Inside, Rees-Mogg was at ease in his dinner jacket. He spoke eloquently and humorously in support of the motion: “This house believes no deal is better than a bad deal.” He failed to address the consequences of “no deal”, but again dismissed the Treasury’s dire economic forecasts – “if you believe those you’ll frankly believe anything” – and castigated the EU for proposing that mobility scooters be insured. “Do we really want to make our elderly people zooming around on those marvellous mobility scooters pay an extra fee over which we have no say?” he asked.
But it was the passionate response of Rees-Mogg’s fellow Conservative MP, Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary, that stole the show. For her, the debate was no game. She tore into Rees-Mogg’s Brexiteer allies for labelling pro-Remain MPs “saboteurs”, and judges “enemies of the people”. She spelled out the catastrophic consequences of Britain leaving the EU without a deal. “Who does want ‘no deal’?” she asked, before providing her own answer: “Those who wish this country ill and want to destabilise it. Those who want us to be a minimal tax, minimal regulation [country]. And those political ideologues who are so caught up in the majesty of Brexit that they have forgotten who loses out – including the little old lady on her mobility scooter – because our economy can’t look after the elderly properly.” The packed chamber burst into applause. Rees-Mogg looked a little shaken. The motion was lost.
The transformation of the Tory party leaves surviving MPs feeling uneasy
IMAGINE A CONSERVATIVE MP and your mind’s eye might conjure up Philip Hammond. The former chancellor is tall, grey and with a sense of humour that matches his fiscal policy: extra-dry. If not Mr Hammond, then perhaps a figure in the mould of Kenneth Clarke. The rotund, cigar-chomping jazz enthusiast has served in practically every senior government job bar prime minister in a 49-year stint as a Tory MP. Failing that, consider Sir Nicholas Soames, a former defence minister. He has a Churchillian manner, largely because Winston Churchill was his grandfather. The three embody the parliamentary Conservative Party in different ways. Yet they are no longer in it.
The trio were among 21 Conservative MPs to have the whip withdrawn and be barred from standing for the party again after they supported a plan to make Boris Johnson, the prime minister, seek a delay to Britain’s scheduled departure from the European Union on October 31st (see next story). The purge was only the most visible part of a revolution that is transforming the world’s oldest political party. Those who advocate
- fiscal prudence,
- social liberalism and an
- orderly departure from the EU have been routed.
Those who demand free-spending authoritarianism and a “do-or-die” escape from the yoke of Brussels are ascendant. ConservativeHome, a blog for party activists, described this week as “the end of the Conservative Party as we have known it”.
The revolution has required ideological flexibility from those who wish to survive it. The cabinet is full of MPs who are historically small-state Conservatives. Four of the five authors of “Britannia Unchained”, a paean to small government published by ambitious young Tory MPs in 2012, when fiscal austerity was in fashion, now sit in a cabinet intent on opening the public-spending taps. A spending review on September 4th included measures that will increase the size of the state as a percentage of GDP for the first time since 2010. Sajid Javid, the chancellor, is a fan of Ayn Rand and hangs pictures of Margaret Thatcher in his office. Yet on Mr Johnson’s instructions he announced an extra £13.8bn ($16.9bn) in election-friendly giveaways, paid for with extra borrowing.
There is also new thinking on law and order. Another 20,000 police officers are to be hired, and a review of whether prison sentences are too soft is expected. Priti Patel, who has called for a clampdown on immigration and once supported the return of capital punishment, is home secretary. It is a far cry from what some in the party thought Mr Johnson had in store. “Expect a liberal centrist,” advised one MP, who now sits in the cabinet, before Mr Johnson became prime minister. Wags have dubbed the new Tory domestic agenda: “Fund the NHS, hang the paedos.”
But the hardest line is on Brexit. Conservative MPs appreciate that they must get Britain out of the EU if they are to keep their seats. Yet Mr Johnson’s approach, which seems most likely to end in no-deal, leaves a quiet majority of the parliamentary party uneasy. And it is not just former Remainers who fret. A member of the cabinet who enthusiastically campaigned for Brexit admits that no-deal would be a catastrophe. But MPs are willing to serve, partly because Mr Johnson seems determined to move things forward one way or another. “They may not agree, but they are happy for the direction,” says one cabinet minister.
Setting the route is Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, who will not even say whether he is a member of the Conservatives. When running for office, Mr Johnson promised an inclusive, “one nation” style of government. Instead, he has set about shaking the country’s institutions, suspending Parliament for the longest period since 1945 in order to reduce the time MPs have to debate Brexit. Hitherto unimaginable tactics, such as asking the queen to veto anti-no-deal legislation, are now openly discussed. “This Conservative government…seems to not be very conservative, fiscally or institutionally,” noted Ryan Shorthouse of Bright Blue, a liberal Tory think-tank.
The strong-arm techniques are in stark contrast to the days when David Cameron ran the party, and rebels ran amok. Mr Cameron was unwilling to crack down on an increasingly daring Eurosceptic fringe, which eventually bullied him into holding the referendum. Under Mr Johnson, such sedition is not acceptable, as this week’s purge was intended to show. Figures from Vote Leave, the main campaigning group behind the Brexit vote, call the shots in Downing Street, causing long-serving Tory MPs to shake their jowls at the state of affairs. Sir Roger Gale, an MP since 1983, declared: “You have, at the heart of Number 10, as the prime minister’s senior adviser, an unelected, foul-mouthed oaf.” Mr Johnson was reportedly given a rough ride at a meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers on September 4th.
Yet for all the fury over the deselections, Mr Cummings’s strategy remains just about intact. The prime minister and his aides want an election in which Mr Johnson is portrayed as the champion of a people defied by wily politicians, with the promise of a cash tsunami about to break over Britain’s public services if people vote Tory. “He gets the election he wanted and the framing he wanted,” says one former Downing Street aide. Nor will the revolution necessarily be permanent. A socially conservative offer to voters tempted by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party may last only until the next general election, says Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London.
“What this country needs is sensible, moderate, progressive Conservative government,” declared Mr Johnson during a stilted performance in prime minister’s questions on September 4th. Yet with the Tory party in its current state, Britain will have to wait.
LONDON — They have been dubbed the Conservative rebels, a group of renegade lawmakers willing to risk their careers to defy their newly chosen leader, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and hobble his leadership over their clashing views on Brexit.
But behind all the talk of revolutionary ardor and mutinous tactics is an unlikely group of insurrectionists — a band of starchy grandees of Tory politics that includes Winston Churchill’s grandson and a 45-year party veteran and ex-chancellor so colorless that he earned the nickname “Spreadsheet Phil.” Running the government only weeks ago, they now flout it from the sidelines.
They believe that Mr. Johnson, in his zeal for pulling Britain out of the European Union without a deal, is risking severe damage to the British economy. But they also believe that he is tearing the Conservatives apart, setting fire to their vision of a big-tent party with priorities beyond Brexit.
In setting aside their usual caution and threatening to rip the heart out of Mr. Johnson’s Brexit plans on Tuesday night, they are offering perhaps the clearest indication yet that the party, squabbling for decades over Europe, is on the brink of a civil war.
As the October 31 deadline for Brexit — Britain’s exit from the European Union — approaches, things are getting wild. The wildness isn’t driven by concerns about Brexit’s long-run economic impact, although the professional consensus is that this will be negative but not catastrophic.
After all, Canada literally spent generations not having an open border with its giant neighbor to the south. In fact, it still doesn’t: NAFTA establishes free trade, not a customs union, so trucks crossing the border still have to present manifests certifying that they’re carrying U.S. or Canadian goods, not stuff transshipped from, say, China. Yet Canada hasn’t turned into a howling wilderness. Neither will Britain, in the long run; the best estimates suggest that once there’s been time to adjust, Brexit might take something like 2 percent off Britain’s G.D.P.
Instead, everyone is focused on the morning after — the first few weeks or months after Brexit (which still might not happen.)
Why is the short run scary? Being a member of the European Union doesn’t just mean zero tariffs on your neighbors, it means more or less frictionless movement of goods. Even goods from outside the E.U. pay tariffs at the port of entry, say Rotterdam, and can move freely once they’re inside Europe. Trucks arriving in Dover haven’t had to present a customs manifest to be reviewed before entering Britain, because there weren’t any customs. So they could just drive through. And the whole British economy has been structured around the expectation that goods could flow freely.
Given sufficient time and preparation, imposing new frictions wouldn’t have to be a huge problem. Britain is a modern country with a highly competent civil service. It could hire lots of customs inspectors, have sophisticated computer systems in place, and so on. Wait times for goods crossing the U.S.-Canada border are minimal, and eventually Britain should look the same.
But Britain isn’t ready. Last week the Times of London (as opposed to The New York Times) reported on a leaked version of Operation Yellowhammer, the British government’s contingency planning for a hard, no-deal Brexit. The expected consequences were scary: shortages of fuel, food, and medicine, a three-month “meltdown” at the ports, and more.
In response, officials in Boris Johnson’s government claimed that the leaked documents were out of date, and that more recent analyses were much less disturbing. And they announced that they would reassure the public today by publishing extracts from an updated version of Yellowhammer.
But plans for the release have been called off, reportedly because after scrambling over the weekend to produce a more benign scenario, officials still ended up with something grim enough to scare the public. This is the opposite of reassuring.
And it’s hard to see any legitimate public interest in keeping Brexit contingency planning secret. Why shouldn’t people and businesses be able to make plans based on the best available information? No, the secrecy is all about politics: the Johnson government doesn’t want the public to know what’s likely to happen.
Now, the truth is that it’s hard to know what will really happen (and the research economist in me is, rather ghoulishly, eager to find out.) I used to know a very good manager who had a sign on her desk that read, “When all else fails, lower your standards.” Can’t Britain mitigate the short-run disruption by making customs checks fast and sloppy? Of course, the outcome also depends on what happens in Calais — and we don’t know much about the E.U.’s contingency planning.
And the whole thing may yet be called off: I know nothing about British politics, but it does appear that there might be a snap general election before the Brexit date, and an opposition victory could put the thing on hold.
Anyway, interesting times.
British lawmakers on Tuesday rose up against Prime Minister Boris Johnson, moving to prevent him from taking the country out of the European Union without a formal agreement. The epic showdown has Britain on the verge of a snap general election.
After losing his first-ever vote as prime minister, Mr. Johnson stood up in Parliament and said he intended to present a formal request for an election to lawmakers, who would have to approve it.
A little over a month ago, Mr. Johnson, a brash, blustery politician often compared to President Trump, swept into office with a vow to finally wrest Britain from the European Union by whatever means necessary, even if it meant a disorderly, no-deal departure.
Now, Parliament has pulled the rug out from under him, and Mr. Johnson is at risk of falling into the same Brexit quagmire that dragged down his predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May.The lawmakers forced his hand by voting by 328 to 301 to take control of Parliament away from the government and vote on legislation as soon as Wednesday that would block the prime minister from making good on his threat of a no-deal Brexit.
That prompted an angry response from the prime minister.
“I don’t want an election, the public don’t want an election, but if the House votes for this bill tomorrow, the public will have to choose who goes to Brussels on Oct. 17 to sort this out and take this country forward,” Mr. Johnson said, referring to the next European Union summit.
Tuesday was a critical moment in Britain’s tortured, three-year effort to extract itself from the European Union. The saga has divided Britons, torn apart the ruling Conservative Party and prompted complaints that Mr. Johnson has trampled the conventions of the country’s unwritten constitution.
A majority of lawmakers are determined to block a withdrawal from the European Union without a deal, which they believe would be disastrous for the country’s economy. Tuesday’s vote suggested they have the numbers to succeed.
Mr. Johnson’s aides had made clear that, in the event of a defeat on Tuesday, he would seek a general election on Oct. 14 — just a little over two weeks before the Brexit deadline of Oct. 31.
The accelerating pace of events suggests that Britain’s Brexit nightmare may finally be approaching an endgame after years of paralysis.
Tuesday’s vote also marked the moment when Mr. Johnson’s hardball tactics, for once, were met with equal resistance.
On a day of high drama, Mr. Johnson lost his working majority in Parliament even before the vote took place, when one Conservative rebel, Phillip Lee, quit the party to join the Liberal Democrats, who have managed to stage a resurgence by positioning themselves as an unambiguously anti-Brexit party.
The practical effect of Mr. Lee’s defection for Mr. Johnson was limited, however, because the government would fall only if it were defeated in a confidence motion.
But in moment weighty with symbolism, Mr. Lee walked across the floor of the House of Commons and sat beside Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, as the prime minister was speaking about the recent Group of 7 summit. Mr. Lee accused Mr. Johnson of pursuing a damaging withdrawal from the European Union in unprincipled ways, and of “putting lives and livelihoods at risk.”
Mr. Lee’s break with the Tories was most likely just the first of many.
On Tuesday, Downing Street said it would press ahead with plans to discipline those rebels who voted against the government by expelling them from the Conservative Party in Parliament. They include two former chancellors of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond and Kenneth Clarke, and Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill.
That could threaten Mr. Johnson’s ability to manage day-to-day business in Parliament, underscoring the need for a new election.
The extent of the Tory civil war was on full display as several of Mr. Johnson’s Conservative critics, including the former chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, lobbed hostile questions at him, making it plain that they had not been brought back into line by threats of expulsion from the party.
Opponents of a no-deal Brexit argue that Mr. Johnson’s promise to leave the bloc without a deal, if necessary, would be catastrophic for the British economy. Many experts say it could lead to shortages of food, fuel and medicine, and wreak havoc on parts of the manufacturing sector that rely on the seamless flow of goods across the English Channel. Leaked government reports paint a bleak picture of what it might look like.
Mr. Johnson says he needs to keep the no-deal option on the table to give him leverage in talks in Brussels, because an abrupt exitwould also damage continental economies, if not as much as Britain’s. The prime minister appealed to his own lawmakers not to support what he called “Jeremy Corbyn’s surrender bill,” a reference to the leader of the opposition Labour Party.
“It means running up the white flag,” he said.
Mr. Johnson also claimed to have made progress in talks with European Union leaders, although his own Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, on Monday gave a much less rosy assessment of the state of negotiations.
Britain’s main demand is for the European Union to ditch the so-called Irish backstop, a guarantee that the bloc insists it needs to ensure that goods flow smoothly across the Irish border whatever happens in trade negotiations with Britain. Mr. Johnson said he planned to visit Dublin next week for talks with his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar.
Conservative rebels believe Mr. Johnson is more interested in uniting Brexit supporters behind him ahead of a general election than in securing an agreement in Brussels.
One former chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, accused Mr. Johnson of setting impossible conditions for the negotiations, attaching as much blame as possible to the European Union for the failure to get a deal and then seeking to hold a “flag-waving election” before the disadvantages of leaving without an agreement become apparent.
The bitter dispute has taken Britain into new political territory.
Last week, Mr. Johnson provoked outrage by curtailing Parliament’s sessions in September and October, compacting the amount of time lawmakers would have to deal with the most crucial decision the country has faced in decades.
Mr. Johnson’s allies argue that it is the rebels who are subverting the principles of Britain’s unwritten constitution by seizing control of the proceedings of Parliament that are normally the preserve of the government.
The European Commission said on Tuesday that while the frequency of meetings between its Brexit team and the British negotiator, David Frost, had increased, little headway had been made toward avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Asked whether the British government was using reports of its talks with the commission for political purposes at home, the commission’s spokeswoman, Mina Andreeva, said that the body was “an honest broker, as always.” She said she could not “report any concrete proposals having being made that we have seen.”
Mr. Hammond, a senior member of the cabinet two months ago, told the BBC on Tuesday that Mr. Johnson’s claim of progress on the negotiations was “disingenuous.”
To add to the turmoil and confusion, the opposition Labour Party suggested it might thwart Mr. Johnson’s attempt to push for a general election, should it come to that. Under a 2011 law, the prime minister needs a two-thirds majority to secure a snap election, although it is possible that the government might try to legislate to set that provision aside, a move that would mean it needs only a simply majority.
There is so little trust in British politics that Mr. Johnson’s opponents fear that he might request an election for Oct. 14 but then switch the date until after Oct. 31 as part of a move to lock in a no-deal withdrawal.
Labour has said that its priority is to stop Britain leaving the European Union without a deal, because of concerns about what such a departure would mean for the economy.
But Labour’s stance underscores that the backdrop to everything in British politics is a sense that a general election is looming, with key players maneuvering for the most advantageous moment.