As I See It: Terry Murden
Harold Wilson famously said “a week is a long time in politics”. That was in the run-up to the 1964 General Election which Labour won with a slender four-seat majority. Boris Johnson, who is well-versed in coining a phrase or two, may be reflecting on that adage after a week in which he has seen his slender majority disappear, three Commons votes go against him and his own brother walk out on the government. The next few days will determine how much more the Prime Minister can withstand.
Yesterday he said he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than go to Brussels and plead for an extension to the Brexit deadline. Such uncompromising words will do little to encourage those who are seeing through Mr Johnson’s promises and his claims of being in talks with the EU negotiators who say no such discussions are taking place.
In what is turning into a nasty and vengeful political climate, Mr Johnson cannot afford to lose any further trust in his leadership. He might heed the words of another political strategist – Machiavelli – who advised leaders to “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”.
Mr Johnson’s admirers may regard him as a harmless maverick, but he has already shown his ruthless streak by suspending parliament and sacking 21 Tory MPs, including eight former Cabinet ministers in a move that made Harold MacMillan’s 1962 night of the long knives – when he dismissed a third of his Cabinet – look like a children’s tea party.
Sir John Major says Mr Johnson has sacked the wrong people. In a passionate address to nervous and somewhat bewildered business leaders attending the CBI dinner in Glasgow he urged the PM to get rid of his ‘over mighty’ advisers and reinstate the expelled MPs. Those words look like falling on deaf ears. With Jo Johnson announcing he was resigning his job and his seat in parliament there also appears to be little room for sentiment.
In these treacherous times Mr Johnson is fast losing friends and thereby weakening his ability to hold an increasingly fragile government together. More than that, this is not just a government in meltdown, it is a party at war with itself. Are we seeing the Conservative Party in its death throes?
Despite the deep divisions, maybe not. The Tories have always shown a resilience to factional in-fighting, although this time it may be different. What we do know is that Mr Johnson is leading his troops over the top and towards enemy fire, except most of those doing the shooting are coming from his own army. Labour, which should be soaring in the polls, is actually trailing the badly-wounded PM who, if it were not for his own self-inflicted injuries, could be even further ahead.
New polls over the coming days will tell us what the public thinks of the past week’s shenanigans, but they are no longer simply a reflection of party preferences. Britain is now defined by Brexit, and for the leavers Mr Johnson remains their best hope of achieving their goal.
A further twist in these mad times, is that a great bulk of the leavers – working class people who “just want us to get out” – are among the biggest cheerleaders for the Etonians, while leftie Jeremy Corbyn is the totem for the chattering classes who are lining up in an unlikely alliance of socialists, nationalists, liberals and rebel Tories to oppose the posh boys.
Even with his reputation for failed promises, deception, and knee-jerk announcements Mr Johnson polled twice the support of Mr Corbyn in a You Gov survey of who would make the best Prime Minister. However, that was conducted before this week’s crazy antics, another week in politics that has gone some way to determining Mr Johnson’s chances of clinging on to loyal friends, staying ahead, and remaining in government.
His prospects in the days ahead – and things are changing so rapidly that we can only forecast in days or even hours – depend on the opposition’s ability to prevent Mr Johnson from calling a general election before the 31 October without a deal.
Mr Johnson, who did not want an election and now does, is squaring up to Mr Corbyn who has frequently called for an election and is now resisting Mr Johnson’s demands for one.
In this game of bluff, those lined up against Mr Johnson want an extension to the deadline. Why? After three years of debate there are surely few new ideas and considerations to be extracted, and the public will certainly groan heavily at the prospect of the chaos dragging on into the new year. Labour spokesmen have offered limp reasons that it will allow for a new deal to be negotiated, even though the EU has made it clear there will be no new deal.
This, of course, is also Mr Johnson’s biggest obstacle. Like the Emperor’s new clothes he continues to spin the fiction of ongoing talks with Brussels. That said, he remains defiant, and insists that a deal will be done at the EU Summit on 17 October.
Should he succeed, would he still call a General Election? Maybe, but this would be a high stakes gamble. He has lost 21 MPs by his own hand and the fall-out from Ruth Davidson’s resignation means a further 13 seats in Scotland look vulnerable. If the polls do not turn against him, then the maths are suggesting an uphill struggle, particularly north of the border where Nicola Sturgeon is riding the crest of the Boris backlash. How to lose friends and alienate people? He could have written the book.