“It is likely that such a replacement will be from the Brexiteer wing. Rees-Mogg has ruled out a run for the job but I think he’d be happier as Chancellor of the Exchequer under his able deputy PM Boris Johnson” – The Common Green, November 2018
“Why PM Boris Johnson should appoint Jacob Rees-Mogg as Chancellor” – Bernard Ingram, June 2019
The Conservative and Unionist Party’s leadership contest has completed its first phase and has whittled the number of candidates down to two. These two will now make their case to some 120,000 Tory party members across the UK who will vote for their preference.
Once they have done so, Boris Johnson will become the leader of the party and, unless there is a general election, will become Prime Minister of the UK.
After the last three years of dismal Brexit jockeying the only thing that could have made this any more Brexit-y would be if the other person in the race had been Michael Gove. Then we could have relived that picture of the two of them standing at their “victory” press conference with that “What do we do now?” look plastered over their faces.
But alas, Gove was knocked out by two votes and the other contender is Jeremy Hunt. And that look may have gone but believe me, the question hasn’t been answered.
So, with the caveat that my last attempt at a Brexit prediction failed badly because of my assumption of rationality and basic competence, let’s try and answer it. What will PM Johnson have to do once he takes the helm?
The Brexit Problem
The first thing Johnson (or Hunt if he somehow makes it but let’s not pretend further that he will – even recent news events haven’t shaken Johnson’s lead amongst Tory voters and Tory MEMBERS are likely to be even more staunch) will have to do is address Brexit. The basic mathematics of that problem have not changed. He can either try to pass the Withdrawal Agreement, or he can crash the UK out without a deal, or he can rescind Article 50 and cancel Brexit.
There are no other options here. He will have been voted in on a promise to renegotiate the deal but that isn’t going to happen. The EU has run out of patience for such games and as far as they are concerned, the UK has ALREADY AGREED the deal – they merely need to ratify it now as the EU already has. There’s nothing to renegotiate and, indeed, the negotiation team have already started being reposted to other roles – such as the new team tasked with negotiating the post-Brexit trade agreement with the UK.
The only way that Boris can avoid the Brexit Problem is by fobbing it off on someone else. Maybe he’ll support a People’s Vote to make the decision for him? This would be unlikely to go down well with the “Get On With It” Brexit fundamentalists who will have voted him in.
Maybe he’ll support a General Election in the hope that Corbyn can make the decision for him? It wouldn’t be unknown for a politician to prefer the relative safety of Opposition when a large decision looms but a recent YouGov poll revealed that Tory members will sacrifice almost anything to get their Brexit. They’d allow Scotland to become independent. They’d allow Irish reunification (which, incidentally, actually make the Brexit process easier by making moot the Backstop and border issues…). They’d even tolerate an economic crash and the destruction of the Tory Party itself.
The one price they would not pay is gaining PM Corbyn.
The rise of the Brexit Party (discussed in my recent podcast here) is now an existential threat to the Tory Party in a way that David Cameron in his worst nightmares could never have dreamed of UKIP turning in. There is the very real prospect of a general election wiping out the Tories in large parts of England as they shed seats to the Brexit Party. Labour may well suffer too. It’s not PM Corbyn that’s starting to look likely in the event of a general election in the next year or two. It’s PM Farage. Keep a close eye on the upcoming by-election after the recall of Chris Davies. With polls the way they are, I wouldn’t put it past Farage to stand in that election and I wouldn’t say it’s impossible for the Brexit Party to win that seat…
Either way, no Tory leader is going to allow an early general election to happen. Johnson will cling to the Fixed Term Parliament Act for all it’s worth and hope – pray – that Corbyn won’t pull a No Confidence vote and then hope again that those behind him won’t vote for it.
So if abrogating responsibility for the Brexit Problem isn’t possible, Johnson is just going to have to own it. That’ll mean either trying to do the job that May failed to do and corralling his MPs behind her deal or, probably more likely at this point, accepting No Deal as the inevitable result. The UK has stepped off the cliff, thrown away the parachute and must now look forward to greeting the rocks at the bottom.
The Irish Problem
Johnson will also have to contend with inheriting a minority government supported by the DUP. This will also make it almost impossible for Johnson to dispense with the incompatible red lines that have hampered progress so far.
As mentioned before, it may well be that Irish Reunification is the option here that allows a deal to pass by appeasing the anti-backstop MPs and simply throwing the DUP out on their ears.
From a technical standpoint it actually makes a certain sense. As said, the backstop need no longer apply and nor would any of the changes at the border. Of course the world is not run on purely mechanistic rules like that (and nor should it be) and so the people of Northern Ireland must be the initiators of this process even if Tories in England could no longer care about Northern Ireland remaining in the UK.
The Scottish Problem
It’s interesting that the mood down south with respect to Scotland has polarised since the 2014 independence referendum. Gone are the days of “I’ll be sad if the Union breaks up” and “Please stay and lead” and in its place there is “Please Scotland, get out while you can” and “Let them go, the subsidy junkies”. It seems that years of trying to tell Scotland that we can’t afford to leave the Union has finally backfired in the sense that voters outside of Scotland are losing the will to hold us here.
One of the last remaining arguments for the Union which is now being deployed with gusto is “Brexit is hard, Independence will be harder.” but this seems to me to be an argument with little substance (certainly, few Unionists have tried to show HOW it would be harder in any detail). Take the issue of a border between Scotland and England. Thanks ENTIRELY to England’s insistence on the hardest possible Brexit it may well be that some form of border arrangements will be required.
In practice, those arrangements will likely have to be very similar to those put in place in Ireland (assuming reunification doesn’t happen before Scottish independence). If they were different then the risk opens up of people jumping between England and Northern Ireland in order to cross the EU border in the way that most benefits them – which creates obvious risks and vulnerabilities.
The upshot for Scotland in that is that we likely won’t have to design and negotiate those border arrangements as we’ll just copy the Irish model. And Scotland doesn’t have the complexities of Ireland to deal with regarding the history of borders there so we almost certainly won’t have to face the very real risk of violence against border posts.
So it seems obvious to say that with regards to borders, Scottish independence CANNOT be harder to implement than Brexit. Inconvenient, maybe (it’s hardly Scotland’s fault there). Undesirable (if you’re a staunch Unionist), perhaps. But it cannot be harder to do than Brexit is. It’d be interested to see analysis of other sectors come from the Unionist side. We’ve been working on it from ours.
And if Irish reunification DOES occur then Scotland has choices. We could adopt the model laid out and agreed in the Withdrawal Agreement as a framework to copy or we could look at creating a new system which would be more effective and more efficient than the UK’s current border systems. You can read here for an examination of what that might look like.
I’ve long observed that large moments of political change often occur when people cross the “F-Point” (where ‘F’ stands for…err..”Sod It”). Scottish Independence will happen when either Scotland collectively says “Sod It” and decides to deal with the consequences or if the rest of the UK says “Sod It” and stops fighting us on this. Both may be required. It could probably be fairly said that rUK wasn’t there yet in 2014 but I think it has passed that point now – at least in the eyes of voters. It may be that all that is required now is for Scotland to get there too. Westminster can’t so easily say “now is not the time” when saying that is seen and/or felt by Brexit supporters as being counter to their aims for England.
The Welsh Problem
Wales is an interesting wildcard in the Union at the moment. Not much attention is being paid to it. It has a significant nationalist movement but is also rather more immersed into the Union than Scotland and Northern Ireland. There are hints, though, of a rumbling in the dragon’s cave. Watch this space…
The English Problem
Where the Scotland and Irish Problems are about the possibility and implications of those territories leaving the rule of Westminster, for England Brexit is throwing up a different kind of existential crisis. What kind of England will be created by Brexit?
I have long believed that Brexit is a symptom of England trying to find itself again in a world that has outgrown Empire and in a Britain where “British” and “English” were for the longest time synonymous.
National identity has been reasserting itself across the UK in recent years to the extent now that many people are more likely to identify themselves as Scottish/(Northern) Irish/English/Welsh exclusively or as that “and British” rather than identify themselves as “British” exclusively. In fact, there seems to be only three enclaves of “British only” identity left in Britain. A very strong British Nationalist identity in Northern Ireland. A just-as-strong but somewhat more diffuse British Nationalist identity in Scotland and a kind of cosmopolitan-multicultural-melting-pot “citizen of nowhere” Britishness in London.
When you dig into the social attitudes of those with various identities, an interesting pattern emerges. For Scotland and Wales, a national identity correlates with younger and more left-leaning people whereas a British identity correlates with a more conservative and older outlook. In England, however, the reverse is true for both.
Brexit rears its head here and explains the voting patterns north and south of the border. Those harking back to the “Golden Age” of nostalgic empire were far more likely to vote Leave than those trying to build a golden future of internationalism.
But if ideas of what that Golden Age actually looks like differ significantly across the UK – whether it is a unified “One Nation Britain” or whether it is an “England that Rules the Waves” – then it is not just we chippy nationalists who are a divisive force in the Union. If that sense of unified Britishness that holds the union together has already gone from England then those trying to defend it in other nations will be fighting a rearguard action on two fronts. Already, Scottish Unionists are trying to nudge their British counterparts back to their version of correct thinking – some even being reduced to begging “on their hands and knees”.
I think that the UK has fundamentally changed since 2014. Back then, Scottish independence supporters were making the case for independence against a campaign of maintaining the status quo.
Now, the case FOR independence has never been stronger but the Unionist side must also try to defend a Union that is changing into something other than the status quo. The argument that the best vision for the Union is “the same but more of it” is difficult to sustain in a UK where Austerity is doing catastrophic harm to thousands but it is utterly impossible to defend when voters south of the border are no longer interested in that vision for the UK either. Being a Scottish Unionist campaigner is becoming an increasingly lonely and isolated profession in a country where PM Johnson “couldn’t care less about Scotland” and will seek to shore up his support down south so that they don’t decide to exert themselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and theirs, and make some other man who was well able to defend them their PM.