Boris Johnson (Left) and Jeremy Corbyn (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
WE BRITS ARE having another general election on December 12th, 2019—our third in five years. Unfortunately, we are again faced with an unappealing selection of national leaders. It’s like being trapped in the shoe shop from hell. You sit there for hours, and you hate everything they bring you, and eventually you cry out in an exasperated tone: ‘Is that all you’ve got?’
But a government must be chosen. Regardless of how unattractive or uncomfortable, an electoral purchase must be made. We, as consumers, must consume.
This may seem a tad gloomy. Should not the dignified spectacle of the nation choosing its rulers fill us with awe and at least a little self-satisfaction? Not really, because all that kind of elevation has long left British politics. As predicted by me, in these pages only a few weeks ago, we have a Laurel versus Hardy election, where our choice is between a mild-mannered incompetent and a big blustering bully.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party, and Boris Johnson, our current Prime Minister, are the two least popular leaders ever to face off for the premiership. Both have fanatical devotees, but both also have massive trust issues with the wider British public.
Corbyn is widely perceived as unpatriotic, woolly minded and immovably rooted in the internationalist left-wing activism of the 1970s. In the past, he has publicly sympathised with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and hobnobbed with militant Palestinian organisations. Then, as Labour leader, he seemed unreasonably reluctant to believe that the Russians were behind the 2018 Skripal poisonings in Salisbury. Some members of his own party have even called him unfit to be Prime Minister. After a lifetime of criticising Israel, he has also been publicly accused of anti-Semitism from numerous quarters, though he vehemently denies the charge.
On the other side, Boris Johnson is massively distrusted, even despised, by many public figures who deplore his consistent pattern of untruthfulness. A few days ago he declared that the victims of floods in the north of England had all been given £5,000 to help rebuild their lives. The actual figure was £500. Others fear his scarcely concealed ruthlessness.
Though repeatedly asked, Johnson refuses to disclose how many children he has fathered. We know that he is a family man—he has started plenty—but his appetite for women is prodigious. A ‘heartbroken’ American tech entrepreneur named Jennifer Arcuri has publicly complained of how he has treated her like ‘some fleeting one-night stand’. Arcuri, we note, received large grants of British government money during her ‘relationship’ with Johnson, while he claimed his only connection with her was taking one-to-one ‘IT lessons’ in her flat.
Johnson is currently being accused of avoiding scrutiny because of his persistent reluctance to be questioned on live television. After he refused to attend a leaders’ debate on climate change a few days ago, Channel 4 replaced him with a slowly melting ice sculpture. No, I am not making this up.
So, as we endure yet another untimely electoral campaign—this Parliament was supposed to run till 2022—we seem to have hit somewhere near rock-bottom levels of anything that could be called the truth. The ‘Trumpification’ of British politics (loud voices, crude slogans and ‘alternative facts’) seems to be complete.
The manifestos of the two main political parties contain commitments to spend money in areas where it is badly needed after nearly 10 years of austerity. That might be a good start, but the problem is, where does the money come from? The answer, broadly, is that Labour would borrow a lot and tax a lot, and the Conservatives would do neither, but would lift public spending above its current level. This is not so much finding the legendary ‘magic money tree’, as inventing a new model of public funding fuelled entirely by fairy love. Both parties continue to make extra spending pledges on an almost daily basis.
An independent think-tank, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has declared that neither party’s spending plans are ‘credible’.
Take a moment to factor that into your choice, as a voter. Would you choose liar A or liar B? Would you choose the one you think might be more sincere, if a little misguided, or the one who you know has no allegiance to the truth, but entertains you? Would you prefer Jeremy Corbyn, who promises to plant 2 billion trees to fix climate change, or BoJo, who promises to recruit 20,000 extra policemen, when his own government cut police numbers by 20,000 only recently?
But what this election is about, above all else, is Brexit, that long-running popular soap opera, so full of cliffhangers and scarcely credible plot twists.
As we endure yet another untimely electoral campaign—this Parliament was supposed to run till 2022—we seem to have hit somewhere near rock-bottom levels of anything that could be called the truth. The ‘Trumpification’ of British politics (loud voices, crude slogans and ‘alternative facts’) seems to be complete
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Boris Johnson’s central offer is to ‘Get Brexit Done’, and he has repeated this slogan to extremity at every available opportunity. Like the best modern political slogans, it has only three words and has almost no content. The strategy is to use the British public’s complete exhaustion with the subject to herd us into the polling booths in sufficient numbers to give him a working majority, something he did not enjoy when his premiership started in July. He has negotiated a deal with the European Union (EU)—‘oven-ready’ as he calls it—which can be railroaded through Parliament in a matter of days if he wins big on December 12th. But the promise is no longer that Brexit is a good idea, the promise is that he, and he alone, can get it over with.
If his new Withdrawal Agreement does pass through Parliament, it is true that the British public will no longer have to vote on anything to do with Brexit; on January 31st, 2020, we will be out of the institutions of the EU. But we will also have no system of trade deals in place with the EU, or anyone else in the world, because we have done all our trade deals through the EU since God was a boy. All those links will now have to be individually and laboriously negotiated, so the idea that we will instantly know what Brexit actually means is no part of getting Brexit ‘done’ in the next two months. Brexit will not be done for years and years.
Meanwhile, until further notice, investors, manufacturers and large employers in Britain will not know the conditions under which they will operate and trade with the rest of the world.
The first step in building our new trading relationships will be negotiating a deal with the freshly jilted EU, which must be completed by the end of December 2020. This deadline was agreed by former Prime Minister Theresa May many years ago, when our departure, originally scheduled for March 2019, was due to be followed by a 21-month ‘implementation period’, to help smooth the transition to new trading conditions. This period has now been squeezed to 11 months, by the three extensions granted by the EU in 2019, as deadlines on March 28th, April 12th and October 31st all passed without an agreement in place. And because the EU will not have a negotiating position agreed until around March, we will have about nine months to negotiate a free trade agreement, something that usually takes years.
So Boris Johnson’s main election pitch, that a vote for him is an end to uncertainty and will unleash ‘a tidal wave of investment’, is, ahem, open to question.
‘But what of the Opposition?’, I hear you cry. Surely it must have a clear and distinct offer on Brexit, which has always been primarily a Tory obsession. After four years of chewing the Brexit brick, what has the Labour party come up with? Here we must enter one of the most Alice Through the Looking Glass sub-worlds that British politics has ever invented.
Brexit, it transpired, was a very popular cause with a lot of Labour voters, especially in the north. When the question of national sovereignty was delinked from voting for a political party, which was the main subtext of the 2016 referendum, it turned out that a lot of the older, less well educated, culturally more traditional sections of what once would have been called the British working class were very keen to get out of the EU. They had been told relentlessly by tabloid newspapers that their lives were being ruined by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, while rising immigration convinced them that they had ‘lost’ their country, in much the way that many of them had already lost their jobs as the country deindustrialised, and the service sector, which relies on new technology and higher skills, mounted to 80 per cent of British GDP.
This has posed insuperable problems to Labour policymakers. How could they appeal both to the young, educated, gender-fluid generation—the kind of metropolitan people who lap up Jeremy Corbyn’s sincerity—with the older generation of Labour supporters who have resented almost everything that has happened since 1975? Their answer has been nuanced (that is, long, complicated and unconvincing). This ‘constructive ambiguity’ (that is, fence sitting) is understood by almost no one, and not especially liked by anyone. It has also proved impossible to reduce to three words, except by Johnson, who has labelled it ‘delay and dither’. So what is it?
Would you prefer Jeremy Corbyn, who promises to plant 2 billion trees to fix climate change, or BoJo, who promises to recruit 20,000 extra policemen, when his own government cut police numbers by 20,000 only recently?
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If he wins a majority, Jeremy Corbyn proposes to travel immediately to Brussels and negotiate a new Withdrawal Agreement, which will be less economically damaging than Boris Johnson’s. This is not impossible, because Johnson decided not to retain alignment with EU standards, which his predecessor, Theresa May, had attempted to do. This is largely what enraged her right wing and made it impossible for her to pass her Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons. Johnson has taken a tougher line and has prepared the way for more autonomy within the British economy. This sounds good to Tories. It means, for instance, avoiding any form of international jurisdiction with the EU. But it does create other problems, if the idea of ‘frictionless trade’, which was May’s objective, is still deemed desirable. Never mind the friction, feel the freedom is Johnson’s message.
Corbyn says he would aim for lower friction, in an attempt to preserve jobs, and maintain a higher level of GDP, via closer alignment with EU standards. But is such a ‘soft’ Brexit really Brexit at all? Leaving under what conditions has always been the key point at issue within Brexit theology. Johnson insists that he has resolved this question with his great new deal, which is ‘hard’ enough to please most of the noisiest leavers. But would Corbyn’s deal please any of the roughly 4 million Labour leavers? If not, then why would they want a Labour government?
This whole manoeuvre is to allow the Labour Party to honour its 2017 pledge to implement the decision of the 2016 referendum by putting its own leave option to the people via a ‘confirmatory vote’, in a straight choice with remaining. Thus both leave and remain will be on the ballot paper, they say. Leavers claim that this would be a betrayal, a choice between two forms of remaining, and thus cannot possibly honour the 2016 decision.
So we are left with a choice between Labour complications and Tory illusions. And as for the leaders, their level of popularity among their faithful flocks seems to indicate that spurious virtues now outweigh very evident failings and substance has evaporated. Both leaders have been openly laughed at by audiences on national television: Corbyn when he wouldn’t reveal whether he supported Brexit or not, Johnson when he agreed that ‘truth mattered’ in the campaign.
Opinion polls currently give Boris Johnson a majority of something like 60 seats. So it is highly likely that he will be sliding his deal into the oven sometime in mid-December. And sometime in next October we will be back in a flat panic, worrying about leaving the EU without a deal.
They used to say that no matter who you vote for, the government always gets in. In this case, no matter who we vote for, we won’t get what they said they would do.