Guess what: serial liars who are known to be serial liars tend not to be believed. Not even by their own brother. Even if they happen to be prime minister.
They are not believed when they say they don’t want to call a snap election. Nor are they believed when they say their Brexit negotiations are going well in Brussels. Nor when they claim that a decision to ask the Queen to prorogue parliament has nothing to do with Brexit.
Their credibility is further shot to pieces when their supposed effortless charm and charisma vanishes into thin air as soon as they are tested, whether in the House of Commons, or in a rambling, incoherent, positively Trumpian speech in front of bemused police recruits in Wakefield, Yorkshire.
To help out, I have drafted a new version of the standard police caution, which inexplicably our hero tried, and failed, to remember: ‘You do not have to say anything – indeed, it might be much better if you said nothing. But it may harm your electoral prospects if you say when questioned something which you then immediately contradict. Anything you do say may be quoted in full and result in you being mocked mercilessly.’
(Incidentally, to deliver what was meant to be an election campaign speech in front of an audience of hapless police recruits is straight out of the Trump playbook. Whether we should now expect huge rallies of adoring Johnsonian supporters remains to be seen.)
The last words I wrote before I disappeared for my extended summer break – yes, lovely, thanks, did I miss anything? – were: ‘Make the most of the sunshine, because I suspect it’s going to be a very bumpy autumn.’ Bumpy? Did I say bumpy? What on earth could I have been thinking?
I’m going to be honest with you: I am having enormous difficulty making any sense of what is going on at Westminster. The shifting sands shift so rapidly that I can’t keep up; likewise the prime minister’s defeats in parliament, which have already, after a mere three days of parliamentary debate, reached the same number as Tony Blair’s over a period of ten years.
Well, of course, they have, you might say. That’s what happens when you have a minority government. It is also what happens when a majority of voters decide in a referendum to approve a course of action which a majority of MPs think would be deeply damaging to the national interest. The UK’s political system has shattered under the strain and left us floundering about with no relevant rulebook in the middle of a hurricane. One day, we’re going to have to do something about that.
A couple of days after the Brexit referendum in June 2016, I wrote this: ‘The people have spoken, and the people’s will must be respected … This is the Lustig timetable for a brighter future: first, a new Labour leader, and then a general election, a new deal and a new referendum.’ It seemed to make good sense at the time, and I think it still makes good sense now.
But there is no point in ‘If only …’ We are now heading for a general election, the second to be called since the referendum, possibly within the next six weeks but almost certainly before Christmas. If it’s in mid-October, and if Boris Johnson wins with a decent majority, he will presumably immediately ask parliament to repeal the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act, which was passed yesterday in the House of Commons, is due to be passed in the House of Lords today, Friday, and receive Royal Assent on Monday. That’s why there is a lot to be said for the idea currently under consideration of calling a vote of no confidence next week, and forcing him out well before the 31 October Brexit deadline.
This is a deeply divided country in the throes of a nervous breakdown. It can’t decide what to do, or which way to turn. It is a country whose prime minister has swallowed the Kool-Aid of populism: identify the enemy, pit the ‘people’ against the ‘elite’ and smash the established political norms. Boris Johnson’s decision to expel his party opponents left no doubt: he intends to cast himself as an indomitable national warrior (yes, that’s ‘dom’ as in ‘Dominic’), vanquishing all foes until he bestrides the battlefield unchallenged.
So far, it has to be said, it’s not going terribly well. (In sporting terms, played four, lost four.) Just as the Italian hard-line populist Matteo Salvini has also found, clever stratagems designed to wrong-foot your opponents can easily blow up in your face. But be warned: neither here nor in Italy are the battles over yet, and elections, as we have seen, can result in wholly unexpected outcomes.
Over the past few weeks, friends and acquaintances have repeatedly asked me the same two questions. What do I fear most about where this might be heading – and what, in an ideal world, would I like to happen? I find both questions extremely difficult to answer, but here goes.
What do I fear most? That the forthcoming election will result in another hung parliament and a continuation of the current impasse, leading to even more widespread popular discontent with the political class and a rise in violent political rhetoric on both sides. Anybody who knows anything about Europe’s recent history will know where that can lead.
What would I like to happen? I would like the Lib Dems, Greens, and independent Tories, plus the SNP in Scotland, to cooperate in the forthcoming election campaign by not fielding candidates in constituencies where one of them has a clear electoral advantage. I would also like local Conservative associations to refuse to mount a serious challenge against incumbent expelled Tories who decide to stand as independents.
And then, maybe, the post-election arithmetic would allow the formation of a coalition administration which would (a) renegotiate a withdrawal deal with Brussels, almost certainly along much the same lines as Mrs May’s ill-fated deal, but without the DUP and ERG standing in the way, and (b) put it to a confirmatory referendum: Are you in favour of withdrawing from the EU on these terms, or do you wish the UK to remain a member of the EU?
Who would be the prime minister of such a coalition? Not Mr Corbyn, I’m afraid, as I doubt that the other parties would accept him, although of course he would be perfectly entitled to try. Keir Starmer, Hilary Benn, or Yvette Cooper would all have a better chance of making a go of it.
As of now, however, I fear we’re still a long, long way from seeing the end of the Brexit breakdown. And if you want a nice succinct summary of where things stand now, I can do no better than quote the words of Matt Chorley of the Red Box political newsletter: ‘We don’t have a government, we will have an election, but we don’t know where, we don’t know when. But I know we will vote again some sunny day.’ (Click here for the Vera Lynn version.)