In happier days when Britain was not on the brink of disintegration, David Davis told me a story about the 19th century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin. Little did I suspect that soon he would be living it.
The Francophiles among you will recall the apocryphal tale of Ledru-Rollin enjoying his lunch at a Parisian café when a revolutionary crowd stormed past. Ledru-Rollin leapt from his seat and cried
“There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
Where were they going? He did not know. What was his plan? He did not have one.
True believers in Brexit are revolting, and not without cause. They were assured that we could have Brexit without tears; tear up economic and legal arrangements going back almost half a century without suffering a huge dislocation. Anyone who said otherwise was a liar, paid by the EU to promote “project fear”.
It used to be said that a conservative was “a liberal who had been mugged by reality”. Today the converse applies. Reality mugged the cabinet at Chequers on Friday and it agreed to a compromise. (I should not need to add that the compromise won’t work. The options facing Britain are full alignment with the EU – in which case, why leave? – or a complete break – in which case, chaos.)
Alas, there are politicians reality cannot lay a glove on, however hard it tries. Having agreed with his colleagues on Friday, Davis heard the rumbling of the tumbrils in the offices of the Sun, the stamping of feet on the Tory backbenches.
There go his people, he thought. He must follow them, for he is their leader.
Or is he?
This morning I wrote
If you think that he puts career before country,* then Johnson has to resign. He can’t allow Davis to outflank him on the Brexit right, and be left in the middle, neither a leaver nor a remainer, mistrusted by all.
*And I do.
— Nick Cohen (@NickCohen4) July 9, 2018
So it has proved.
Furious supporters of Brexit now have two leaders running after them. (Three if you include Rees Mogg. Four if you include Steve Baker, but to include him you must first know who he is.)
Where are they going?
We don’t know.
Even by the unforgivably self-indulgent standards of the Tory right, they are not going towards a leadership election. Are they? Seriously? Consider the timetable. On Friday, the cabinet agreed to support the prime minister. On Saturday “allies” of Boris Johnson – and in Westminster a politician’s closest ally often turns out to be himself – briefed Tim Shipman of the Sunday Times. The Foreign Secretary thought May’s plan was “a big turd”. (I hope you appreciate Johnson’s mastery of the English language, incidentally, and can see why he was one of the most acclaimed journalists of his generation.)
Would he resign, then? When presented with a “big turd” the only honourable, and indeed hygienic, course is to flush yourself out of the cabinet.
Not so fast, his “allies” continued, “The only people who would benefit from Johnson leaving the cabinet would be [Michel] Barnier, [Angela] Merkel and [Martin] Selmayr.” As a true patriot who wanted nothing more than to protect Britain from its enemies, Johnson would eat whatever shit May served him (if I may deign to imitate the great stylist’s prose.)
Presented with the awful possibility that Davis would lead his “people”, Johnson has decided that he will help Barnier, Merkel and Selmayr all he can by removing himself from government.
Britain is going into the most complicated negotiations since 1945. They pretty much have to be concluded by October. Instead of concentrating on them, is the Tory party proposing to fill up the summer with a leadership election? Of course not, say I.
But there I go again showing my ivory tower elitism by believing the Tories will behave like a rational political party in a moment of national crisis. I need to get with the times. What the hell, let it rip, why not call a leadership election? Even if Johnson, Davis or Rees Mogg wins, the result won’t change the balance of power in parliament, which has no majority for a hard Brexit. But, and this is the crucial point, it will make the right wing feel better, and that’s all that matters to it.
After the Chequers summit Rupert Harrison, a former aide to George Osborne, described how May had beaten her opponents (for so she seemed to have done at the time).
Chequers outcome a classic example of something we used to say a lot: plan beats no plan. Until Brexiteers have an alternative plan (and hard to see how they can) that isn’t going to change
— Rupert Harrison (@rbrharrison) July 8, 2018
The poor man did not realise that the absence of a plan had never stopped the Brexit movement. As I have pointed and will keep pointing out until it is banged into the heads of everyone who writes about Brexit, Dominic Cummings, Johnson, Gove and Davis’s commander in chief at Vote Leave, admitted that there could be no plan. Brexiters did not agree among themselves what Brexit meant. In any case offering concrete proposals would allow the public to see how shallow and ill-thought through Brexit was. (Or as Cummings said, a plan would “provide an undefendable target and open an unwinnable debate.”)
Read David Davis’s resignation letter, than read it again . There is no alternative strategy for the very good reason that there never has been one and never will be one until the Brexiters level with the people of Britain, and with themselves, and say we can either be wholly out of the EU and poorer or in the EU and richer. And that they will never do.
Behold ladies and gentlemen your potential leaders, and fear the consequences of following them to, well, who knows where.