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What is the point of these prime ministerial statements?

2 September 2019

7:20 PM

2 September 2019

7:20 PM

I know I can’t speak for your circumstances but I hope you’re enjoying this Festival of Brexit as much as I am. The country hasn’t endured this kind of dismal government since the last one and, sweetly, the opposition is just as inspirational and attractive as it was then too. Yet again, nothing has changed.

Say what you will about Boris Johnson however – and I suppose there’s plenty you could – no-one can deny he possesses the priceless ability to spraff on and on with stuff he, even he, must surely know is nonsense on a zip wire. On Monday evening he charged out of Downing Street – rather with the air of a startled Number 8 it must be said – to tell an expectant nation that he shared their impatience. That’s why we need a Queen’s Speech, you see, because otherwise the government’s plans on policing and education and healthcare risk getting lost amidst the flotsam and jetsam of all that other frothy stuff.

What is the point of these prime ministerial statements if they’re largely made up of stuff even the government doesn’t believe? In like fashion, Johnson continues to insist he wants a deal while doing precisely nothing to make one more likely. The threat of a no-deal Brexit only works if the other side is desperate to avoid no-deal and all the signs are that European capitals are increasingly resigned to it. And if there were to be a deal it will be one that is not so very distant from the one parliament has rejected on three separate occasions.

Granted, that deal was good enough that Boris Johnson voted for it but that was then and this is now and you shouldn’t believe that what was once can be again even though, in large part, it will have to be if there’s to be the deal the government wants us to believe it is determined to achieve even as it does very little to make reaching that deal more likely. Apart from that, it’s all going very well.

The prorogation of parliament is not a hill worth dying upon. It is a piece of sharp practice but it is not a coup. Gamesmanship but not, at least not yet, gamesmanship of the sort that crosses boundaries that, though less discernible than in the past, are still there. It’s Trevor Chappell bowling underarm; it’s not Lance Armstrong doping to tainted glory.

But it does also show the essential weakness of the government’s position. Brexit may still have to happen but there’s no majority in the Commons or the country for dying whilst doing it. Jiggery-pokery and parliamentary shenanigans are all that’s left; a transparent attempt to run down the clock until such point as blame for the next crisis can be shifted onto the opposition or Brussels.


So be it, perhaps. You cannot blame Tories for thinking the survival of the Tory party a matter of national importance. Failing to Leave will ruin them and if it’s a ruining that they deserve you still cannot expect them to embrace it.

Still, imagine the reaction there’d be if Jeremy Corbyn was threatening to expel Yvette Cooper, Hillary Benn, Harriet Harman and who knows who else from the Labour party because they dared to think about opposing some act of madness dear to the great gourd-grower’s heart? I fancy we’d be hearing a lot about Bolsheviks.

Sauce for one gander is sauce for another and this is the situation in which Johnson finds himself: prepared to defenestrate David Gauke and Philip Hammond and Dominic Grieve and Rory Stewart and doubtless plenty others for their failure to be Tory enough to satisfy the Brexit Spartans who, deep down, you fancy prefer death to compromise anyway. You shouldn’t need another reminder that Brexit is a radical measure not a Tory one but here it is nonetheless.

At such moments, and especially when there’s a new prime minister in town, it is fashionable and even necessary to note that the new ministry is much more energetic and focused than its predecessor. Part of the honeymoon involves insisting that the new guys are smarter than the old guys too. I remember when Nick Timothy was the business; prophet of a new era of Tory dominance and not, as proved to be the case, a general in an army of virtue who overlooked the need to recruit foot soldiers.

Now Dominic Cummings is a smart man but I am not persuaded he’s the only smart man in Whitehall. More to the point, his own back catalogue pours scorn on the idea anyone is bright enough to run the government and I’m pretty sure it’s more likely that Dominic Cummings is right about that than that he’s the single exception to an otherwise infallible, universal, rule.

Which is to say that the idea these guys have a plan, let alone that it’s a good one, strikes me as being considerably far-fetched. They have a goal and a desire to get there by any means necessary but that’s not quite the same as allowing that everything is developing splendidly and just as they had foreseen. It’s not actually all part of the plan because there is no plan. Like everyone else, they’re busking it on the hoof.

So I’d be wary of the “Boris bounce” in the polls too. I don’t doubt it’s real enough right now but I don’t know if it would survive a general election campaign. It’s sometimes forgotten that many of the people who voted for Brexit didn’t expect it to happen; if it wasn’t all a bit of a laugh it was certainly a means of sending a message to them as would not usually be interested in receiving such a thing. Well, a general election – which is going to have to happen soon enough anyway – would be a different matter entirely. It would be for real and I am not sure Johnson is any better suited to a reality-based politics than Jeremy Corbyn.

Each, of course, is saved by the impossibility of the other. That being so, there must be some chance an election would simply give us much of what we already have: a House of Commons in which no-one is capable of forming a government with a functioning majority. That may not be what the country deserves but it seems quite possible it is what it will get anyway.

Johnson versus Corbyn is like May versus Corbyn except worse. It offers a choice between a Conservative party taken over, to a large degree, by the Brexit party and a Labour party that is, if anything, an even more radical, and fringe, collection of Trots and neo-Stalinists.

That in turn means that, when the election comes, it will feature many, many, more losers than victors and that remains the case regardless of how the votes are distributed.

And to think much of it was avoidable all along! All that was required was for MPs in all parties to put aside their own first-choice and accept that their second-least-bad Brexit was the kind of disappointing outcome with which they could nevertheless live. Not without some grumbling, for sure, but without all this. That would have meant voting for the bloody deal, the one thing for which – deep down – there is an actual parliamentary majority if, and only if, all other options save No Deal have been removed from the most rickety, useless, table in modern British political history.

One day you’d like to think some MPs will come to regret their choices on the three occasions the Withdrawal Agreement, imperfect as it may have been, was presented to the House. But on present form, you wouldn’t want to count on even that. It would not have solved everything; it might have helped avoid some of the mess we’re in now. And passing it would at least have allowed us to move on to the next part of the process; a part that will be more difficult, and more important, than most of what has preoccupied us these past three years. As failures of the political class go, this one’s a doozy.


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