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The Tangled Web that has evolved

August 29th, 2019

We should not have been surprised. Johnson has never had much desire to be held accountable. Not as London Mayor. Nor as Foreign Secretary. Even when he misspoke (to put it at its most charitable) over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, his response was petulant and grudging. He went out of his way to avoid scrutiny at the start of his campaign to become Tory leader. This is not a politician who enjoys debate and argument, willing to test his ideas, face challenge. This is not someone who understands in his bones that an idea, a policy, an argument, is strengthened by being rigorously tested. This is not someone who understands that successful leadership can only be done through consent (at least in a free country), that persuasion is better than command, at least if you want your achievements to last.

The combination of ruthlessness in pursuing a goal and a lack of confidence in having that goal examined is dangerous in a system which is based, at least theoretically, on the idea that there should be limits on rulers, there should be proper scrutiny of what they want to do and that how the game is played is as important as what is done. If something is achieved through cheating – or perceived as such – then it loses a vital bit of legitimacy. Surely an ex-public school boy would understand this. Annoying that we don’t get one of the few advantages of having this privileged elite in charge. We are left only with their tendency to treat anything important as an occasion for humour and the sort of cruel wit at other people’s expense enjoyed by adolescent minds.

In seeking to ignore Parliament, Johnson is simply following in Mrs May’s path. It was she who refused to provide a running commentary on the negotiations, who tried to keep everything to herself, who involved as few people as possible, who did everything possible to avoid MPs having a say, until it was far too late,  until the point when – so exasperated where they at being ignored – their only response was to talk, moan, endlessly debate and seek to play their own games with the rules but never come to a decision or work out what they were for. Foolish, exasperating for voters and strategically inept. Yes, yes – all of this. But understandable that MPs wanted to get so much off their chest having been denied a voice for so long.

Might there be a lesson there for subsequent leaders? That, just possibly, if you involve colleagues from the start you might get a better decision and more chance of getting it implemented. Just a thought. Ah, but they don’t want to help you implement your decision. Or they don’t agree with what your decision is or they want to change it or they oppose it outright or they have different agendas to yours. Well, dearie me: welcome to the challenges of leadership, of government. Kitchens and heat come to mind. If May’s agreement was not acceptable, then try and get one that is. That does not mean telling the EU to take out the bits you don’t like. The UK is behaving like someone who goes to dinner with a companion; they both agree to share a vegetable soup, a pistou soup, which your companion is very keen on. Then when it is delivered, the UK picks out all the carrots, peas, lentils, onions, potatoes and beans, scoops out the pistou sauce then expects the other to eat it despite it being not what he wanted.  No – it means starting again, on a different basis and, crucially, taking the time needed to get it right this time. In government, as in much else in life, speed is not a virtue.

If enacting the result of the referendum is important, if ensuring there is a sensible withdrawal agreement and transitional period so that all parties can adjust to the change is important, if ensuring there is a good basis for agreeing a future relationship with the EU is important, if ensuring the necessary preparations for departure are made and the level of disruption minimised are important, if ensuring the new settlement has as much consensus as possible, even from those who did not want this change, is important, if trying to bring people back together after a divisive referendum is important – and they are, all of them – then it is worth taking the time to do this properly, to take as much time as needed.  

Brexit was not the choice of 48% of those who voted. But how Brexit is achieved and implemented will tell the world, that global world Leavers are so keen on, what sort of a country the UK wants to be. A bit of reflection on how the country is behaving and being perceived would not go amiss. Leaving the EU well matters; it really does. Leaving the EU speedily does not. And yet it is speed which is prized. How very adolescent.

And so rather than learn, talk, persuade, think about the long-term and try and find a way through that will have some chance of lasting, Johnson repeats May’s mistakes but rather more efficiently. That is the import of yesterday’s action. And in so doing he and his supporters lie or – at best – are disingenuous about what they are doing.

  • Prorogation is only for 4 days. No – its effect is to halve the time available to Parliament and possibly even more since Parliament could have chosen the length of the recess. This option is now denied to MPs.
  • Prorogation is just the same as the recess. Nothing was happening anyway. All a fuss about nothing. Again: wrong. All Parliamentary activity is shut down, including the work of select committees and the Lords.
  • The government is ensuring that there can be no PMQs, no emergency debates, no ministers called to the despatch box. At a time when it claims to be seeking a new deal with the EU and preparing for No Deal, it wants there to be no scrutiny at all of any of its actions or failures to act. None. It even threatens to take other evasive action if somehow some errant MPs were to try and do their job.
  • It claims that this is business as usual, as is always done before a new Queen’s Speech. This too is a lie. The length of prorogation is unprecedented and unnecessary if this was simply the normal short-term pause before a new Parliamentary session.
  • It claims that those opposed to or worried about a No Deal exit are opposed to any Brexit. Again, a lie: many of those expressing concern (Stewart, Burt, Gauke, Hammond etc) voted repeatedly for an exit on the basis of a deal, rather more often in fact than those criticising them and now in government.
  • It claims that this will show the EU that the government is serious about a No Deal; this will make it more likely that they will agree to a better deal.  Why?  The EU can see for itself the division in the country.  It is just as likely that a No Deal – particularly if it does not turn out well – will lose support and in that case the EU’s position would be strengthened.
  • It claims that No Deal will be “easily manageable”. Quite how this is consistent with the “It will terrify the EU” line is not explained.
  • It claims that it has a mandate to do this, ignoring both the context of the referendum and what it said at the time. The Foreign Secretary tells a series of untruths about what he said about No Deal during the campaign thus showing that he knows that the government does not have a mandate for what it is proposing to do. Why lie, after all, if you are confident of your ground?
  • A special mention must also go to those Cabinet Ministers: Hancock, Javid, Rudd, Gove – so clear a few weeks ago that democracy could not be delivered by shutting down Parliament – and so silent now.

And the latest rewriting of recent history: that MPs have spent three years pointlessly arguing about and desperately trying to stop Brexit. Yes – some do want to stop it and rather more want to stop No Deal. But all this has happened between November 2018 (nearly 2½ years after the referendum) and June this year. Rather than too much time, there has been too little time spent on really thinking properly about how to Brexit and what to do next.

So now we have a government scared of scrutiny, possibly hoping to provoke the opposition into overplaying its hand and a lot of agonised MPs worried about what is happening but lacking the ruthlessness to oppose effectively.  The fun never stops, does it?

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