One of the enduring new myths about Boris Johnson’s administration is that there are two Downing Street operations. The first is a combative, Brexit-voting, no-deal-backing cadre of staffers drawn from Vote Leave, with Dominic Cummings as its most powerful adviser. The second is a group of considered, cautious administrators reconciled to Brexit. They have been recruited from Johnson’s old team at City Hall, and Eddie Lister, chief of staff, is their leader. When Johnson moves to strike a deal with the European Union or his opponents in parliament, it is because Lister’s Downing Street is in the ascendant. When he is more belligerent and antagonistic, it is because Cummings is in control.
The two Downing Streets conceit is attractive but wrong. One civil servant joked to me that it has a “Munira Mirza-shaped hole” in it. Mirza worked as an adviser to Johnson at City Hall and is a committed Leaver who now leads the Downing Street policy unit. In which camp does she reside?
The reality is that the divide does not cleanly correspond with Vote Leave and City Hall. And while the Prime Minister is fond of delegation, he is no one’s cipher. The disagreement in Downing Street has been about how the politics of a Brexit delay would play out – not about the desirability of Johnson’s overall goals and agenda. He wants a deal, as does Cummings.
But the supposed division speaks to the larger Brexit paradox. On the one hand, Johnson’s political mission is to deliver a Brexit settlement. On the other, both the polls and the Conservatives’ private information show the party picking up support in Wales and rearranging the political map in the West Midlands, thanks to Johnson’s positioning as the sole guarantor of Brexit. There is a risk, then, to holding a general election after a Brexit deal has been secured. As one Tory MP put it: “What happens if the election just becomes about domestic policy, where our offer is only ‘Labour are right. Don’t vote for them’?”
The Conservatives’ “Get Brexit Done” message allows the party to appeal to the country by offering a broad and irreconcilable set of post-Brexit futures. Their promise is a Brexit in which the UK secures large, transformative trade deals, but in which agriculture and the National Health Service remain unchanged, and immigration is controlled and managed from Whitehall.
The two pledges cannot both be kept. But while Brexit is under threat, the ambiguity has no political downsides: if the next election happens with a Brexit deal secured, the reassuring bromide of “Get Brexit Done” is off the table.
The Liberal Democrats have their own predicament. The Brexit process is a horror show for them but one that they don’t want to end, at least not just yet. The Brexit debacle has enabled the party’s revival and given it hope of winning true-blue constituencies such as Chelsea and Fulham in London, where it has recruited the high-profile entrepreneur Nicola Horlick as a candidate, or Altrincham and Sale West, where the Labour defector Angela Smith is running against Graham Brady, the Conservative MP and influential former chair of the 1922 Committee.
The Lib Dems have a rich and detailed policy programme, but it is only on Brexit and their support for revoking Article 50 that they get anything resembling a decent hearing from the broadcasters and the press. The party’s selling point is that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to stop Brexit – but if Brexit has either been secured or stopped, what will their big offer be?
Meanwhile, many Conservative MPs believe that if they can get Brexit done, and done quickly, it is Labour that stands to benefit. There’s no doubt that an election, with Brexit out of the way, would suit the Labour leadership. Unnoticed by most of the press, Jeremy Corbyn is already aggressively fighting the election he wants. He is attending big rallies around the country that are in effect set up for social media and televised broadcast clips. As at the last election in 2017, when Corbyn was careful to visit each ITV region, broadcasting is the key consideration in choosing where to campaign and when, not whether a seat is winnable or safe. The policies and methods are straight from his 2017 playbook: big populist offers promising economic transformation for the country.
But Corbyn is struggling to have an impact while the focus is on Brexit. The Corbynite hope, and the Conservative fear, is that if Brexit can be put aside before the election, a revival in Labour fortunes may be at hand. And should Brexit happen, the Lib Dems may find a new purpose very quickly, not as a party of Remain but of Revenge: against Labour and the Conservatives for ending the European dream.
An election with Brexit unresolved is particularly tricky terrain for Labour. A growing number of Labour MPs, including those previously opposed to a second referendum, are increasingly in favour of holding another poll on the Europe question – and before a general election. But for a minority of Labour MPs, including veteran ministers such as Caroline Flint and Jim Fitzpatrick and relative neophytes like Stephanie Peacock and Gareth Snell, their preferred route through the crisis is to support a Brexit deal. These MPs, who largely but not exclusively represent majority Leave constituencies, are worried about the consequences for democracy if Brexit is further delayed or even stopped.
And so this is Jeremy Corbyn’s conundrum: he and his advisers know that their best interests are served by resolving Brexit before a general election. But Labour just cannot decide how that resolution should be reached. The choice may soon be made for them.
This article appears in the 16 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war