For those not familiar with the film The Matrix, it features a scene in which the hero Neo encounters a boy bending a spoon with his mind. The boy hands the spoon to Neo. The dialogue goes on:
Spoon boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead … only try to realise the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Spoon boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Spoon boy: Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
Neo then appears to bend the spoon with his mind. In the film the spoon isn’t real, but a digital simulation fed to unconscious humans to keep them alive. But what would happen in the real world if you really, really wanted to bend that spoon, and there was another world where you could make it happen? You could get to that world by taking a blue pill offered to you by a kind of anti-Neo.
Welcome to the contest for our next prime minister, where the electorate is just a small group of Conservative Party members and Tory MPs. The current contest is all about Brexit. Brexit is stuck. The goal of the Brexiteers, taken up by many (but not all) who voted Leave, is to gain complete independence from the EU and all its rules and regulations. They hoped to achieve this by leaving the single market and customs union, and replacing them with a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU. Unfortunately they disregarded two obstacles: the Irish border and the Good Friday Agreement.
Together they are a spoon that many Conservatives want to bend by wishing it so. The Irish government and the EU live in the real world, so they know that an FTA with the EU would require a hard border on the island of Ireland. A hard border is incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement. As a result, either Northern Ireland or the UK has to maintain its trading rules to prevent any hard border in Ireland. The “backstop” ensures this will happen. Complete independence for the UK from the EU is therefore impossible, just like bending a spoon by thought alone.
Most Conservative candidates for prime minister pretend they really can bend the spoon. Many suggest it can be bent using soon-to-be invented technology — technology that would make a hard border anywhere near the actual border unnecessary. But these candidates have a problem. If such technology can be found, the EU have said, they would be happy to apply it. And if such technology is just around the corner, why would the Brexiteers object to a backstop that will soon be removed? That the same Brexiteers who say the fabled technology is almost upon us also refuse to accept the backstop, suggests they do not really believe in bending spoons.
One or two candidates say that, if only they are given a chance to stare into the whites of the EU negotiators’ eyes, they can make the EU bend. This is also impossible. Others suggest that the UK can leave in October with no-deal and then agree an FTA because the EU will want the £39bn that we have already agreed we owe them. In reality, if we break our existing agreements with the EU after a no-deal Brexit, the EU could retaliate by, for instance, grounding our planes.
Many of those voting for our next prime minister may understand all this deep down. They agree with the spoon boy that you cannot bend a spoon by thought alone. Instead they want to take the blue pill, and go to a world where almost anything is possible if you want it enough. A world where you can wish away the Irish border problem. The same world where we once stood alone and won the Second World War all by ourselves.
These Conservative members are not hanging on every detail of alternative arrangements for the Irish border to check that they will actually work. They don’t mind too much how we leave and what is done to parliament to make that happen. They just want their blue pill and their anti-Neo to make all their difficulties disappear. They want someone to get Brexit done and banish Nigel Farage and then diminish Jeremy Corbyn so they might actually win another general election. They want there to be no spoon, because life would be too difficult if today’s reality turned out to be all there is. In particular, and to mix imaginary tales horribly, if they recognised reality they would have to give up their precious, Brexit.
Just after the 2017 general election I wrote about the Zugzwang that the Conservative Party found itself in. Zugzwang is a term in chess where a player finds themselves in a position where every possible move ends up making them worse off. In that situation the chess player would like to skip their move, but the rules say they cannot. What I had in mind then was that most Tory MPs wanted to be rid of May because she was clearly a hopeless leader who had called an unnecessary election with a commanding lead in the polls and lost it all. Yet these same MPs could not get rid of May because they would get a Brexiteer instead.
I underestimated the Zugzwang the Conservatives were in. I hadn’t realised the depth of the rabbit hole that Brexiteers were prepared to take the Conservative Party and its members down. Brexit could have happened if the Brexiteers had not voted against May’s deal. Instead they have taken a referendum that promised the easiest trade deal with the EU in history and presented it as a mandate for no deal at all. Their supporters in the press egg them on and most in the broadcast media let this pass.
At the bottom of the rabbit hole of Brexit, where only complete independence for the EU is acceptable, you can only survive by taking the blue pill. The blue pill takes you to another place where most Conservative members and MPs want to live. And Boris Johnson, who can seemingly make any bullets fired at him stop dead in mid-air with a joke and a smile, is the person who can make this happen. Johnson will offer you a red pill and a blue pill. The red pill, which leads to reality, and the blue pill which allows minds to bend spoons — pills akin to the two articles Johnson wrote before he decided to champion Brexit.
Unfortunately that other place, where you go if you take the blue pill, is not fictitious. They have seen it across the Atlantic. Johnson is, in reality, the Conservatives’ Trump. Trump can get away with so many things once considered outrageous because he has a party machine and a media behind him that is prepared to tolerate and justify anything so long as the Republicans preserve power. A UK version of Trump is the only way of delivering something as outrageous as a no-deal Brexit.
Johnson, like Trump, is criticised for his lies and personal behaviour but he just laughs it off and nothing seems to matter. There are still more worrying similarities between the two. Johnson, like Trump, cannot concentrate for long, says or does the wrong thing at critical moments, has no vision except of his own advancement, and makes serious mistakes that go beyond his words and his personal life.
His genius is to turn his own incompetence into a joke, so he appears refreshing compared to most politicians. Although the jokes may be well-rehearsed, the incompetence is real. When you are worse off because of his incompetence it isn’t funny anymore. But all that is required is enough people who are yet to experience his incompetence first-hand, and who appreciate a funny politician, and the job is done.
Which leads to a critical realisation. If Johnson is the UK’s Trump, then the spoon is not just the Irish border, or the consequences of a no-deal Brexit. The spoon has to be politics as we once knew it, democracy as we once knew it.
The first spoon that will be bent is an independent media that asks critical questions based on facts. As William Davies and others have observed, Johnson’s first campaign press conference was positively Trumpian. Journalists who asked tough questions were booed. Later pressure will be applied by the Tory media, or others, such that journalists quickly learn that asking awkward questions is more trouble than it is worth.
Small outposts of critical thought may remain, because you only need to control what most people see and read to bend the spoon to your will. Whereas Trump plays the media through his tweets, Johnson can shrug off using racist imagery about Muslim women by offering journalists cups of tea.
The spoon may become the judiciary, which incurred the wrath of parts of the Conservative Party, its press and its members by daring to allow parliament the final say in enacting Article 50. The already-unprecedented number of attacks by politicians on the civil service will morph into a politicisation of the civil service that Thatcher would never have dreamed of.
And very soon the spoon may be parliament itself. Johnson is committed to imposing the most devastating kind of Brexit on the UK if he cannot get a deal by 31 October, and parliament may well try to stop him. But Johnson has not ruled out ignoring or suspending parliament and going ahead anyway. If his poll numbers are not as favourable as some hope, or the deal he offers Farage is rejected, he may be tempted to bypass parliament rather than call a general election.
The spoon that Johnson and his party want to bend, or deny the existence of, is pluralist democracy itself. It will happen slowly, each stage seemingly not so bad because it happens with a joke and a smile. We can only hope that while most Conservative members want to live in a world where there is no spoon, enough voters prefer changing the real world in ways that enhance, rather than diminish, our democracy.