August is traditionally a quiet month, not only in parliament – which is shut for the long summer recess – but also in Whitehall, as civil servants take the opportunity to go on holiday while their ministers are away. And it is still true this year, no matter how much the new government is eager to convey a sense of urgency and momentum behind everything it does. The new model Downing Street operation has successfully forced special advisers (spads) to cancel any planned holidays until 31 October, and Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief political strategist, has successfully intimidated most of them.
But ministers, who are the major engine of policy development and project delivery in government departments, have not been similarly cowed and have boarded their planes or headed back to their constituencies regardless. And while Cummings can mandate special advisers to cancel their leave, his writ doesn’t run to government officials. As a result, the corridors of Whitehall are full of spads, but barely anyone else.
But away from the spooked special advisers, the reality is that the government’s appearance of activity is some way short of the full picture. There has been a flurry of announcements about new money being made available to departments, whether to plan for a no-deal Brexit or to fund some area of domestic policy that the government believes could cause it political difficulty. But the impression is skin deep. While there are ways around the government’s fraught hold on a parliamentary majority, it limits the extent to which it can drum up new sources of funding and, in practice, the new administration has yet to touch the more politically explosive areas of no-deal planning, such as using compulsory purchase powers to buy up extra land around major ports or significant infrastructure development.
Yet what it has done is successfully and ruthlessly target areas of Conservative weakness and issues on which Labour made the running at the 2017 general election. Cuts to school funding, which have forced growing numbers of schools to close their doors early on a Friday, and which almost every Tory MP in a marginal seat believes hurt them at the last election, are to be reversed. Reductions in police numbers, which Labour linked directly to its wider anti-austerity argument in 2017, will be partially undone. And further cash will be made available to the NHS, albeit by raiding other bits of the health budget.
Government activity is not just focused on addressing its own weaknesses. The administration is trying to move the political debate on to areas where it is stronger: pledging to increase the size of the prison population by 10,000 and softening restrictions on the use of stop-and-search by police. The new Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is an instinctive authoritarian, and the new Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, who shares many of his reforming predecessor David Gauke’s interests, was criticised for floating a liberal policy without prior clearance at the new, twice-weekly Downing Street meeting for special advisers.
The combined effect of Patel’s elevation and Buckland’s public embarrassment is to move the political debate away from rehabilitation – an area where Labour is comfortable – to traditional authoritarianism. And coming down the track is a new Budget from the Chancellor, Sajid Javid, which is expected to increase further the amount being spent on the public realm.
Taken together, this looks like classic pre-election manoeuvring: an attempt to eliminate your weaknesses and shift the debate to more comfortable terrain. Indeed, many MPs believe an early election is inevitable and have been fast-tracking their plans locally.
The government’s rhetoric over no deal is heavy on the treachery of MPs who might seek to stop it and low on preparing the ground for any disruption that might occur after it. This is one reason to believe its intention is not actually to deliver a no-deal Brexit by 31 October but to call an election after parliament blocks it – perhaps by emulating the legislative measure pioneered by Yvette Cooper to seek an extension in March. That might be a better way forward for the Conservatives – Boris Johnson would hope to win his own mandate finally to resolve the Brexit conundrum – than holding an election after a no-deal exit.
Labour, for its part, has already selected candidates in all of the seats it might plausibly win and has begun preparations for re-selecting sitting MPs in order to be ready to fight an election.
Where that all falls down, however, is that it is far from clear how parliament might prevent no deal – Cooper’s bid to secure an extension only succeeded because Theresa May’s government was willing to facilitate the view of the House. A Johnson government would have numerous options to frustrate such a measure unless it came with a far greater level of legislative control over the executive than anything parliament has thus far been willing to do.
And that’s the big problem for Boris Johnson and for Downing Street. They have taken a series of actions to change the things they can control about British politics. But they cannot be certain either that a no-deal Brexit won’t destroy the Conservative Party, or that parliament will hand them the opportunity to go to the country pledging to uphold a frustrated electorate’s will.
If, as many of Johnson’s allies believe, a no-deal Brexit is an event that can be shrugged off, that might not matter. But good headlines about putting bobbies back on the beat or increasing health spending won’t help the government out if a no-deal Brexit means that those police are needed to calm an angry public at supermarkets or if hospitals struggle to feed their patients.
This article appears in the 14 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy