Boris Johnson knows he has lost the Brexit battle, that’s why he needs a war

Johnson is deliberately trying to make Brexit a civil war so that he can be the winner even if the country is the loser.

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Much has been written about Boris Johnson’s use of language upon his forced return to parliament after the unlawful prorogation that never was. Many who witnessed his exchanges with the Labour MPs Paula Sherriff, Tracy Brabin and Jess Philips remain deeply, deeply distressed by his inflammatory language and wholesale disregard for the safety of MPs, our families and our staff. While his subsequent calls for calm fool no one, his refusal to abandon the term “Surrender Bill” is significant. It signals he knows that he has lost the battle over Brexit.

He may well have always known he could not deliver Brexit by 31 October, though I am not sure he is capable of long-term planning spanning multiple months. But what he did know was that he needed to win over the ageing arch-Brexiteers whose main, if not only, attraction was that their votes would hand him the keys to No 10. And as Tory members wanted an unconditional commitment to Brexit, that was what he promised, with all the florid phrases his expensive education could muster.

But now Johson’s increasingly lurid language tells us he knows he has lost. He is not going to “do” and he cannot allow his political career to die, neither in or out of a ditch. And what is the one way you can lose and still claim to be a winner? Well, if what you have lost is but one battle in a greater war.

Johnson needs a war. Not in order to deliver on Brexit by 31 October — he already knows he is going to sell out a project he only embraced for short-term personal gain. All Johnson’s talk about the “Surrender Bill” is designed to cushion his own inevitable surrender. He has promised to “get Brexit done” but failed to make any credible proposals to Brussels and prison is not a pleasant prospect. 

Johnson needs a war to enable his political career to survive his failure on Brexit. He needs to be a good soldier in a war against the establishment, that peculiar part of the establishment which somehow doesn’t overlap with the Etonian old boys Network. That is why he is deliberately alienating the very Labour MPs he needs to get a deal through this parliament, MPs in heavily Leave seats who are suffering intense abuse. He doesn’t want a deal in Brussels or in parliament, he wants to be seen to be waging war on Brussels and parliament.

Then he can swiftly move to a general election, campaigning as the people’s tribune in a greater war and so, he hopes, squeeze Brexit Party votes to give him a working majority with enough Borisites in place. Because that is what the kicking out of 21 principled Conservatives allows him to do: to fill the Tory benches with his placemen and women, who will not dare to vote against his direction, who won’t listen to a Rees-Mogg or a Gove observing that the Brexit deal he finally brings back to parliament is Theresa May’s deal with a different font — the deal he voted against twice, the deal which bounced him into Downing Street on a wave of outraged opposition. He just needs to make a Tory majority a Boris majority and he can deliver May’s Brexit, even if we are poorer, more insular and less innovative, with fewer rights, a degraded environment and worse chicken. 

Johnson is deliberately trying to make Brexit a civil war so that he can be the winner even if the country is the loser. He is supposed to be taunting the Labour Party into a snap general election but we already know we need an election. We have critical work to do as a country. We must implement a comprehensive industrial strategy that is integrated with our plan for addressing the climate emergency. We must strengthen the NHS. We must rebuild our local and regional governments after the catastrophe of austerity — our police, our schools, our parks, our mental health services. Above all, we must move on from this poisonous Brexit debate and I believe the best way to do that is through a public vote on the matter. 

Johnson is waging war on our democracy on the basis of a special mandate he claims the 2016 referendum result gives him, one which supersedes parliament and indeed the sovereign. So he should have no trouble letting the people confirm that mandate in a specific vote on Brexit. 

But however he squirms and whatever wars he frames, the Labour Party is committed to preventing the devastating prospect of a no-deal Brexit, and all his humbug will not keep us from protecting the nation’s interest. 

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.