Boris Johnson’s Brexit power grab has backfired as a people’s movement rises

The protests broke down important barriers among the progressive majority in Britain. 

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As a child, Boris Johnson declared his intention to become "world king". On 24 July he achieved the lesser title of British prime minister. For the whole summer he ruled with shock and awe, ousting perfectly competent Trump-supporting right-wing conservatives in favour of others whose additional qualifications were incompetence and malpractice. 

He bent the machinery of the British state to his political ends like no previous premier. He made two propaganda videos in the style of Leni Reifenstahl using taxpayers’ money. He appointed as his chief adviser a man still legally held in contempt of parliament. He attempted to sideline the civil service and to scam the British public with tales of non-existent Brexit negotiations.

His aim was to fabricate a no-deal Brexit crisis, and in the process force the European Union to blink, handing him a word-change to the Withdrawal Agreement. That would allow him to enact Brexit in parliament, creating a platform for a subsequent victory lap in a general election.

But it went wrong. At the first possible opportunity, parliament has defeated him — by 27 votes. He has, as opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn succinctly put it, “no mandate, no morals and as of today no majority”.

According to the norms of the unwritten constitution, there should now be an election  and that, too, was in the Johnson script. He wants the election to be framed as “the people versus parliament”  with the Conservatives and Nigel Farage's Brexit Party jointly pumping the barrel organ of populism against judges, Eurocrats and parliament itself.

But that seems unlikely. Because since the night he threatened to suspend parliament, a major and transformative protest movement has changed the atmosphere in Britain. As one of its instigators, I want to outline here what I think has changed.

The left knew that Johnson's plan was for us to block him in parliament. I've lost count of the number of meetings in which people warned that “we are playing into his hands”. Johnson’s problems started when it became clear that opposition MPs, led by Labour's Keir Starmer, had devised a workable plan to take control of parliament  not merely blocking a no-deal Brexit but removing Johnson's authority as prime minister, and control over the tempo of the crisis.

His response was to suspend parliament. Two hours afterwards, in a terse WhatsApp exchange with other left campaigners, we decided to call a technically unauthorised demo outside parliament.

Since the murder of Jo Cox all of us are aware of the danger of creating mayhem around MPs, so we started small: without a megaphone, we clustered into a corner of College Green and made a-capella speeches on a bench. Then we invaded the media enclosure. Then around 8,000 people turned up and we marched to Downing Street.

MPs and councillors from the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Labour turned up, including Starmer, the architect of the anti-Johnson strategy and other senior Labour MPs. They spoke from megaphones that did not work, taking their turn with ordinary people who introduced  themselves as "citizens". By sundown we knew we had a movement.

Over the next five days, using Signal and WhatsApp, we grew the movement: on Saturday 31 August there were demos in some 50-plus  locations across Britain. I went to the one in Manchester, where about 5,000 people clustered in the rain, again with just one pathetic loudhailer.

It was peaceful, humourous, and there was no leadership.  Because the traditional far left has been pro-Brexit, they hovered around the edges with their newspapers, supportive but slightly hesitant. Though Labour and Green MEPs spoke in Manchester, and a Lib Dem councillor, I did not see any Labour MP on the protest. It was as if, absent leadership from Corbyn, they didn’t know what to do.

But we did. Though the combined numbers on the rolling demos never totalled more than tens of thousands, they changed the atmosphere. First, they deflated the Brexiteers’ claims of insurgency. The social media and the radio talk shows have been full of angry, sullen voices from the pro-Brexit wing of British society, claiming that they “wanted no deal all along” and that the referendum was a mandate for it. But such voices have not been heard on the streets; they have no political confidence. Only the fascists and the alt-right have been confident enough to oppose the #StopTheCoup movement on the streets: on Saturday the organised far-right football ultra group the Democratic Football Lads Alliance will march under the slogan “Back Boris, Back the Queen”.

What's important now is to reinforce this: to have reasoned arguments with working class Brexit supporters about why suspending democracy is against their interest and why the rich elite have lost the plot.

Second, the protests broke down important barriers among the progressive majority in Britain. The pro-Remain camp has been riven by party rivalries between Labour, the nationalists, the Lib Dems and ex-Labour splitters. But on the demos, these have tended to dissolve. The loudest cheers were for people who said: this is no longer about Brexit or parties, it's about democracy. At the other end, the left has been seriously hampered by the split between Remain and Leave: but Johnson's coup brought the so-called Lexit forces onto the streets alongside the left Remainers. And this, in turn, has sapped the confidence of the hard Brexit brigade. If the Communists and the Trotskyists are no longer giving you left-wing excuses, then in a working class community the Brexit argument  is reduced to pure xenophobia and deference.

Thirdly, the protests did what all protests do: they injected an element of unpredictability and exhilaration. I write this after just marching across, and temporarily occupying, two major bridges in London, alongside 8,000 people in an unauthorised march. Our routine is simple: we hold a meeting, anyone can speak, we chant “stop the coup” we light flares, we march, we go home. As MPs from the progressive parties returned to Westminster, I've seen them visibly inspired by this spectacle - containing as it does the promise of a different kind of democracy if we can win.

The strategic difference between Labour and the other progressive parties remains: to go for an election or for a technocratic government which organises a second referendum. I believe Labour's stunningly effective performance has strengthened its hand for the former option against the latter.

Above all, the entry of the masses into the history of Brexit increases the overhead cost to Johnson of his power grab. The unity we're building on the streets may translate, if we are lucky, into a "popular front from below" - i.e. an informal electoral pact to defeat Johnson and Farage at the coming election.

And a high reputational cost has already been paid. Johnson's aide, Dominic Cummings, was feared because he had won the referendum campaign for Leave. Long, sycophantic articles were written about his grasp of strategy, learned from the study of the US military thinking in Vietnam.

What nobody thought to mention was: the Americans lost in Vietnam, and for the same reason Johnson is losing now. Mass action is exhilarating, fluid and unpredictable. 

The elite around Johnson was trained amid the intellectual sclerosis of Eton and Oxford, where by common consent, all protest is pointless. The orthodox methods we use to study power relations and great men never quite grasps what happens when power becomes fluid and great men are reduced to the status of clowns.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.