10 October 2019
Take the test.
By John Watson
Imagine it. You are a blond tousle-haired politician in your mid 50s, a liberal conservative by inclination, well-connected, very good at words and communication and bright enough, too, although your degree was a second and not a first. As far as weaknesses go, you are not good at detail, are a little idle and laid-back and are apt to wing it. Whether through ambition or out of conviction you headed up the Leave campaign and now find yourself Prime Minister in place of Theresa May. You are anxious to make a success of it and earn yourself a distinguished place in the history books. What do you do next?
The first thing must be to work out what not to do. Your predecessor sought with heroic patience to patch together an agreement that would satisfy both the EU and the House of Commons. That she failed to do so was probably because of the willingness of the EU to extend the deadline. Any lawyer will tell you that difficult deals are not done until shortly before the deadline expires. A slipping deadline, then, means no deal. Your first rule had better be that the deadline will slip no further.
Next, you must have a look at your own talents. Your politics are generally easy-going and middle-of-the-road and that is your character too. You simply do not have the ruthless edge needed to cut through the problems that brought down Mrs May. How do you deal with that? The answer must be to bring in a ruthless calculating chief of staff and that man Cummings is as hard as you can imagine. No one would want to see him as Prime Minister but his advice could give your administration the edge it needs.
Still, it is all very well providing a balanced team but the central difficulty remains. How do you deal with Parliament? You have no majority there and the opposition has already demonstrated that it will scupper almost any deal in order to bring about your destruction. That doesn’t sound too good but there is help on the horizon. The public do not seem to share the approach of their elected representatives. If the polls are to be believed they want to see Brexit done and support your ambition to bring this about. How can you use public support to push an exit, with or without a deal, past the House of Commons?
The first and best route is to get a deal with the EU. Provided it does not prevent Britain from doing trade deals with the rest of the world as Mrs May’s deal would have done, it is unlikely that the House of Commons will have the nerve to vote it down. Should they do so, the parties responsible will be ripped apart at the ensuing election. Should they approve a deal, you go through as a hero and are ideally placed for a long term in power. That has to be your primary tactic.
The second possibility is to hold a general election and use your new majority (provided you get one) to force through a departure either on the basis of a new deal or without a deal at all. Unfortunately Parliamentary procedures make that difficult to do, but, should there be an election, you will want to be sure that Conservative candidates are all firmly pro-leave. That means withdrawing the whip from those who vote to limit the government’s right to leave without a deal, a painful process since you and they probably share the same fairly moderate political approach. Still, it has to be done and if you waver Dominic Cummings will tell you to get on with it. After all, that is what he is there for.
The third possibility is to use your power as Prime Minister to force through either a new deal or, if necessary, a departure without a deal. The obvious response from your opponents would be to use votes of confidence to remove you from office but here they have a problem. They cannot agree who should replace you. Mr Corbyn says it must be him, after all he is the Leader of the Opposition, but the Liberal Democrats say he is not fit to govern. That leaves them in a quandary, made worse by a nervousness that the public might not be on their side and might not take your being replaced particularly well. Instead of acting, then, they try to limit your freedom of action and run the government from the outside, a difficult thing to do which soon descends into procedural scrapping. Mr Benn’s bill forces you to write to the EU requesting an extension to the timetable if no deal satisfactory to Parliament is agreed. Your own prorogation of Parliament is undone by the courts but when Parliament is reconvened it seemed to have little new to say. For the opposition to run the government from the outside is a little like pushing a ball up a hill with a feather.
So, which tactic would you adopt? The answer must be that you would push them all forward and see which succeeded. The crucial point, however, is to keep the political momentum. All sorts of mud is going to be thrown at you by the other side. They will rake up old indiscretions, old affairs, old errors of judgement and will then skip about Hampstead and Highgate, chardonnay in hand, chirping that you should really be in prison, or in an asylum, or dead. The Evening Standard will criticise everything you do and lead the press in desperate attempts to undermine you, but it is a feature of politics that those ruthlessly pursuing an agenda are little affected by this sort of thing. The public are fair-minded and see political tricks for what they are. The important thing is to keep the momentum running. That is why you would be unwise to replay the referendum. Mrs May should probably have done that long ago but in the struggle which is now developing tactics showing uncertainty have no place.
So that is where Mr Johnson is. Goodness knows how the struggle will play out but, whether you be a Remainer or a Leaver, if you wish to understand why the Government takes the positions it does, put yourself in his shoes and ask yourself what you would do.