As the British lawmakers were taking control of the parliamentary agenda to stop the government from forcing the country’s no-deal departure from the European Union, Dominic Cummings – the lacky to British prime minister Boris Johnson and his hedge-fund disaster-capitalist establishment elite – was reportedly spotted wandering the corridors of Westminster, drunkenly yelling at people.
It seems as though Dominic Cummings was sad.
Sad – perhaps – because he and Johnson had made two major strategic errors. Firstly, they had underestimated how co-ordinated the opposition’s response to Johnson’s no-deal threats would be. Their bill to force Johnson to request an extension to Article 50 (the treaty provision governing the withdrawal process) to avoid a crash out on WTO terms on 31 October, is now law.
Secondly, after losing control of the parliamentary timetable, therefore enabling the bill’s safe and speedy passage, the government assumed that their motion to call a general election would be guaranteed success. After all, it’s all that Labour has been talking about for months. But in the end, Jeremy Corbyn and fellow opposition leaders refused to dance to their tune.
Wisely, they realised that this election gambit was quite possibly a ruse. Johnson has indicated that he would be willing to break the law rather than request a Brexit delay. It had dawned on the opposition that their baby bill would need a chaperone.
Parliament wants to hold Johnson’s feet to the fire; make sure he seeks the Brexit delay (to the end of January 2020), before agreeing to an election. Meanwhile, Johnson maintains that he will refuse to request that extension, something which some have argued should result in him being jailed.
But whilst Cummings and Johnson made a serious strategic error in how they judged parliament, the polls suggest that their tactics could be paying dividends from the electorate.
Whilst Progressives celebrated these successful parliamentary tactics, cheered as the Scottish appeal court ruled the recent prorogation of parliament as unlawful and licked their lips at the prospect of the Prime Minister facing legal action and possibly being jailed, the irony is that these narratives play directly into Cummings’ and Johnson’s hands.
For these are the old narratives of respect for the ‘rule of law’ and ‘due process’.
These old narratives are breaking at the seams; narratives that can’t even be salvaged by the fact that one of the 21 Conservative MPs who was expelled from the party for voting to allow the ‘anti-no deal’ bill parliamentary passage, was non-other than Winston Churchill’s grandson.
For these are the stories of ‘the establishment’, and it is precisely by stirring up antipathy towards these narratives that Cummings and Johnson plan to win the next election.
By delaying Brexit yet again, parliament is defying the ‘will of the people’. Johnson is already trailing the election slogan: ‘parliament versus the people’.
By refusing to give Johnson a general election on his terms, parliament is denying the people to express that will.
By ruling that prorogation was unlawful, the Scottish judges – just like those that ruled parliament must trigger Article 50 – are ‘saboteurs’.
The chance of Boris Johnson willingly going to jail is zero, but that doesn’t stop the story from being told. Johnson is already a martyr to the cause; rallying against the establishment elite; the status quo; the enemies of the people.
Has anyone considered that Johnson’s plan to challenge the anti no-deal bill in the Supreme Court isn’t because he wants to win, but because he wants to lose?
There couldn’t be a better denouement to their story: a Supreme Court decision that upholds the rule of law, being repainted as a death throe of the establishment elite; the status quo; the enemies of the people.
Depending which way it goes, the same could be said for the Supreme Court ruling on the prorogation of parliament, expected next week.
So how should Progressives respond?
Current election polling in the U.K. can make grim reading. The increasing consolidation of support from those in favour of leaving the European Union around Boris Johnson’s (barely) ruling Conservative Party could deliver him a healthy working majority at an early General Election, an event that is now a case of ‘when’, not ‘if’.
It can be easy to forget that the same polling also demonstrates that Progressives are in the majority, despite the country’s broken first-past-the-post voting system not necessarily reflecting this fact.
To counter this, we have to tell both ourselves and others a better story.
And we do that by stealing theirs.
I recall listening to a radio programme in which a Republican U.S. congressman, who crossed America’s fraught abortion divide by converting from being ‘pro-life’ to ‘pro-choice’ said: “in order to convince a conservative, you have to speak to them in conservative”
So, Johnson’s disregard for the devastating impact that ‘no-deal’ will have on small businesses, peace in Northern Ireland, and the children who could be denied life-saving medication, must be framed as the blatant treachery that it is.
His pursuit of a ‘no deal’ Brexit without a mandate to do so – and despite parties against ‘no deal’ winning the popular vote at the last three elections – is irrefutably defying the ‘will of the people’.
What is Eton-educated Boris Johnson, who treats power as a parlour game and the people as his pawns, if not from amongst ‘the ruling elite’?
And if the Supreme Court rules that prorogation of parliament was unlawful then the attack line must focus on him having misled the Queen.
Is there a danger that by using this narrative, Progressives will push the debate into the gutter of each side just screaming ‘traitor’ at each other? No, I don’t think so.
Because, firstly, if Progressives start telling this story, I can’t help feeling it would just demonstrate how ridiculous it is.
But secondly, it would be vital that this approach was combined with proactive and positive messaging: tactical voting as the only way – but a perfectly achievable way – for progressives to defeat Johnson’s Conservatives and their Brexit Party allies; a second referendum as providing the people with a real choice between a ‘pro-deal’ departure from the EU or changing their minds and opting to ‘remain’; and an ambitious plan for devolution to the UK’s regions and nations as a means of letting communities ‘take back control’.
Progressives are in with a chance of crowning Boris Johnson the shortest-serving Prime Minister in British history, and dooming his administration to a humiliation of historic proportions.
But first, we must start telling a better story.