It’s “Brexit or bust” for Boris

Margaret Thatcher © Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Margaret Thatcher: decidedly not middle of the road

Boris Johnson’s strategy is straightforward – to make sure that he’s “the people’s choice” at the inevitable upcoming general election.

When an electorate is polarised, it makes political sense to pick a side. As Margaret Thatcher once said: “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous – you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides”. The Labour party’s plunge in the polls should make that clear enough. By contrast, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has taken a persistent and commanding lead since he firmly committed to delivering Brexit by 31 October, “do or die”.

But now it seems that his attempt at a deal is dead, shunned as too unworkable even to begin the formal negotiating process. That leaves only the option of leaving without a deal at all – which the Benn act seeks to postpone by forcing the prime minister to ask the European Union for a three-month extension to the current Halloween deadline. How can Johnson now square the circle without breaking his promise and surrendering his lead in the polls?

One suggestion is that failing to leave might not hurt him too much, if others can be blamed for forcing him to do it. Recent surveys suggest that 83% of British voters would blame Parliament for any such delay. But more than half would still blame the prime minster – and why not? He’s been in charge where others have stepped aside to argue among themselves, or merely virtue signal their protest. He had it in his power to get a deal, didn’t he?

The People versus The Establishment

Our MP-by-MP analysis of Parliament has always concluded that a deal would remain elusive. Johnson has clearly reached a similar conclusion, happily expelling 21 of his own MPs while engaging in increasingly vitriolic parliamentary debate. The reality is that securing a deal is merely a sideshow against the glittering prize of a majority. This is what lies behind much of the current theatrics – the inevitable upcoming election. This vote will be a battle: “The People versus The Establishment”, with Johnson portrayed as a plucky David in the face of a colluding “Stop-Brexit” Goliath.

Being blamed for breaking his 31 October promise doesn’t play well into this narrative. So he will have to go a step further. His hands must be tied tighter. The Establishment must be provoked more. Downing Street leaks that its legal advisers suggest the Benn act can be challenged, providing a loophole. They could argue that it was unconstitutional to allow Parliament to bind the hands of the government on foreign treaties; that the act is incompatible with EU law; that the act is internally inconsistent (as the Kinnock amendment requires an extension only to continue dialogue over a deal, and a deal isn’t even on the table).

But these are just procedural sleights of hand designed to cause distraction and mass confusion. In this confusion, with the clock ticking down, Johnson will simply emerge with a clear message: “We are out.” And what will the response be from the EU, the courts, Parliament, 21 Tory MPs, the speaker? The Establishment will say, in unison: “No, you’re not.”

This is not about rules – it’s about power

What could work better as the ultimate outrage? “You voted to ‘take back control’ but more than three years later, The Establishment just won’t let you!” Who decides if we are out of the EU? Is it the prime minister? Or Parliament? Or the EU? Or the Supreme Court? You might have a very visceral response to that question. You might consider it beyond doubt that the answer is clearly [insert your preferred entity’s name here]. Will you still have that conviction when the UK and the US sign a small sectoral trade deal on 1 November? What about when the UK diverges completely from EU rules in another sector on 10 November? And so on, and so on.

The truth doesn’t matter in this political game. Only that each time there is a clash, the war between The People and The Establishment intensifies. And in the heat, the battle drum marches on to a general election, where everyone must pick a side. The ultimate winner will be the person who correctly predicts where the balance of public opinion will fall.

Johnson is confident that he will be rewarded for his unswerving commitment to delivering the will of the 52%. They power his determination to take the next outrageous steps in this epic Brexit saga. Time will tell if he has picked the right battles.

For more from Helen Thomas, visit blondemoney.co.uk