Unless the pundits and bookmakers are all completely deluded, in a few weeks’ time Boris Johnson will fulfil his lifetime ambition and become Prime Minister of the UK.
If we assume it is very unlikely the European Union will offer Mr Johnson any major concessions on the Brexit deal offered to Theresa May, and that Mr Johnson would see his loyal support crumble if he tried to sell to Parliament and the country anything other than a radically different deal, then we appear to face two possibilities.
Scenario 1: A quick general election
First, Mr Johnson will call a General Election very soon after becoming Prime Minister. Given what he has said in the leadership campaign, it must be assumed that he will seek a mandate for delivering an ultimatum to the European Union and for a ‘no-deal’ exit if that ultimatum is rejected.
With the current split in voting intentions among centre and left of centre voters (it is inconceivable that Jeremy Corbyn would offer any kind of alliance to the Liberal Democrats), Mr Johnson has every reason to expect an English landslide, giving him five years of virtually uncontested power.
This scenario probably involves the new Prime Minister working with Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party. On the one hand, Mr Johnson will not want to risk splitting the Brexit vote, on the other, Mr Farage will know that Mr Johnson has the capacity to occupy the Brexit Party’s territory.
As we have seen from the virtual demise of UKIP, populist/single-issue parties need momentum. Without it, their internal contradictions and deficiencies soon pull them apart. Assuming Brexit occurs, Mr Farage and his allies need a new raison d’etre.
Being part of a right-wing populist coalition and joining ranks with its growing international movement including figures ranging from Viktor Orban and Donald Trump to Matteo Salvini and Jair Bolsonaro offers the basis for a wider and longer-term political project. This is, after all, the Bannon plan.
Scenario 2: A second referendum
The alternative scenario sees Mr Johnson fail to win concessions in Europe, fail to get Parliamentary approval for a ‘no deal’, and then call a second referendum with the explicit purpose of winning a mandate to leave on any terms.
In such a scenario, Mr Johnson might initially urge another ‘leave’ vote while then largely staying above the fray on the grounds that he will need to implement whatever comes out of the vote and doesn’t want to find himself in the position of David Cameron after our former PM literally bet the house and lost.
Most people I speak to – including some who have worked at close quarters to Mr Johnson – think the former scenario by far the most likely. But for the purposes of this post, the point to note is that radically different options for the country will soon depend upon the tactics of a man whose record demonstrates neither great consistency nor great judgement.
For Johnson’s opponents the only basis for resisting despair seems to be that he might undergo a kind of Henry IV style conversion to responsibility once he has finally grasped the crown.
Politicians may not be able to make history any more, but they can make things worse
We are not alone in our troubles. Around the world politicians are turning problems in to crises. In many cases they appear to be doing so deliberately - as fear, anger and polarisation help them stay in power. (And in many cases, a rationale for increasing power by weakening constitutions.)
Much of the study of history is a dispute between those who portray political leaders as the architects of progress and disaster, vs those who see individuals responding with relatively little control to deeper forces of change.
Events today suggest a third possibility: that politicians now have an extremely limited capacity to turn the dial of history in a positive direction, while being perfectly capable of making matters much worse.
Could we see an ethical resurgence?
At the risk of putting hope above expectation, could the fact that our future now lies so much at the mercy of man of questionable motives generate a counter-reaction in the form of an ethical resurgence among other parts of the political class?
It is certainly the case that in MPs like Rory Stewart, Jess Philips, and Stella Creasy we have seen individuals willing to respond to the self-indulgence and toxicity of their own Parties with courage and clarity. We have also seen a number of principled Conservative MPs commit short term career suicide by making it clear either implicitly, or in David Gauke’s case explicitly, that they will not serve for Mr Johnson.
Principles for the politicians we need
If a backlash is possible, I’d like to suggest three broad principles to which we might want politicians to pledge:
- Truth: To tell the truth. When being fully candid is not possible or even perhaps responsible, to admit this rather than lie.
- Authenticity: To express only truly held opinions. Crucially, this includes being willing to acknowledge when they are expressing an opinion based on collective responsibility/the party view on an issue they don’t feel strongly about.
- Integrity: To make promises only with the genuine and realistic intent to deliver them. To recognise where those promises involve known trade-offs or potential risks. And to be willing to be held accountable (to Parliament and the public) for their actions.
I realise that this is a tall order for politicians. Even though, in other areas of life – from the personal to professional – these principles would seem like entirely reasonable expectations.
No one can know whether our pressurised, and too often self-justifying, media would treat such commitments with respect, or if voters would be willing to believe or be influenced by such a code.
I for one would be happy to commit to only voting for politicians who signed up. Anyway, the point about an ethical commitment is that it is made regardless of whether it instrumentally benefits the person making it.
Pious, naïve or just silly my suggestion may seem to be. But in the end, given what may now await us, surely our more public-spirited politicians must do something?