Congratulations to Boris Johnson. This is his victory, and I’m afraid it is an advertisement for what a flamboyant advocate, not afraid to dissemble and to stretch the rules can sometimes achieve.
It goes without saying that Corbyn’s defeat has saved the country from the risk of bankruptcy, Venezuela-style . Practically any alternative was preferable to that.
So far the signs are not very encouraging but there is perhaps now some chance that after its catastrophic defeat the Labour Party will come to its senses, move back towards the centre, and begin to look like a credible government in waiting, or at least that it will provide a serious opposition.
And there are two other tiny crumbs of comfort.
1. Zac Goldsmith lost his seat
One of the very few Conservatives to lose their seat, Zac Goldsmith was one of those who most deserved to do so. He ran a nasty, borderline racist, campaign to become Mayor of London and he was – almost as much as Tom Watson – a promoter of absurd VIP paedophile conspiracy theories. Good riddance.
2. Chris Williamson lost his seat
His pitch as “the only pro-Corbyn candidate standing in Derby North” didn’t save him. Good riddance and good news for the Treasury’s Consolidated Fund which will now receive his £500.00 lost deposit.
Admittedly, lots of good people lost, and lots of bad ones won, so the defeat of these two is a fairly small consolation.
What of the bigger picture? Things don’t look especially promising, but there again …
3. We don’t know what will happen
Nobody knows. I think it’s fairly common to find that most things turn out to be not quite as bad as you had expected. I’ve often spent months dreading some tricky case, losing sleep, worrying and fearing the worst. Generally speaking, even if things go badly, the worst doesn’t happen. Sometimes it does of course.
In politics much the same is true. So cheer up, it may never happen.
And perhaps Mr Johnson will turn out to be not so bad after all.
Older readers will remember Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Both came into office widely regarded as dangerous war-mongers. Both were also considered, even by many of their supporters, as heartless economic dogmatists which perhaps, to an extent, they were. Reagan was not just considered heartless but almost a buffoon; personally charming perhaps but extremely stupid and quite unfit for high office. I had an aunt by marriage who used to play poker with him and would watch others, if not herself, take thousands of dollars off him in every sitting: “oh what an idiot he is,” she would reminisce.
Yet together Thatcher and Reagan helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet empire. Domestically their policies unquestionably brought about unemployment and suffering but also, eventually, unprecedented prosperity. You can of course argue over whether their overall legacy was good or bad but on any view they became towering figures of the late twentieth century, a prospect that many would have ridiculed when they assumed office.
(My aunt, by the way, died suddenly at a relatively young age, long before Reagan, whereupon it was discovered that she had been covering up a number of, shall we say, financial irregularities in her own life. Her evidence about the poker games would consequently need to be scrutinised with particular care).
Boris Johnson is not stupid though even his closest friends could hardly deny that he is a buffoon. His vices are manifest: many of his principles are weak to the point of non-existent, he lies regularly, he betrays his allies – witness his abandonment of the Northern Ireland Unionists – he is a coward (look at how he has avoided difficult interviews), he is reckless over the details of policy, and in his private life he may well be a scoundrel. These are serious faults – though he is not the only politician to possess them – and may well prove his undoing. Yet he is not, as his more extreme detractors like to depict him, a “fascist,” or even especially “right wing.” I am not ignoring the “piccaninnies” the “bum-boys” or the “letter boxes and bank robber” columns. Buffoonery? Certainly. Nasty? Yes. But as recently as July of this year, for example, he supported an amnesty for illegal immigrants: it’s hard to imagine Mussolini doing such a thing, or even Viktor Orban.
Having won a huge election victory he is no longer beholden to the right of the Conservative Party, to whom he was obliged to pander in order to win the leadership. He is already stressing that he is a “One Nation Conservative.” His lack of principle might yet morph into a respectable conservative pragmatism. A lack of interest in detail may not matter much if he appoints strategically wise, and not just tactically cunning, advisers. His cowardice may turn out to be sensible caution and as for his private life, well perhaps it is none of our business.
4. There won’t be a second referendum
Even many of those who supported a second referendum were rather ambivalent about it, seeing it as the lesser of two evils, but an evil nonetheless. It’s bad to be leaving the EU, but it would also have been very bad and perhaps– who can really say – worse to have endured a second referendum.
The only such referendum actually on offer was the Labour model, with the proposed choice of withdrawing from the EU on terms that absolutely nobody wanted, or remaining. It would, rightly, have been seen by Leavers as rigged and a betrayal, and it would indeed have torn the country apart. Voters acted entirely rationally in rejecting such a stupid idea.
If a fairer referendum, setting Johnson’s deal against Remain, had somehow been engineered in a hung Parliament, it would have extended the agony and probably would have been won by Leave anyway. Even if Remain had won, it’s hard to imagine that we would simply have put the whole ghastly business behind us and carried on in the EU as though nothing had happened. It would have been a running sore. That is one reason why “Get Brexit Done” was such an effective slogan.
Remainers have lost, but in reality perhaps we’ve just been put out of our misery.
5. Attacks on human rights law may never happen
There is that rather worrying section in the Conservative Manifesto:
“We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government. We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.”
It all sounds a bit ominous, but it’s also far too vague to amount to a commitment to do anything very much. The one thing it is not is a commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act, although admittedly “updating” could cover virtually anything up to and including emasculation.
And what about the next sentence?
“In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights commission that will examine these issues in depth, and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates.”
Another name for this Commission might be “the Long Grass Commission.” The coalition government – yes I know it was in a much weaker position than Mr Johnson’s – set up a similar Commission to advise on the contents of a “British Bill of Rights.” It got bogged down and eventually completely stranded in the difficult process of agreeing exactly what should be in such a Bill.
One of the Commissioners then was Martin Howe QC – soon to become (what he remains) something of a legal eminence grise amongst Leavers – and he actually proposed additional human rights that should be included in a British Bill of Rights. For example, his proposal would have extended existing Article 6 rights (which deal with the right to a fair trial) to cover “non-criminal proceedings for the imposition of a penalty.” What a good idea.
Nor does the Manifesto contain any proposals to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. Any attempt to do so would create plenty of problems, and it would throw petrol onto the smouldering problem of the union with both Scotland and Northern Ireland. We shall have to wait and see whether Mr Johnson has the appetite for such a conflagration. When the Cabinet Secretary enthusiastically congratulates him, Sir Humphrey-like, on his “courageous” policy, might he tremble and take the hint?
In any case, I doubt whether he wants to be known as the Prime Minister who broke up the Union, although of course there is a fairly high chance that that will in fact be his legacy. My hunch is that his own inclination might be to encourage the Commission to “examine these issues” in such great “depth” that no specific proposals ever actually surface, or that they do so only when there is no longer any time available to implement them.
We shall see. I can’t say I am very optimistic about the future but from now on, at least, there will be no-one to blame if everything does indeed go the shape of one of those mythical bendy bananas that Mr Johnson lied about all those years ago.