We Can Beat Boris Johnson, but Only by Refusing to Play His Game
by James Meadway
29 August 2019
Boris Johnson can be beaten. This is where we start from. Everything else is secondary. And the proroguing of Parliament – calculated as it is – is still the gamble of a man and an administration with strikingly few cards left to play. But if we want to beat Boris Johnson, we need to know how to intervene in the ongoing political, constitutional and – behind it all – social crisis that he is both product and continued producer of.
We should be clear about why he has deliberately raised the stakes this high. There is no doubt that Johnson himself, and those around him, would like a deal to get Brexit through. He and nearly all of his Cabinet eventually voted for May’s Withdrawal Agreement, including figures like Jacob Rees-Mogg. They aren’t the No Deal diehards of the “European Research Group” (ERG), for whom Johnson’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, has boundless and well-documented contempt. Likewise, although the most powerful sections of British capitalism would like a world in which Britain’s EU membership was retained, they are resigned to accepting an exit with a deal. The political prize here is huge: a comparatively smooth exit would allow Johnson to portray himself as “delivering Brexit”. The removal of the uncertainty around the status of Britain’s relationship with its biggest trading partner would undoubtedly unlock business investment currently held back, potentially driving a mini-boom. The Brexit Party would gripe but would look like also-rans at this point – perhaps for an election scheduled for (say) spring next year. Broadly, this is where leading Tory Brexiteers have ended up: get the deal done, and then focus on the specifics – for example, removing those parts of the Outline Political Declaration that are barrier to trade deals with the US.
So yes, Johnson, his advisors, his Cabinet, and British capitalism at large absolutely want a deal. It is an error to believe otherwise. Legally, an exit deal would presently require a vote in Parliament to ratify it – perhaps as last minute as is needed, under heavy threat of a No Deal Brexit. But Johnson also wants to hold together the Tory Party. If he cannot win concessions on the current deal, specifically around the Northern Ireland backstop – hated and resented by the Democratic Unionist Party propping his government up, loathed by a section of the ERG – he will be left with nothing to dissuade his own support on the ground from demanding No Deal, and voting accordingly. And Johnson, unlike May, is clearly prepared to drive into and beyond No Deal as the price of maintaining the continued existence of the Tory Party.
These two preferences currently represent a tremendous double-bind for the government. The only routes to shatter them are either a second referendum, and claim a mandate; or a snap general election, to actually win a Parliamentary mandate. A second referendum is wildly unlikely, and a general election, for all the bluster, not greatly preferred. The Tories still don’t quite understand what happened in June 2017, and we should never underestimate just how fearful they are of its repetition. Polls count for little against the existential dread Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour (rightly) causes them. (We should be paying conventional opinion polls little attention, too.) However, under Johnson, the Tory leadership have at least learned one lesson: that whilst Theresa May had absolutely the correct strategy for the Conservatives, pushing the Tories to their biggest share of the vote since 1983, its delivery was no match for an insurgent Labour Party. It’s no good talking about “burning injustices” and “ending austerity”: these things have to be delivered on.
Johnson and Cummings grasp this; whilst “burning injustices” aren’t exactly top of their concerns, they are determined to rinse some more funding for carefully-targeted Tory priorities. If they can frame an election as insurgents versus the elite, or people versus the Establishment, and back that up with policy, they are in with a shout of winning. (This is, for example, why the symbolism of rejecting HS2 is so important to them; they have to look like they are making a real, material break with the past.) And for as long as their opposition looks like they are the elite or the Establishment, they will believe they can win. For as long as their opposition looks like the Lib Dems or Alastair Campbell, they can win. If they can close the space in which Labour can define the opposition, they can win. And that, in this case, means literally closing down the space for debate and Parliamentary opposition. If they are in a bind, they want to make sure we are, too.
The only way to break out of the game being set up for us is to refuse to play it. We have to write our own rules. There is no other choice here: maintaining what we do at the level of Parliamentary politics alone will only play into Johnson’s hands. It is indeed a “democratic outrage” that Parliament has been prorogued to prevent debate ahead of Brexit. In our grossly imperfect system, Parliament is the closest we have to a functioning, national and representative democracy. This matters. But if what we are arguing for is phrased only as a defence of Parliament, we will be playing Johnson’s game. Likewise if what we do is conducted in terms solely of “stopping Brexit”. Because, the government will ask: Defence of Parliament for what purpose? Why, they will say, this is simply so that the MPs can frustrate the veritable will of the people, who voted for Brexit: the same MPs, in fact, who have imposed austerity, let the financial crisis happen, buried their noses deep in the trough during the expenses scandal. How brave – they will argue – for Johnson to stand up to these forces of elitism! How necessary his actions – difficult though they were – against these loudmouth metropolitans, these citizens of nowhere!
That is how we will lose. To win, all of us who oppose Johnson need to understand the deep roots of this political and constitutional crisis, and they are sunk deep into the same earth that produced the Brexit vote and Labour’s 2017 insurgency. One branch stretches backwards: nine years of austerity on top of forty years of neoliberalism have ripped the guts and the soul out of much of this country. One branch reaches forwards: we are manifestly ruled by an elite that has no solutions to the succession of social and environmental crises we now face, and who offer no plausible hope for a better future.
To oppose and defeat Johnson means placing this deep crisis of British society at the centre of what we’re saying: we oppose Johnson because he plans to destroy what is left of the public realm, whether through cuts or ripping apart basic economic and social protections via a US trade deal; and he has little to nothing to say about the future we will face, and its challenges. The cause should not be to defend Parliament, but to demand democracy: not linking arms around the sinking edifice of the Palace of Westminster – the symbolism is wasted – but protesting in every town and city. We are against the elite of this country; we are not for the same shower who led us into this mess. We are not for Parliament as it currently stands; we are for democracy and justice in every part of our country: an end to cuts, for investment. Tax the rich, rebuild the country. For genuine, representative democracy to decide how the wealth of this country is used: nationally and locally. Democracy and economic justice march together, because democracy is what is needed to secure justice. The Chartists, the first great working class struggle for the vote, understood this 170 years ago. “This question of Universal Suffrage is a knife-and-fork question. It is a bread-and-cheese question,” as leading Chartist Joseph Rayner Stephens put it. As Laurie Mafarlane persuasively argues, that fight has been long-delayed but is now back with a vengeance. The left must present its own answers, from removing the House of Lords to radical decentralisation of power and control – of the state, of the giant corporations.
Boris Johnson, elected by a tiny minority, leading a government with no plausible mandate, is the living and breathing epitome of the elite we oppose: a man who would happily turn this country into a virtual colony of the US; a man who was part of the government that oversaw nine crippling years of austerity for the bankers, and who – still! – brags about defending those bankers. The immediate alternative is clear: a general election, and elect a Jeremy Corbyn-led government to undo the damage of decades, and clear a path to the future.
Get on the streets. Close the workplaces. Demand an election. Demand democracy. Boris Johnson can and will be beaten.
James Meadway is a columnist for Novara Media. He was formerly economics advisor to John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor.