Boris Johnson needs to come clean over Brexit
In the next three weeks the prime minister may resign in a crisis that has no parallel in modern history. Yet oddly, whether this happens or not may be the least of his worries. As Boris Johnson rises today to give his party conference speech he should reflect that it isn’t what he does next that will determine his political future. It is how it lands in the minds of voters.
This week the last volume of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher is published. It contains a touching portrait of the former prime minister in retirement reading her six-year-old granddaughter a bedtime story and following it with an explanation of the Falklands war.
The child was perplexed but remembers the moment with great delight. These two competing reactions capture the war quite well. The Falklands were far away, there were only a handful of people living there and, before they were invaded, few British people knew much or indeed anything about the islands. Even high Tories thought they could be ceded. Yet Mrs Thatcher’s decision that the Argentine invasion must not stand and the successful campaign to restore British sovereignty made her reputation and became the story she told her grandchildren. If she had failed she might well have had to resign.
In an earlier volume of the biography Mr Moore shows that during the conflict there were wobbles and moments when she contemplated significant concessions. But the crisis instead came to be seen, correctly, as one in which she showed courage and strength. In doing so she demonstrated that the country, which had felt itself in decline, still had the will and the means to assert itself.
The Falklands transformed her image from that of a rather brittle, stubborn and inexperienced leader into someone who was widely thought strong and capable. This influenced public opinion about everything she did. “I might not always like her,” people would say, “but you’ve got to give her this, she knows what she’s for and you know where you are with her.”
The characteristic of being strong and consistent is admired in political leaders out of all proportion to its actual value. As Archie Brown argues in his book The Myth of the Strong Leader, there are many characteristics more valuable than strength, and collective, consultative and flexible leadership is often superior. Yet he admits: “No one ever says, ‘What we need is a weak leader’.”
Jeremy Corbyn is as good an example as Margaret Thatcher of the importance of being perceived as strong. When he was elected, many critics thought his biggest problem would be his decades of political radicalism, far outside the political mainstream. Yet it turns out that when Mr Corbyn is accused of never having changed his mind in 40 years, it makes him seem more attractive. He is consistent. “Say what you like about him but he knows what he’s for.” His problem is the opposite; that he has, over Brexit in particular, looked dithery and indecisive. While his flexibility has been tactically quite impressive and could be seen as cunning and adept it has, instead, landed as weak.
So to Mr Johnson and the speech, and the month, ahead of him. He needs, above all, to look strong, consistent and in command. For his political reputation and success, that is. I would prefer it if he were wise but I fear we passed that point a long time ago. He has an electoral strategy (an appeal to the Leave vote), he has a conference slogan that summarises his offer (Get Brexit done), he has set a test of his success (we will leave on October 31) and he has made a promise that he will be judged by (he would rather be dead in a ditch than seek an extension to our membership). Now he has to show himself true to all these things.
The problem is that while he must look in control and be seen to be shaping events, he is not, in fact, in control. He does not have a parliamentary majority, he can’t force the EU to deliver the deal he wants, he is subject to a law requiring him to extend Article 50 and a prime minister doesn’t, thankfully, control the courts.
So in the next few weeks, he has limited options. He can bring back a deal that falls short of all he wanted and try to persuade parliament to back it; he can refuse to seek an extension and take it to the courts where he will almost certainly lose; he can seek the extension he promised not to; or he can resign. Resigning means letting Mr Corbyn seek the extension as prime minister, bringing him down immediately in a confidence vote and then Mr Johnson fighting an election as the man who refused to implement a policy he thought wrong.
What matters politically about each of these options (and I emphasise politically, for they vary enormously in their impact on the national interest) is how they land. Is Mr Johnson seen as weak, backing down, giving in, promising death in a ditch but not dying in it? Or is he seen as strong, determined, ready to risk anything for his principles? And any of these policies may lead him to be seen in either way.
Except, perhaps, for seeking the extension himself. If he does this, it is hard to see how he would not be seen just as a flop. But if he powered on and was stopped by the court? He could be seen by the voters he seeks to woo as gritty and thwarted only by Remainer judges, or as foolish and incompetent and in breach of his promise.
If he brings back a deal from Brussels it may be hailed as a diplomatic coup or a meek surrender of his position on the backstop.
And if he resigns? This is, after all, a real option which one senior cabinet minister told me he was sure Mr Johnson would prefer to seeking an extension himself. It could be seen as principled and courageous, showing integrity and resolve. But equally it could land as chaotic defeat, allowing Mr Corbyn office and prestige. It could seem like Mr Johnson had lost control because, of course, he would have done
All of No 10’s efforts so far have gone into looking enigmatic, teasing the rest of us that we may lack the perception to have worked out the clever ruse they plan. But today, at his conference, Mr Johnson would do better to be more open and let us know more of his plan, so that when events force him to take his next step it looks as though he always knew what he was doing.