Brexit journalism has become sourceless journalism. In this post, Denis MacShane outlines a mid-summer report on where we are in the Brexit process, amid prolific yet vacuous reporting on the issue. In his view, Brexit won’t happen this year. We can expect to see the UK still in the EU at the end of the year under Prime Minister Johnson, he concludes.
With a week to go before ballot papers arrive in the homes of Conservative Party members (average age 71) to decide the next Prime Minister and with more than three months gone since the UK was meant to have left the EU (29 March 2019) there are less and less solid facts to report. Journalists have to file “reports” every day and the think-tanks and consultancies which claim to have the inside track of what Brussels or UK ministers are thinking have to keep producing daily reports. But they are like the high priests in Rome 2000 years ago examining and re-examining the insides of the same chicken every day to tell us what the future will bring.
Brexit journalism has become sourceless journalism. It is not so much fake news but news that no-one can tell whether it is fake or factual because fewer and fewer journalists and think-tankers or policy consultant are able to provide any sources for their assertions. There were two examples of this recently. The Times reported that top civil servants were of the view that Jeremy Corbyn was too “frail” or “tired” and unable to concentrate on the endless detail of negotiating with Brussels. The picture was painted of a semi-senile leader of the Opposition, controlled by an inner clique of pro-Brexit associates. The Mail on Sunday went a stage further and said Corbyn had suffered some kind of stroke three months ago which was covered up but which left him weak and unfocused.
In neither of these front-page stories was there a single source or individual quoted. Corbyn turned 70 at the end of May but seems healthy enough. He takes much vigorous exercise – running, biking and energetic gardening. He is a vegetarian who doesn’t smoke. He enjoyed a drink in past years but now is teetotal. But Brexit journalism is post-fact-checking. The points below are a mid-summer report on where we are. They are based on many conversations with friends in politics and government but as with Brexit itself, the only certain point is permanent, enduring uncertainty.
Boris Johnson will win. Like Trump, he is close to the beating heart of the Tory Party membership. He has been stroking them, joking with them, saying they are right for 25 years. Jeremy Hunt, his rival, is to Johnson what Nathalie Loiseau is to a Nicolas Sarkozy or a Matteo Salvini. Hunt is a pure technocrat who was pro-EU until the day before yesterday. The Johnson scandals come along but like the Trump scandals are blown away. One little known fact is that Tory Party members tend to vote almost as soon as they receive their ballot papers which to chose the new prime minister will arrive 6-8 July. Any twists and turns in the Johnson-Hunt contest that happen after say 10th July will be irrelevant. The ballot papers will have been sent. So well before the result in announced – 23 July – most Conservative Party members will have voted and they will vote for Johnson.
There is no sense of any urgency immediately upon his election and becoming PM. The House of Commons goes on holiday on 25 July and returns to hold two week-long sessions at the beginning of September. The Commons is then suspended again until the first full week of October in order to allow time for party congresses to take place, first the LibDems, then Labour, and finally the Conservatives. In this period and also once the European political vacation period is over, Johnson can make statements and perhaps ask for bilateral talks. Johnson will become Prime Minister as an ardent Brexiter – the Robespierre of the Brexit. At least until after the Conservative Party conference (29/9-2/10) PM Johnson will have to talk a lot about completing Brexit. But once the excitement of the internal Tory Party politics of Brexit dies away Johnson will have to work out how to govern without a majority and with a nervous, confused, divided nation and an extremely edgy business community. Johnson will have to re-centre. He is a man of no-fixed beliefs other than self-belief. To enter No 10 he has to win the Tory party in the country. To govern he has to win the Tory party in Parliament. And the Tory Party in Parliament just wishes Brexit to go away. As one popular, middle of the road, ex-army officer, now Tory MP, put it to me: “I am Eurosceptic. I voted Leave. I believe in Brexit. But it has brought the country and the party to the edge of disaster. To be honest, if I woke up tomorrow and heard on the BBC that Brexit had been called off no-one would be happier.”
The basic Commons arithmetic that defeated and ultimately brought down Theresa May has not changed. There is not a majority in the Commons for a No Deal crash out. There are fatuous arguments about whether PM Johnson can just ignore the Commons or use Prime Ministerial executive authority to suspend the Commons. These make good columns in the press but few MPs believe the British constitutional arrangements allow such high-handed autocratic behaviour. I cannot see Johnson risking a No Deal crash out as there is no majority in the Commons for that.
Nor do I see him dissolving Parliament to hold a new election. I talk to friends who are MPs in all parties and none of them want an early election which could end their life as MPs. The first day of such an election might be on Brexit but the next 30 days would be on the poor state of the economy, the debauched pound sterling, businesses leaving or not investing in the UK, the sad state of health care, council cuts to old-age care, rising debt and corroded public finances, the lack of police on the streets, trade wars with China, the rise of hate crime including Islamaphobia where the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid has called for a full investigation into anti-Muslim prejudice in the Conservative Party and social policy issues as well as climate change, supporting Trump’s foreign policy adventures, and dealing with Iran, Israel, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
On most of these issues, Corbyn is on stronger ground. The Tory newspapers try and present as a mad Marxist, with a dagger between his teeth, out to turn England into North Korea or Venezuela. Most voters see a white-haired politely spoken elderly man who preaches about unfairness, inequality and a lack of social justice. After nine years in government, the Conservatives are not strongly placed even if Labour lacks a convincing alternative policy and is wracked by accusations of anti-semitism in the press. There are 270,00 Jews in the UK. Few will vote Labour. There are 3.3 million Muslims in Britain and few will vote for PM Johnson with his record of casual, flippant, Trump-like offensive remarks about Muslim women. Given Labour’s failure to regain seats lost to the SNP in Scotland it is hard to see where a to full working majority of seats for a Labour government can come from. However, most MPs, Tory and Labour privately reckon that Labour will be the biggest party and will cobble together a shaky government on the basis of arrangements with other parties. On Brexit all Corbyn has to do is say he will negotiate a better deal with Brussels and then submit it to a referendum. Voters love being offered referendums. Johnson cannot make that offer as his support to become PM is based on the ardent desire for a full amputational Brexit. Scotland will vote SNP not Tory and all the independent MPs will not want to vote to end their lives as MPs. Therefore a re-run of the 2017 general election is unlikely under Prime Minister Johnson.
In consequence, Johnson will have little choice other than to ask for time. Like Trump’s wall with Mexico, Brexit will happen but not yet. Today, to get elected he has to bluster, as does Jeremy Hunt, that Brexit will happen on 31 October. But today’s nationalist populists, and in British terms that includes Johnson and Hunt, are also expert at proclaiming deadlines and drama but not actually being risk-takers. President Trump, the man Boris Johnson speaks of his new best friend tweets or does press conferences about bringing down fire and fury on the heads of trade rivals, or China or North Korea, or Iran, but Trump is actually very cautious and prudent in terms of military adventurism that can cost US lives. He retreats from hardline trade positions on Mexico, or EU and most recently China. His policy is to speak loudly but carry a small stick. We can expect much noise from PM Johnson but in reality he will not want to jeopardize his premiership in the early period with an all-out confrontation with business in the UK, with UK partners worldwide, or with the broad mass of Tory Party voters (as distinct from Tory Party members) who like most in the UK have lost of their zeal and enthusiasm for Brexit and wish it could be quietly parked somewhere while solutions were found.
So this leaves the EU in a strong position as the UK is the perpetual demandeur. Right now the only focus in the EU is filling the top jobs to run EU institutions and perhaps shaping up some new policy. From October onwards, some decisions will have to be taken. The Commission has just announced it will give Italy until January to sort out its debt problem. Last week, in the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, a majority of delegates voted to re-admit the Russians following their withdrawal after the Council of Europe strongly criticised Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea and the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner. The mood across Europe is not for hard confrontation. Voters in EU elections have beaten back the claims by Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, Nigel Farage, the AfD, Geert Wilders, the FPÖ etc that the hard nationalist right would take over Europe.
The European Commission has been firm with Switzerland over Berne’s foot-dragging on agreeing a framework agreement on open commerce between the EU and Switzerland. This is in parallel to the endlessly repeated statements by EU27 ministers as well as Brussels officials that there is no question of re-opening the draft mini-treaty called the Withdrawal Agreement to appease the extreme Ulster Unionist wing of the Conservative Party as well as DUP MPs. But the EU is hardly likely to refuse any demand from a new Prime Minister for more time to discuss how best to bring about an orderly Brexit. As Amélie de Montchalin, France’s Europe minister, noted in Paris last week no EU member state and certainly not France is seeking to push Britain out. There would have to be some political process inside the UK to justify a further prolongation of the UK’s EU membership but wordsmiths in London and Brussels should have no difficulties producing the appropriate formulae.
Therefore we can expect to see the UK still in the EU at the end of the year under Prime Minister Johnson. As St Augustine was trying to find the courage to give up his life of wine, women and fun in order to dedicate himself body and soul to the single-minded purity of contemplating the meaning of God he wrote in his Confessions that he appealed to the Almighty thus: “Oh, Lord, make me chaste and celibate – but not yet!”. We can expect Prime Minister Johnson to put off his moment of full Brexit chastity and celibacy as he explains to the British people that he remains fully committed to leaving Europe but not quite yet. This situation is unsatisfactory and means continuing uncertainty over investment, the pound sterling, jobs and trade. But it is better than the alternative.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image by @RochDW.
Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe. His book Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe, written in 2014 and published by IB Tauris predicted the outcome of the Brexit Referendum. He writes and is a consultant on European politics and policy. His new book Brexeternity. The Uncertain Fate of Britain will be published in September by IB Tauris/Bloomsbury.