Golly, crikey, I- I- I-, phwoar! With his blue suit now sharply pressed, and his natural blond hair neatly bob-cut Prime Minister Boris Johnson has hit the bloody ground puffing and grunting, what. I- I- I-, crikey, phwoar.
The would-be great man hasn’t wasted any time in setting out a new course. The day after his election by the Tory party and appointment by the Queen saw the night of the long fish knives, with remnant pro-remain Tories and insufficiently enthusiastic leavers ejected from cabinet.
Leadership rival Jeremy Hunt was offered a demotion and refused. Pro-leave, but anti-no-deal organiser Steve Baker was sacked. In came leavers and fixers galore, such as Priti Patel and Sajid Javid. In his staff Boris has Dominic Cummings, the architect of the most duplicitous parts of the leave campaign, and his former adviser from the mayor’s office, ex-Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) activist Munira Mirza. (With former key RCP player Clare Fox now de facto running the Brexit Party, the long march continues.)
The strongly pro-leave rightward move surprised all those who hadn’t been paying attention, and believed the stray guff about Boris bringing the party together. Boris’ elevation brought an endorsement from President Trump with the usual surreally wrong take — “… I think we can do three to four or five times [the trade] we’re doing,” Trump said of the country with lower productivity, higher costs and no goods to sell — and a chance to demolish Jeremy Corbyn on the last PM’s questions before the summer recess.
Jez must have known it was coming and spent most of PMQs tapping on his phone. Boris attacked him as an anti-EU leaver, taken over by remainers, citing Invasion of the Body Snatchers — pop-culture references in Churchillian cadences are something I suspect we’ll have to get used to. The burst of blustering optimism from the dispatch box — this is can-do Britain, etc — was, it must be said, something of a relief to hear after May’s years of robotic, on-message, successive downgrading of expectation — 1970s “my government is committed to three inches of bathwater during the four hours a day when power is available” style.
Then it was up north to Manchester to promise several billion pounds for northern infrastructure, including a high-speed rail line between that city and Leeds. Once again, it was hard to argue with. That line should have been built before the never-never London-Birmingham-Manchester HS2 line. Manchester Labour Mayor Andy Burnham was quick to lend his support (his support to being Labour PM in 202x, when Corbyn is gone and Boris has stuffed it all up).
The publicity that a PM can get for such props must be driving Labour mad. On the other hand, Labour could do with a bit more retail politics and specific proposals.
The northern rail proposal, were it to happen under Boris, would be a privatised boondoggle, but it indicates the reopening of domestic policy. Boris now has the luxury of running against the austerity he was an enthusiastic proponent of and stealing Labour’s comfortable, allotment-appropriate clothes. It doesn’t leave a lot of target area, even for an opposition that wasn’t riven by internal division and sabotage.
The move has been reflected in the polls, with the Tories jumping back into the lead at 30%, with Labour at 28%, and the Lib-Dems and Brexit Party at around 15% or 16% apiece. That four-way split in England and a different four-way set in Scotland — plus minor parties grabbing 8-10% on the remainder — would give a huge incentive to the two big parties to make a deal first.
Pretty easy for the Tories to do a deal with the Brexiteers; tougher for Labour to sell a pact with the Lib-Dems to their members. Despite the election of a new generation leader, Jo Swinson, and a ruling-off of the Nick Clegg era, the danger would be that a pact would be unenforcable. Labour members would refuse to run dead in southern constituencies, and the whole pact would fall apart.
A greater danger for Labour might be that the pact would work. It would have to be a pro-remain alliance, giving the Lib-Dems dozens of southern seats, while Labour could lose its northern pro-leave seats to the Brexit Party, or even Boris. UKIP, before it went mad, was developing a distinct northern version of the party, essentially made up of old Labour, both right and anti-EU Bennite leftists. If Farage is now genuinely sharing power in this new outfit, that process might come to fruition.
What matters crucially is not the who but the when. The paradoxical situation is that PM Boris might benefit from a general election pre-October 31 deadline — a referendum refought — but cannot call it. Labour can trigger it, but might benefit from a post no-deal election if there has been a disaster and the public has tired of Boris’ bluster. But once a no-deal has occurred, the Tory Party would regroup and the right could hang on to 2022 and spend big when it gets there.
And it’s all more complicated than that. Some are playing draughts; some three-dimensional chess, but with a hammer. Crikey, golly, phwoar!