Writing on behalf of the editorial board, Conter Editor David Jamieson argues that new Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s position is weak, and that his leadership is only likely to cleave splits in the ruling elite still wider. The left should dismiss elite framings of a ‘national crisis‘ and exploit these divisions.
Immediately upon assuming office, Boris Johnson will dive into the worst UK constitutional crisis in living memory. Panic over the reactionary nature of his politics must give way to a sober analysis of his weak and precarious position.
Contrary to his famous bluster, he does not have any new radical plan to resolve the Brexit impasse. Instead he faces all the same obstacles Theresa May did, and at least two more.
Spurred by the success of the Brexit Party in the European elections, and the humiliating failure of May’s compromise approach, he is under greater pressure from the Tory base and a section of MPs to finally resolve Brexit – something he has compared to an “incubus” feeding on the life energy of British society – through a final break in October.
This will bring him into direct conflict with the largest factions of the capitalist elite, which the Conservative Party has dutifully served since long before Britain was a formal democracy. There have been strategic differences between the capitalist class and the Tory base before, but never on this scale. One need only read the business press to see that a full scale mobilisation is underway to stop any hard or ‘no deal’ exit, which extends into the House of Commons where a solid cross-party bloc has voted to make that prospect more difficult still.
In the civil service, too, opposition is mounting. Johnson acquiesced to the resignation of former US ambassador Kim Darroch, who had criticised Donald’s Trump’s administration, to send a clear message, that he would accept no obstruction to his plans. Simon McDonald, a senior figure in the Foreign Office told MPs: “The basis on which we have worked all our careers suddenly feels as if it is challenged.” He further warned that worsening conflict was possible between civil servants and the incoming Johnson administration.
What Johnson therefore represents is the cleaving of the divisions in the Tory bloc even wider. The crisis is reaching its climax.
The second problem Johnson faces that May did not is his own personality, history and the long trail of enemies his sordid climb to the top has created. Johnson is thought to be an incredibly divisive figure in elite circles, and downright hated by some influential actors. This has been true of other PMs, but they were not seeking to navigate the worst falling out at governance level in generations. He is also, according to many who know him, a weak, indecisive and unreliable leader – no matter how personally ambitious. His bizarre performance during the leadership campaign, and the fact that his handlers did not want to expose him to the media or the public, speak to the truth of that assessment.
Completing the picture of a ruling bloc struggling to maintain any cohesion, numerous senior Tory figures, including the current Chancellor, are refusing to serve in his government.
It is possible Johnson will have to submit to a general election in order to overcome the Brexit “incubus”. Certainly, whatever momentum he gathers in his early weeks as Prime Minister will wither the closer he comes to the October Brexit deadline. Both an early election, and the prospect of working towards the October deadline are therefore sources of terror to the Tory party and wider elite.
One of the only items of this crisis Johnson has going for him, is the mood of paralysis that has descended over large sections of progressive opinion. This is a situation partly fostered by a vocal element of the ruling elite, which has asserted that no political action besides finding a way of stopping Brexit is acceptable, and have suppressed class politics by that argument.
The broad left should attack this government from the first day. It should do so by insisting on a general election before any Brexit. A precedent is quietly being established, first through May and now Johnson, that it is acceptable for the PM, the entire government personnel, and of course the entire programme and policy of government to change wholesale without there being an election. Throughout the sham Tory leadership campaign much of the media acquiesced to Johnson’s refusal to outline his plans. The official campaign for a second referendum is paralysed by internal faction fights, but is clearly hostile to the idea of a Corbyn government.
Any protest of any scale against this debilitating malaise is welcome, including demonstrations in London and Dundee this week. There must also be a rejection of the rhetoric of ‘national crisis’ that means other matters, from the continuing plans to re-organise British capitalism – the movement from austerity to the transformation of social services, health and social care - to the new escalations in the Gulf and Iran, are to be ignored.
The general crisis reaches into Scottish politics in particular forms. It naturally challenges the nature and value of devolved government in Scotland, and its relationship to the wider democratic dysfunction across the UK. It forces a final decision on a Scottish Government which has sought to ride simultaneously on the divergent tactics of a further bid for Scottish independence and a salvation of the UK in stopping Brexit.
The fact that the Scottish Conservatives are fully on board with the Johnson leadership will surprise only media sycophants who have fantasised that Scottish Conservatism represents a liberal or enlightened strain. With a government majority of just three, they are directly implicated in the chaos which will now occur.
A crisis of this kind, that splits the ruling elite at precisely the time they seek to make far reaching adjustments to the wider social and economic order of society is rare and is only likely to be viewed in coming years as a turning point. A radical challenge must emerge from outside of elite circles to break the cultivated political aphasia, and bring all social and economic questions into play.
Pictures: Chatham House