Richard North, 25/10/2019  

Rather than turn back to the classics, perhaps Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson should develop a taste for Lewis Carroll. Particularly helpful at this juncture would be The Mock Turtle's Song, where Johnson could be the whiting to Corbyn's snail.

"Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the dance?" said a whiting to a snail. But the snail replied, "Too far, too far!" and would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance.

Although dredged up from 1865 when Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) wrote Alice in Wonderland, it more than adequately sums up yesterday's proceedings.

These were dominated by Johnson trying to entice the leader of the opposition into giving him a general election in exchange for ratifying his deal by 6 November. By this simple expedient, he would enable the UK to leave the EU by the end of November (at the latest, once the European Parliament had done its stuff) and help the Tories win a general election set for 12 December.

Unsurprisingly, as Denis Staunton, London Editor of the Irish Times observed, Johnson's offer was already a dead letter minutes after he made it. Other newspapers have piled in with similar observations, with a slightly more diffident Guardian confining itself to saying that Labour is merely "poised" to block Johnson's bid for a general election.

Corbyn wasn't the only one to see through the prime minister in office. If it wasn't for the fact that he was cloaked in bandages done up with flesh paint, with the eye and mouth artfully dubbed in, Johnson could have made a fairly convincing stand-in for the invisible man, so transparent was he.

SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, certainly had him sussed, declaring: "So Johnson appears to be saying to MPs 'if you vote for an election, I'll bring back my bad Brexit Bill and try to drag us out of the EU before we go to the polls'". Warming to her theme, she added: "Elections should be exercises in letting voters decide, not devices for charlatans to get their own way".

Faithfully recorded by Staunton, he also noted the responses of Plaid Cymru and the Greens, which quickly followed suit and then of the Lib-Dems, whence little Jo shrieked that her party was "not in the business of bailing out Boris Johnson". It is so good to know that the party actually stands for something. Enthusiasm for the prospect of a Christmas election cannot be said to be overwhelming.

Mind you, one does wonder whether the reluctance of the MPs to endorse a general election reflects their concern about a recent survey carried out by academics at Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh. They found that a majority of voters on both sides of the Brexit debate said violence against MPs is a "price worth paying" in order to get the particular resolution they favour.

A general election is the one time when all the candidates have to take to the streets and meet the public for whom they have such contempt. It comes as a constant shock to find that the contempt is reciprocated, but when the threat of violence is added to the mix, they may find themselves needing police escorts just to go canvassing.

Yet, for all this, the innocent victims of the current debacle are, of course, the leaders of the EU-27, who comprise the European Council. Apart from the fact that they are almost certainly not innocent – and it would be difficult to convince anyone that they were victims – they have the difficult job of deciding whether to give the UK an Art 50 extension, and the conditions (if any) which should apply.

Originally, the European Council had intended to agree this third extension specifically for the purpose of allowing the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, but now Johnson is once again playing silly buggers, threatening to pull the agreement entirely if he doesn't get his way.

He already threatened pulling the Bill if his timetable motion was not passed – but that came to nothing. With Johnson, though, you never can tell, so the "colleagues" are stuck with the quandary of deciding just what the extension will be for.

Before Johnson's bombshell, it had been planned to hand down a decision today, but the draft Decision document now leaves the date blank. It may now be Monday before a decision is made, when the Council has a better idea of what the UK government intends to do – or not.

Reservations about giving the UK a carte blanche seem mainly to be coming from the French. Its Europe minister, Amélie de Montchalin, was speaking on French radio yesterday (where else?), expressing reluctance to give more time, unless there was "concrete action" in place.

The continentals do love their "concrete" but, roughly translated, this means that Johnson must provide "clear, precise, organised reasons" for an extension. There is a first time for everything, I suppose, but unless he can step up to the plate, the French government is of the view that simply giving more time would be useless.

The situation isn't entirely hopeless, though, as Corbyn – despite his reluctance to be enticed – has not entirely closed the door on Johnson's hopes of an early election. Although he is apparently under massive pressure from his own party, he is refusing to take a final decision, waiting to see which way the European Council will jump.

In this, something of a chicken-and-egg situation seems to be developing. The European Council is waiting to see whether there will be a general election before it decides on the extension, while Corbyn wants to know what the Council decides before he makes his mind up about an election.

Meanwhile, Johnson is probably aware that the arithmetic is against him. To get his election, he needs 434 votes and currently, according to some pundits, looks to be 120 short. He will have the weekend to drum up more support, but even the extra time could work against him as he proves to be third time unlucky.

That has not stopped him applying pressure of his own, threatening to go on what amounts to a "strike", refusing to submit any government business to parliament and retreating to his Downing Street bunker where he will stamp his feet and scweam and scweam until he get his way – unless, of course, he delegates this to the "Second" Cummings.

This has had the effect of making the sophisticated French actually sound naïve. "We need clarity", bleats Amélie de Montchalin. "If there's a clear scenario that will change things, for example a ratification or elections – not just suggested but organised – then we can take decisions. But we ask Britain for facts – we're not in fictional politics, we need facts to make decisions".

Ultimately, these are logical requests but logic has not graced British politics for some time now. Chaos is the new normal – although, given the activities of the gilets jaunes, the French should be used to it by now.

They will not, however, get any comfort from Staunton. He sees Johnson's election offer as a gambit designed to help to throw up a smokescreen to divert attention from his failure to meet the October 31st deadline. In his view, after MPs reject his general election motion on Monday, Johnson will be back where he started – as an impatient prime minister at the mercy of a parliament that is in no hurry to do his bidding.

This then presents an extraordinary situation – a lame duck prime minister unable to implement any of his measures, yet unable to apply the relief of a general election to end the torture. Could David Cameron even have begun to realise what the unintended consequences might be when he took the FTPA through parliament.

For the moment, though, Brexit is looking as far away as ever. The 31 October "do or die" deadline is long gone – as even the dullest of journalists are now prepared to admit – and a November date is little more than a convenient fiction to keep hopes alive. But, says Johnson, in a letter to Corbyn (continued here and here), "It is our duty to end this nightmare and provide the country with a solution as soon as we reasonably can".

And so said a whiting to a snail, "Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the dance?"

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