EU Referendum

Politics: fin de siècle?


From being a tedious interlude, "Partygate" is building in energy: one party has become three, with an added quiz. And the details on the original party that are emerging do not look good. The Times is telling us that it was planned three weeks in advance with invitations sent to officials and political advisers on WhatsApp.

ITV News is saying that Jack Doyle, the prime minister's communications director, gave a speech at the event and handed out awards. Spontaneous it was not. The BBC says that there were as many as 30 people present from the press team, and wonders whether Doyle can keep his job.

On top of that, "wallpapergate" is making an unwelcome (for Johnson) repeat appearance after the Tory Party has been fined nearly £18,000 for improperly declaring donations towards the refurb of Number 11.

Particularly damning, though, is the report by Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ministers' interests, which records Johnson claiming that he "knew nothing" about payments for the refurbishments until immediately prior to media reports in February 2021.

However, it now turns out that three months before he claimed he had first found out about how the payments were being made, Johnson was in fact asking the Tory donor - who was setting up a blind trust - for more cash to pay for the refurbishment.

This has the Mirror running a front-page banner headline, "Another day … another lie", while the Telegraph's front page has Lord Geidt "on the brink of quitting", in protest at being misled.

What adds to the energy is the prospect of a backbencher rebellion when the Covid OMG v.3.0 "Plan B" is put to the House next Tuesday. Some papers like the Guardian are suggesting that 30 Tories might vote against their own government, while the Mail puts the number at 50. According to The Times, some Tory MPs think that the number of rebels could be closer to 100.

Whether the rebellion materialises is impossible to predict but the very fact that it is being mooted itself makes a statement. Furthermore, it comes on top of a YouGov poll which puts Labour at 37 percent against the Tories' 33 percent. This gives the opposition a four point lead, its biggest since January when the country was in the middle of the winter lockdown.

This result is backed up by a Survation poll published by the Mirror, which has Labour "soaring" to 40 percent and the Tories slumping to 34 percent – a six-point lead. Says the Mirror, this is the highest poll lead for Starmer since Johnson took power.

The real political energy, though, comes from that small event in North Shropshire next Thursday – the by-election for Owen Paterson's replacement. And with the Lib-Dems making a strong pitch, there is an outside chance that they could win the seat.

Should that happen, it could transform that small event into the perfect political storm. It would signal the beginning of the end for Johnson, the tangible proof that he is no longer a winner.

There is a major imponderable in that scenario though. For the Tories to lose one of the safest seats in the country, one they have held for 200 years, would be nothing short of a political earthquake. But, despite the hype and the fond-hopes of the Lib-Dems, it remains an outside chance.

Whatever the outcome, the election should be the last major domestic political event of the year. If the Tories keep the seat, it will buy time for Johnson. He will have the whole of Christmas in which to consider his next moves, while taking "family time" after the birth of his latest child – the seventh that we know of.

On the other hand, of the Tories do lose the seat, there is probably very little he will be able to do to save himself. Doubtless, the men in suits will be using the holiday to plot his replacement. If that isn't immediate, it could only be a matter of time before potential successors are ready.

Tory MPs, The Times says, are speculating that more letters of no confidence in the prime minister are already being submitted to Sir Graham Brady, leader of the backbench 1922 Committee.

However, even if one of his friends in the Telegraph thinks that Johnson's position is already irrecoverable, the view is that there is little chance of him being forced out immediately.

This is articulated by an anonymous minister who says that Johnson will remain in post by default because there is no challenger around whom his critics could coalesce. "It's a series of unforced errors", The Times has the minister say. "People’s inboxes are glowing white-hot. Because nobody is there to challenge him he's effectively there by default.

Whatever might transpire, though, it will be a distraction, and a dangerous one. Given the events stacking up elsewhere, the very last thing this country needs is a lame-duck prime minister who will combine political impotence with his own brand of incompetence.

The distraction point is made by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who observes that "there has never been a more unsettling strategic landscape" in his lifetime. It is time, he thinks, for us to turn our attention to the prospect of conflict.

Ambrose doesn't mince his words, arguing that the world is at the most dangerous strategic juncture since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. He points to escalating threats on three fronts: Russia's mobilisation of a strike force on Ukraine's border; China's "dress rehearsal" for an attack on Taiwan; and Iran’s nuclear brinkmanship.

On Ukraine, though, Tass conveys a statement by Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov, to the effect that Moscow "will thwart any provocations by Kiev in Donbass",

But it then adds a commentary by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, who says that this poses no threat to Ukraine. "I would not like to interpret the signals of our military representatives, high-placed commanders. Each perceives this signal in his own way and correctly, I hope. There is no element of a threat".

Earlier, Gerasimov had claimed that the hype spread by the media about Russia allegedly bracing for an invasion of Ukraine was "a lie", while military activity on Russia’s own soil requires no notifications. So there were are then – as long as Ukraine doesn't "provoke" Russia, there's no problem.

However, on the teensy-weensy chance that the Russians might just be implementing their classic maskirovka doctrine, Ambrose is right to be unnerved – we could be in for a surprise over Christmas or the New Year.

This could be more so if the Israelis launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran, and there is absolutely no way of knowing what the Chinese might get up to. But there is a possibility that all three hotspots could erupt at the same time, "linked by unknown levels of collusion".

Certainly, any one of the three – to say nothing of a major energy crisis - could drive our current domestic political obsessions off the table. But, even if he wasn't mired in his political troubles, the prime minister will be taking "family time" and will hardly be best placed to deal with these emerging threats.

Rather than speculating wistfully about whether we were approaching the fin de siècle, we might find ourselves wishing that it was already over, and someone else was in charge – before Tehran is converted into a glass-lined car park.

Also published on Turbulent Times.