Boris Johnson will learn the hard way that there’s no winning in backing deal and no-deal Brexit at the same time

After the most ruthless reshuffle of modern times, failing to come down on one side will alienate both hardcore Eurosceptics and Tory moderates who hoped to steer him towards a deal

Andrew Grice
Thursday 25 July 2019 18:01
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Boris Johnson holds his first cabinet meeting

The UK hasn’t held a winter general election since February 1974. There were two elections that year, as Labour’s Harold Wilson succeeded Edward Heath’s Conservatives, but the second on 10 October was before the clocks went back. Since then, elections have been held either in April, May or June.

Winter elections were avoided because dark evenings and the risk of bad weather made it harder to get out the vote. But I have a feeling we are heading for our first winter contest since 1974 after Boris Johnson’s dramatic cabinet reshuffle and his Commons statement today. Johnson would probably prefer to seek his own mandate in his own time next spring, after taking the UK out of the EU. But some of his allies concede privately that a November election could be on the cards, either because parliament blocks no deal and he decides to seek the voters’ approval for it, or he loses a confidence vote and is forced to go to the country.

To say that Westminster is stunned by his brutal cull of 17 of Theresa May’s cabinet is an understatement. Few saw such a bloodbath coming. “Boris is starting with a blank page,” one cabinet minister told me on Monday. I didn’t realise the significance of their words. I was thrown off the scent by nods and winks from Team Boris that he would appoint a balanced cabinet, not one full of true believers. The only balance I could detect, when the scale of the blood-letting emerged on Wednesday night, was the one between ministers who have always backed a no-deal exit and those who do now. That shows how the centre of gravity in the Brexit debate has shifted.

It wasn’t a reshuffle, but the formation of a new government. There's a lot of chatter at Westminster today about the Tories rebranding themselves as the Brexit Party to see off Nigel Farage, or the Vote Leave party, after Johnson appointed several ministers and staffers from the victorious 2016 campaign to his cabinet and backroom team.

Characteristically, his first Commons appearance as PM today felt more like a tub-thumping speech on the election campaign trail than a policy statement. Perhaps he was trying out his election lines. He promised that, by 2050, the UK would be in “a new golden age”, claiming the Tories are “the party of the people” now they will deliver Brexit – surely an election slogan.

On the face of it, Johnson is firmly set on a course towards no deal. Yet his policy is more nuanced. He told MPs he would “much prefer” a new Brexit deal and promised to “work flat out” for one. But he also called for the “abolition” of the Irish backstop, warning that putting “a time limit [on it] is not enough”. Is that his opening bid in the new round of negotiations with the EU, or a precondition for any talks?

One cabinet minister told me: “Boris means it when he says he wants a deal. But he is not going to go cap in hand to Brussels. The EU will have to move. It’s not about choosing either a deal or no deal. He will pursue both with equal amounts of energy, in the hope that preparing properly for no deal makes a better deal possible.”

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This dual approach might buy Johnson a little time with his own party. But not much, given his self-imposed hard deadline. Soon he will have to choose one of the forks in the road, signposted “deal” and “no-deal.” He can’t have it both ways for much longer.

This means that Johnson will almost certainly alienate either those hardline Brexiteers who actively want no deal or Tory MPs who strongly oppose that outcome. Both groups fear he will let them down. After the most ruthless reshuffle of modern times, the hardcore Eurosceptics feel more optimistic today. Tory moderates who worry about no deal but backed Johnson in the hope of influencing him must now wonder whether they will be able to.

The downside of his cabinet shake-out is that he has swollen the ranks of the anti no-deal brigade, now led by Philip Hammond. The old Commons chamber maxim that “your opponents are in front of you and your enemies are behind you” has rarely been so true. He will gamble that, when the moment of decision comes in October, the sacked ministers will pull back from backing a vote of no-confidence in their own government. He thinks he will have a trump card to show them: the threat of a Corbyn government.

Johnson may have taken revenge on some of his enemies, including supporters who backed his leadership rival Jeremy Hunt. His problem is that they will soon have the opportunity to take their revenge on him. He who laughs last?

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