December 9, 2019
BREXIT UPDATE 55: THE FOURTH WEEK
What has happened in the fourth, penultimate week? We could start with one event that didn’t happen: Boris Johnson’s BBC interview with Andrew Neil, which was supposed to take place this week; but Johnson’s office has not yet provided the BBC with a date, time or venue. Johnson clearly calculates that the damage that Neil’s gruelling interview style could cause him would be worse than accusations of evasiveness and cowardice. In an address to camera issued directly after he had interviewed Nigel Farage, Neil pointed out that he has interviewed all the other leaders, stressed that his team have an “oven-ready” series of questions for Johnson that focus on the question of trust, pointed out that, if Johnson returns as Prime Minister, he will need to stand up to Presidents Trump, Putin and Xi and challenged him: “surely he can spend half an hour standing up to me.”  So far, there has been no response from Johnson.
He did, however, take part in an event on Friday: another head to head debate between Johnson and Corbyn. Johnson endlessly repeated his mantra “Get Brexit Done” (which is itself a lie, because, even if his deal is passed by Parliament, this would only be the first stage of Brexit) and endeavoured to present Corbyn as lacking in leadership qualities and convictions, focusing in particular on Corbyn’s “neutral” stance on Brexit. Corbyn again emphasised the NHS and the hardships caused by austerity; but during the section on Brexit, once again produced a leaked secret government document – this time showing that there would be border checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. Corbyn accused Johnson of breaking his promise to the DUP that he would never agree to a border in the Irish Sea. Johnson dismissed these claims, insisting that Northern Ireland was part of the UK customs union, so that there would not be any checks.
In Brexit Update 47, I summed up Johnson’s sleight of hand deal as follows:
“What has finally been agreed is in effect a Northern Ireland only backstop – but it is being described as a ‘Schrodinger’s Backstop’ (see Brexit Update 46) because of its close resemblance to the quantum physics concept of ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ which is alive and dead at the same time. Northern Ireland is both inside the EU Customs Union and outside it at the same time. Legally, it is outside it and within the UK’s Customs Union, but practically and operationally it is inside the EU’s customs orbit. This means that there are no customs checks on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Irish Sea becomes the EU/UK border, with customs and regulatory checks taking place at ‘points of entry’ on the Irish Sea – ie ports such as Liverpool and Holyhead. Goods passing from Great Britain (ie England, Scotland and Wales) to Northern Ireland will not require tariffs if their final destination is Northern Ireland, since they will be within the UK’s Customs Union. But if their final destination is Ireland and further beyond it into the EU, goods will require the payment of tariffs, which the UK will collect on behalf of the EU.”
And in an interview with Sophy Ridge of Sky News yesterday (Sunday, December 8), Johnson, after saying there would “absolutely not” be any checks on the Irish Sea border, finally went on to admit that “if something was coming from GB via Northern Ireland and was going on to the Republic, then there might be checks at the border into Northern Ireland”.
On Friday (December 6) the UK Brexit Counsellor at the British Embassy in Washington – who has the in any case near-impossible job of (in the words of the BBC) “explaining the UK Brexit policy to US lawmakers and policymakers” – resigned, saying that she preferred to do “something more rewarding with my time than peddle half-truths on behalf of a government I do not trust”.
The most recent poll, from ICM, out today and showing the results of fieldwork conducted between December 6 and 9, shows the gap between the Tories and Labour narrowing to 6 per cent, which would probably mean a hung parliament. Two other recent polls, however, have shown the lead widening, enough to give Johnson a working majority. The collapse of the Brexit Party means that the majority of Leave voters have flocked to the Conservatives, whereas the Remain vote is split.
But a recent separate poll has also revealed a growing determination among voters horrified by the prospect of an elected Johnson government to practise “tactical voting” in order to prevent a Tory majority. This means that voters would eschew their first preferences to vote for whatever party stands the most chance in their constituencies of defeating the Conservative candidate. In Tory/Lib Dem marginals, where Labour would not stand a chance, people who would normally vote Labour will vote Lib Dem; in Tory/Labour marginals, where the Lib Dems would not stand a chance, people who would normally vote Lib Dem will vote Labour. If the end result is a hung parliament (ie one in which neither the Tories nor Labour have a majority), it is very likely that Corbyn will become Prime Minister with the support of the SNP, the Lib Dems and the smaller parties.
The antisemitism issue, however, continues to be used against Corbyn, not just by the Tories and by Jewish communal leaders but by the Labour right wing. In a leader on Wednesday (December 4), the New Statesman – which has always been the weekly magazine associated with Labour, just as the Spectator is associated with the Tories – refused to endorse Labour, remaining neutral on the election, on the grounds of the so-called antisemitism “crisis” within Labour. At the same time the editorial urged its readers to vote tactically to deny Johnson a majority and ensure a hung parliament – which is likely to result in a Corbyn premiership. Similarly a Guardian editorial attacked Corbyn for antisemitism, but also urged its readers to vote tactically to bring about a hung parliament.
In an article in this week’s New Statesman (the same edition that includes the editorial refusing to endorse Labour) the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis points out that Labour’s manifesto addresses all the concerns of the UK’s middle-class liberals, promising action on climate change, the NHS, inequality — plus a second referendum, with Remain on the ballot paper; yet never before have these liberals been so hostile to Labour. Varoufakis describes this as the “great 2019 British paradox”. He argues that the “liberal bourgeoisie” feels its class interests threatened by the genuine, transformational change envisaged by the Labour manifesto. Because of its fears of a Socialist government that would bring about real transformation, instead of just “tinkering around the edges”, the liberal Establishment has sought to undermine Corbyn by means of a smear campaign. Varoufakis asks: “what are we to make of a political class that proclaims its ethical commitments but that cannot bring itself to endorse the only concrete actions that would honour them?” 
But, to a large extent as a result of its consistent vilification of Corbyn, this liberal Establishment is now faced with the imminent danger of a far-right, nationalistic government led by Johnson. As the Conservative journalist Peter Oborne has pointed out in a recent New Statesman article, so far from having failed as a result of having withdrawn half his MPs and seeing his party collapse in the polls, Nigel Farage has won; he no longer needs the Brexit Party, because he has turned the Conservative Party into the Brexit Party:
“The truth is that Farage has won. He has been at war with every Conservative leader from John Major to Theresa May. He has now entered into an alliance with Boris Johnson, having turned the Tory Party into the Brexit Party. Johnson leads an English nationalist movement hostile to parliamentary democracy and the rule of law and driven by a Trumpian narrative about truth.” 
In the face of the imminent prospect of the triumph of this far-right nationalist movement — a triumph, if it comes, that the Remainer Establishment itself has helped to facilitate – the liberal Establishment, while at the same time continuing with the smear campaign, is now desperately trying to prevent a Johnson majority by means of a last-minute call for tactical voting – a policy that may succeed but may not.
Today, however, three campaigning days before the election, has seen a major setback for Johnson. A photo in the Daily Mirror of a four-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia, lying on a hospital floor for four hours, covered by his mother with coats, because there was no bed available for him, has in the past few days gone viral. This one image encapsulates the current state of the UK. Today, an ITV reporter tried to show the photo on his mobile phone to Johnson and elicit a response from him. Johnson not only refused to look at the photo, instead repeating his lie about building 40 new hospitals, but at one point took the mobile phone and put it in his pocket – later apologising, handing back the phone and looking at the photo. But the incident is all over the UK media and is one of the top stories on the BBC. It could be a turning-point.