Polarising opposition

As we noted yesterday, both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are experiencing some political turbulence, and both are responding in the same way, by doubling down on the rhetoric that they know will enrage their liberal adversaries.

Trump, faced with the allegation that he put pressure on a foreign government to smear a domestic political opponent, released evidence that all but confirms his guilt, effectively daring Nancy Pelosi to do something about it. Faced with such a blatant provocation, the Democratic leadership had little choice but to launch an impeachment process, even though there is practically no chance of Trump being convicted by the GOP-controlled Senate.

Similarly, Johnson flew back to London to explain himself to the reassembled House of Commons, only to deliver a statement completely lacking in humility or contrition, and instead loaded with the aggressively populist accusation that Parliament and the courts were frustrating the will of the people.

I cannot believe that either of these would-be strongmen are unaware of the effect talk like this will have upon their respective countries; it seems much more likely that this is a deliberate attempt to sow discord and agitate their base, in the hope that the resulting anger and chaos will carry them to electoral victory.

Will liberal democracy be able to withstand this storm? Probably; this isn’t the 1930s. Trump and Johnson will discover that it’s difficult to keep a coalition of angry people together; the more you rile them up the more they demand even greater extremes, until the whole project implodes. That said, the strategy of division has the potential to cause a lot of unpleasantness, and it would be a brave commentator who would bet against Johnson or Trump prevailing in the short term. Polarisation works both ways though; a swing to the right creates the conditions that can convince people of the value of progressive principles. I’m still just about confident that we’ll win out in the end.

Supreme optimism

Left-leaning Britain is feeling pretty chipper tonight, after a day which saw the Supreme Court hand down a unanimous and unexpectedly severe condemnation of Boris Johnson’s attempt to forestall opposition to his Brexit policy by suspending parliament. The Prime Minister’s transparent dishonesty in attempting to justify his actions, and his insistence that it was none of their business, seems to have particularly irked the judges, who ruled that the prorogation was invalid, clearing the way for MPs to reassemble tomorrow and renew their attempts to stymie Johnson’s plan to leave at the end of October.

While this is clearly a setback for the right, I’m reluctant to celebrate too soon. It does look likely now that Johnson will be forced into a humiliating climbdown, and we will still be in the EU when an election is eventually held, probably in November. The best-case scenario would see the resulting recriminations split the leave vote between the Tories and the Brexit Party, leaving the way clear for a Labour administration. On the other hand, it’s possible that Johnson will be able to spin today’s events into his populist narrative, positioning himself as a tribune of the people standing up to a corrupt elite, effectively enough to win a majority when the votes are counted.

Then again, perhaps I should stop over-thinking this, and just enjoy the sight of the tide of reaction, seemingly unstoppable in recent years, starting to turn, both here and in the US, where it looks like the Democrats might finally be getting around to impeaching Donald Trump. There’s still plenty work to be done, and the outcome remains uncertain, but at least we can dream.

Courting disaster

The attention of the country, or at least that part of it not yet entirely alienated from the political process, focused this morning on the Supreme Court, which convened to hear the thorny case of Johnson v Democracy.

Of course the government would prefer us to view the divide as The People v The Establishment, with Johnson identifying himself as the champion of the former. He has abandoned the pretence that the suspension of parliament was not intended to suppress opposition, and is instead defending it as a legitimate political manoeuvre which the courts have no business interfering with.

This is probably a smart strategy; if the justices decide in his favour he can claim vindication, while if they rule against him it will only burnish his populist reputation.

My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that the judges will decline to overrule the executive, which will give Johnson the confidence to ignore the law compelling him to delay Brexit.

It’s looking more likely that any election will come after we’re out of the EU, and you’d have to fancy Johnson’s chances in that scenario. I’ve been swinging between hope and despair on this issue for the past few months, but the latter emotion is definitely predominant right now.

Judicial discomfort

On the face of it, today’s court ruling declaring that the government had acted unlawfully in suspending Parliament is a bit of a personal disaster for Boris Johnson, as it sees him labelled by senior judges as a liar who has misled no less a personage than the Queen herself.

While this is clearly embarrassing for a Conservative Prime Minister, Johnson may not be too dismayed. There is a good chance that the Supreme Court will overturn the ruling next week, freeing him from the obligation to submit to troublesome parliamentary scrutiny, and the whole thing plays into his preferred narrative, in which he is a champion of the People, standing up to out-of-touch elites.

More problematic may be the release of the government’s own forecast of the potential outcome of a no-deal scenario, which makes pretty grim reading.

The degree to which any of this will change sentiment in the country at large remains to be seen though. My suspicion is that it will only encourage people to either dig themselves further into their entrenched positions, or confirm them in their alienation. I guess we’ll find out when the general election eventually comes, assuming Johnson doesn’t just abolish democracy altogether in the meantime.

Endless woe

I’ve had my share of jobs that have gotten off to a pretty rocky start, so I’m tempted to feel a little sympathy for Boris Johnson, as he looks back on a week where he lost every important parliamentary vote, more than twenty of his MPs, and a few ministers, including his own brother.

I’ll resist that temptation though, since Johnson is clearly the author of his own misfortune, and the resulting tribulations are likely to afflict the whole nation. It’s sobering to take stock of how far the country’s standing has already fallen; we are in a situation where it is commonly accepted that the head of Her Majesty’s Government is a congenital liar who cannot be trusted to keep his word of honour, and, notwithstanding the assurances of the Lord Chancellor himself, there is serious doubt over his administration’s commitment to the rule of law.

It’s still just about unthinkable that a Conservative Prime Minister would flagrantly disrespect legal conventions, so, since the opposition have wisely refused to be drawn into a premature election, it looks like Johnson has painted himself into a corner with all his overblown rhetoric about the October 31st deadline for Brexit, and will have to choose between a humiliating climbdown, or resigning the office he so recently won.

I guess it is possible that this is all part of some master plan that will end with Johnson returning in triumph after winning a huge majority in the election that will have to come before the end of the year. The latest opinion polls do provide him some comfort, and it is far from unimaginable that a populist campaign might hold enough of the leave vote together to deliver victory. It doesn’t seem like a recipe for long-term stability though, especially once the post-Brexit financial crisis starts to kick in. Anyone hoping that this will all be over soon is going to badly disappointed.

Inauspicious debut

Not unexpectedly, Boris Johnson’s premiership has started with a defeat, as the Commons voted tonight to start the process of blocking a no-deal Brexit.

While losing the very first vote he faced in parliament is rather embarrassing, there is a strong suspicion that it is all part of Johnson’s plan to strengthen his grip on power, by luring the opposition into an election that he will attempt to frame as a struggle between his populist insurgency and entrenched elites, including those in his own party.

It’s likely there will be further drama this week, as the opposition attempt to curtail Johnson’s ability to choose an election date, but the odds are good that there will be a poll before the end of October. Then we’ll see whether his high-risk strategy pays off, or whether he becomes one of British history’s shortest footnotes.

Unenabled

If we’re going to keep our 1930s analogy going, I guess this week’s parliamentary manoeuvring will be the equivalent of the threats and cajoling that Hitler deployed to ensure the passage of the Enabling Act through the Reichstag in 1933. While the Nazis directed the worst of their violence towards their political enemies, Boris Johnson has turned his anger on his own party, warning potential rebels that they risk ending their careers if they support efforts to stall a no-deal exit.

Despite this it seems highly likely that MPs will vote tomorrow to compel Johnson to request a further extension, something he has vowed he will never do. Whether this will actually stop the country’s headlong drive towards the abyss is another question; the government has strongly hinted that it doesn’t necessarily feel obliged to follow the law. That may be a step too far for Johnson; this evening he seemed to be leaning towards attempting to win a mandate to leave in an October election.

That in turn will depend on Labour agreeing to an early poll, which is not a sure thing, since no one trusts Johnson not to renege on a promise of a pre-Brexit election date and delay voting until after we’ve crashed out.

It’s going to be an interesting week, though it’s deeply frustrating that the fate of the nation depends on a handful of Tory dissidents putting the public good before personal ambition. The sooner an election comes, and lets us all have our say, the better.

Eternal vigilance

Eighty years ago today German tanks rolled across the Polish border, starting a conflict that in the following six years would kill at least 70 million people, and touch nearly every corner of the globe. By 1939 it was clear that the rise of fascism had made war inevitable, but the decade leading up to then had presented numerous opportunities for the Nazis to be thwarted, and disaster avoided.

Looking back on the political turmoil of the 1930s from the perspective of our relatively peaceful times, it’s tempting to conclude that concerns about the behaviour of the current government are ridiculously overblown – Boris Johnson may be showing scant regard for constitutional convention, but actual political violence is rare, there is still a free press, and no one is getting sent to a concentration camp.

The Nazis didn’t come to power overnight though; the road to dictatorship involved a gradual chipping away of democratic rights. At every step contemporary observers convinced themselves that, once in government, Hitler would abandon his populist extremism and adopt a more moderate approach, or, failing that, that those around him would ensure he didn’t cause too much trouble. History tells us how well that worked out.

Admittedly the Weimar Republic was hardly a model of stability, and it’s not unreasonable to expect that British political institutions might prove to be a bit more resilient. Still, I’d rather not leave that to chance; that’s why I was out on the streets this weekend, and I’m guessing I’ll be on a few more demonstrations before this sorry business is over.