Did Boris Johnson plan to fail?
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has prorogued parliament but not before being ordered to seek another Brexit delay, which he insists he will never do. The FT's UK political commentators Robert Shrimsley and Philip Stephens discuss whether his tactics have failed or whether the overall strategy is still in place
Produced and edited by Daniel Garrahan
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ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: After a truly terrible week in the Commons, Boris Johnson has finally got over the finish line and managed to suspend or prorogue parliament. It can't have come a moment too soon for him. His record is six votes, six defeats, the expulsion of 21 Tory rebels, the resignation of two cabinet members, including his own brother. What's more, he's been left dangling, ordered by Parliament to seek another Brexit delay, which he insists he'll never do, but denied the election which would get him out of this hole.
I'm here with Philip Stephens, a veteran observer of British politics. And I want to put it to you, Philip, that although the obvious conclusion is that things have gone terribly wrong for Boris Johnson this week, the overarching strategy, which is to set himself against Parliament, to run a people versus Parliament election and proclaim himself as the deliverer of the people's democracy, is still basically in place.
PHILIP STEPHENS: Well, to be honest, I'm puzzled, because you know, we've been told since Boris Johnson moved into Downing Street, that there was this great master plan with this great master strategist, a chap called Dominic Cummings.
REPORTER: What's your next move?
DOMINIC CUMMINGS: You guys should get out of London. Go and talk to people who are not rich Remainers.
PHILIP STEPHENS: I cannot think of any government that's lost control of so many things simultaneously in modern times. If it's a master plan, as far as I'm concerned, it was a master plan to fail.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: I understand that, but isn't it the case that when you say they've lost control, is they never really had control. They've never had a majority. And so in a sense, losing control was part of this process. If they couldn't keep the Commons in line, they would rather show that it was frustrating them and take it out to the election.
PHILIP STEPHENS: Well, I'm not sure whether they really wanted to go from a majority of none really to a majority of minus 40 something.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: What's a few party members between friends?
PHILIP STEPHENS: Had, have a party which is even more fractious, because he has to watch for rebellions from the left now as well as from the right. Now look, you can argue I think that there's still a strategy, in that it is possible to imagine the Conservatives winning an election. But if they do win an election, and they've got to get through what's going to happen in October about Brexit before that, if they do win an election, it won't be because of anything that they've done.
It will be because Jeremy Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party. So actually, I do think it's very hard to see in this government a strategy that is beyond the, I think the pretty basic campaign, which worked for vote leave in 2016, but I don't think works in a parliamentary context.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: Do you, I mean, are you not struck by either when you see Fox Pops on the television from way outside of London or when you meet people who aren't deeply involved in politics, the extent to which voters just say, I'm sick of this. This Parliament is stopping him. There isn't this wellspring of sympathy for Philip Hammond and the other Tory rebels. There are lots of frustration with them.
PHILIP STEPHENS: I think that's absolutely clear, but it's clear in the same way as if you go across middle America and talk to people there, you will find lots of people who are absolutely 100 solidly behind Donald Trump. But in Donald Trump's case, it's 40% of the electorate. I think in the Conservatives' case, they're running what's called a 35% strategy.
So what they're doing is, they're hardening up the support among true Brexiters, if you like, but they are discarding votes elsewhere. So they've lost Scotland probably with the resignation of Ruth Davidson. And I think they probably lost a lot of the south of England to the Liberal Democrats.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: I mean, this raises the question of whether they can win an election, or whether the leave side win election without some kind of deal with the Brexit. But as you say, they're running a 35% strategy. The polls are generally putting them somewhere between 32% and 35%. They're giving the Brexit button, Nigel Farage's party, around 12% to 13% at the moment.
Clearly, that's way too much for Boris Johnson's liking. Theresa May got 42% and didn't win an election. So what are they going to have to do with the Brexit? But can they tough it out on the assumption that in the end, Nigel Farage is going to have to look at this and go, if I run against the Conservatives, I'm going, I could lose Brexit?
PHILIP STEPHENS: Well, I think we probably both agree that this election is probably going to be decided on a regional seat by seat basis rather than the sort of national percentages. But I think that for me, a path to put Boris Johnson back into Downing Street, means taking 40, 50 seats in the Labour heartlands, and doing that against Nigel Farage is pretty much nigh impossible.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: So he's either got to do a deal with him or get him out the way.
PHILIP STEPHENS: I think so, yeah.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: Even then, I mean, we've talked about this a lot, but 40, 50 seats is still quite a lot. It is what Theresa May did, and as I said, she got 42% of the vote.
PHILIP STEPHENS: Yes.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: Or she tried to do.
PHILIP STEPHENS: I think, you know, I think if I were a Conservative strategist in number 10, I'd simply be praying for complete collapse.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: If you were a Conservative, they'd have marched you out by now.
PHILIP STEPHENS: I would have been pushed out. But I probably would've done rather better than the existing ones. But I think they have to pray for a complete collapse in the Labour vote. And I think the only way that the Conservatives can win a majority is if the Labour vote doesn't just fall sharply, but if it collapses towards 20%.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: The one thing to consider is obviously at the last election, the Conservatives and Labour got between them around 83% of the vote, the most vicious third party squeeze in modern memory. The Liberal Democrats are not going to do that badly again. So that could affect the results in all kinds of places.
PHILIP STEPHENS: Yes, I think we're going to have odd results in different places. I would, if I had to guess, I'd guess that the Liberals are going to be up to 30, 40 seats quite easily.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: And that's mostly the Tory's expense.
PHILIP STEPHENS: And that's mostly at the Tory's expense. I think the SNP will have more or less a clean sweep in Scotland, because Labour are in desperate trouble in Scotland as well. I think you might even get the odd Greens. And it depends whether, I mean, a lot will depend on how well the Remains side coalesce, as it were. I think if there is some sort of deal understanding between the Conservatives and Nigel Farage, then a lot will rest on whether Remainers, if you want to call them that, across the parties, do at least some informal deals.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: And what about independent Tories? Are we going to see some of them?
PHILIP STEPHENS: Well, I think we are, and I think you know, talking to some of them privately, what you hear from them, is even if I don't win a seat myself, I'm going to extract a price.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: Excellent.
PHILIP STEPHENS: So I would very much expect, you know, Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd to be standing.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: One last thought. Boris Johnson's now got five weeks before Parliament sits again. He can spend a bit of time trying to get a deal, maybe he can, maybe he can't. But if we get to October, the 19, he hasn't got a deal, he's faced with the choice of comply with the law telling him he has to seek an extension or resign, or try and defy the law, what's your best bet as to which way he'll go?
PHILIP STEPHENS: Well, I'm not sure which way he'll go, but I would guess, given the pledges given yesterday in the Commons about obeying the law, that he will sign and then resign. So he will sign the letter asking for an extension saying he had to obey the law, and then resign, saying I'm a man of principle. Funny words to attach to Boris Johnson, but he would claim to be a man of principle and then resign.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: Actually, that may not be as terrible for him as some people suggest in terms of his electoral appeal. I think there's a chance that Leavers will believe him when he says, I was forced into doing this.
PHILIP STEPHENS: Look, I think the Leavers will vote for Boris Johnson and or the Brexit party, because you know, we do see this divide in British politics now, which is, you know, as much about leave or remain as about Tory, Labour or other, you know, old tribal identity. So look, I think he, the Brexit side can be sure of getting perhaps 40% of the electorate in a general election. But whether that's enough for a majority, I don't, I don't think so. I think, you know, the central forecast now must be for a general election and another hung Parliament.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: Well, good to know, that will sort everything out. Thanks very much.
PHILIP STEPHENS: Thank you.