Brexit: the challenge facing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson
FT editor Lionel Barber and political commentator Robert Shrimsley on the task faced by the Conservative leader to deliver the UK's split from the European Union and the likelihood of a general election
Filmed, produced and directed by Richard Topping and Petros Gioumpasis
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Boris Johnson has been in Downing Street just two weeks and already the talk is of a general election. No ifs and buts, says Mr Johnson, Britain must be out of the EU by October the 31. So, Robert, is this real, the election talk? And how does it square with the exit date?
Well, I think there are two answers to that, of course. My instinct is that he doesn't want a general election before Brexit for a number of reasons, one of which I think he's articulated, is that the Conservatives need to deliver on Brexit before they go to the polls. Also, I think for a lot of people who passionately believe in Brexit, and that's who the kind of people he's surrounded himself with, do you really want to risk Brexit by giving the voters a chance to stop it? On the other hand, he's also keenly aware of the realities of his parliamentary arithmetic.
He's got an official majority of just one, it's fractionally larger and that in reality. But nonetheless, he could be voted down at any time. There's an awful lot of talk of vote of confidence to bring down the government.
And that's led by the Remainers in chief, Dominic Grieve, and one or two ex-disgruntled...
That's exactly right. I mean, and the Labour, no... there's all kinds of conversations going on between the Labour party and Conservative Remainers about how they can stop a no-deal Brexit. And Boris Johnson and his advisers, Dominic Cummings who's effectively his chief strategist now, are looking at this and they know there's a real possibility of a general election. So their question is, A, how do we get this over the line? But also, the other message they want to send out to people is, we're not going to let a general election stop us from delivering Brexit on the date we set. So don't count on a parliamentary cavalry coming to your rescue.
Right. A word on Dominic Cummings - the Rasputin, Svengali, any other nicknames for this man who sees himself as one of the great power centres in this new government?
Yeah. Well, I mean, Dominic Cummings, who most notably was the architect of the vote leave victory in the 2016 referendum, rewarded for this by being played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a TV serialisation. You see, an actor who plays Sherlock Holmes and Alan Turing playing you it is not good for controlling anyone's ego. But he is a serious campaign strategist and he is bringing real discipline to a government of believers in Brexit. And people are prepared to go for a no-deal Brexit if they have to.
And Cummings came back with a memorable slogan "take back control." But here's an irony, he talked about take back control but parliament should in Britain post Brexit. But in fact, this government wants to disregard a parliamentary vote.
There hasn't yet been a parliamentary vote to stop a no-deal Brexit. We certainly think it's possible there could be, but the parliamentary forces have been erratic in their efforts to resist Brexit so far. They have managed the odd success, but there's not that many opportunities between now and October 31 and there's not that many vehicles.
And any chance of this supposed national unity government involving Remainers and Labour and Greens taking force instead of the Johnson administration?
Well, I mean, look, this whole process has had more twists and shocks than any. So it'd be foolish to rule out anything. I find it very difficult to see how you get to that government of national unity, for the simple reason that it requires Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party. It would either require Conservative Remainers to be prepared to serve under Jeremy Corbyn briefly to stop Brexit. Or, since I don't think they would be, it would require Jeremy Corbyn to allow the Labour party to serve under somebody other than him. And I think it's quite difficult to make that work, on top of which you do have some Labour Brexit and other independents who would not support it anyway.
And finally, one figure we haven't mentioned is Nigel Farage. Do you think there's any circumstances under which Mr Johnson would countenance a tactical alliance with the Brexit party led by Mr Farage?
Well, again, you can't rule anything out. I think it's difficult for a couple of reasons. Obviously, it depends on when the election is - whether it is before or after Brexit. I think Nigel Farage is essentially running another shakedown on the Conservatives just like he did to get the referendum in the first place. Because he knows that if he stands candidate against the Conservatives in an election before Brexit, what he is guaranteeing is that Remain minded parties win.
So he's got to be careful at this but he could certainly scare them into staying true to what he considers an acceptable Brexit. All thinks he's really after in terms of a pact, if he really thinks it's viable, is the right to stand unopposed by Tories in Labour seats. I think if things got desperate enough, it's possible but it's not something I think the Conservatives would want to cede and they'll resist it if they can.
Now I'm going to put you on the spot as a closer, not to ask about Queen's Park Rangers, your team, but what bet for an election before Christmas?
Before Christmas, I think there's a reasonable bet.
What's that? 60 per cent?
Yeah, 60 per fent or so. But I think the real question is whether it comes before Brexit. There's no question the Conservatives will want to go early, but the question for after Brexit is, what is the immediate Brexit moment like? If it's quite smooth, then a quick election looks quite appealing. If it's chaotic, well, that may not look so clever.
Robert Shrimsley, thanks very much.