Friday, 26 July 2019

Coup! What a Scorcher

The casual use of the word "coup" by centrist commentators to describe Boris Johnson's entry into Number 10 is not simply an example of journalistic hyperbole. It is also an attempt to redefine the concept so that when the actual coup takes place - the one that sees the "liberal centre" seize back control under the combined leadership of Yvette Cooper, Nicola Strugeon and Jo Swinson - they will be able to claim that it is a category error to call it that. Of course, the chance of this coming to pass before the next general election is as likely as a member of the Independent Group holding their seat after that date, but this won't stem the tide of increasingly baroque fantasies in which 100 Labour MPs defect to the Liberal Democrats or a noble band of good Tories plant a metaphorical bomb under Boris Johnson's map table in the Downing Street Wolfsschanze. The persistence of the idea suggests that centrists believe that such a coup (though we cannot call it a coup) could well happen, but before thinking about how it might be brought about, it's worth clarifying the assumptions behind the early analysis of the Johnson administration.

The claim that Johnson is an illegitimate Prime Minister because he was voted in by "0.13% of the population … roughly the size of a decent football crowd" is specious. He was supported by an absolute majority of Conservative MPs (160 out of 313) in the last round of voting to produce the shortlist of two (Jeremy Hunt got 77 and Michael Gove 75). That he also won the support of two-thirds of the party membership ("160,000 of the most reactionary people in Britain") is incidental. They were only in a position to crown him because MPs put him on the shortlist, and in numbers that made a popular revolt against their recommendation improbable. Those, like Robert Saunders, who insist on the primacy of MPs over party members seem reluctant to acknowledge this, preferring to put the blame on the membership. One reason for this may be that it would otherwise mean admitting that most MPs are venal and biddable while it is party members who are closer to the Burkean ideal, voting on principle and having no expectation of tangible reward. Another reason may be a wish to avoid drawing attention to the nature of British political coups: that they invariably take place in meetings of the 1922 Committee or the PLP.

I have no idea what Boris Johnson's plan is, and I'm not sure that he knows either, despite the apparent decisiveness of his cabinet reshuffle. The appointment of Dominic Cummings and the promotion of the Britannia Unhinged crowd has led some to assume that a general election, run on the slogan "Tell them again" and advocating a no-deal exit from the EU, is in the offing, but it's just as plausible that he and Cummings genuinely believe that they can wrangle a deal out of the EU27 that could command a Commons majority and popular support. To do so would at a stroke mean that Johnson had succeeded where both Cameron and May had failed, and we shouldn't underestimate the extent to which the new Prime Minister is motivated by such point-scoring. By the same token, he might call a general election, should the EU refuse his demand that they reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and drop the Northern Ireland backstop, in the belief that he could succeed where May failed in 2017. What matters in respect of the centrist coup is the widespread expectation that there will have to be a general election, either as a result of the Commons rejecting no-deal or Johnson seizing the initiative.

It is certainly conceivable that an election could be forced upon him if he loses a vote of no confidence, but that assumes a significant number of Conservative MPs committing political seppuku. While there is no shortage of back-benchers who despise Johnson, it's by no means certain that they would defy the party whip. It's also worth bearing in mind that if a Labour motion looks like it might succeed, some on the opposition benches might stay their hand. The clutch of independent MPs will be reluctant to vote themselves out of a job, and it is surely clear to even the most obtuse that the Liberal Democrats' strategy, from "Bollocks to Brexit" to their preemptive refusal to consider coalition with a Corbyn-led Labour, is designed to rebuild the party, and in service of that prime directive they will compromise any principle. They don't want to see Corbyn replaced yet - they see him as an effective recruiting sergeant for them - and are likewise perfectly happy with Johnson remaining in Number 10 until 2022. They actively want British politics to be (or appear to be) polarised so that they can dominate the media-defined "centre ground".

The most likely scenario for a centrist coup is an Autumn general election that produces a hung parliament. Even if Labour has gained seats, it's failure to win an outright majority would then lead to demands for the removal of Jeremy Corbyn in order to enable the formation of a "progressive" coalition in which the PLP is supported by the Liberal Democrats and the SNP. The result would be a coalition agreement that would junk most of the progressive elements of the Labour manifesto. Even if Labour wins a slender majority, there are enough rightwing PLP members to mount a vote of no confidence in Corbyn as Prime Minister (though technically the motion would be no confidence in the government). It's important to remember that if such a vote is lost, a further attempt can be made within 14 days to form a government before a general election needs to be called. It is at this juncture that Yvette Cooper or Keir Starmer would step into the breach and normal service would be resumed. With the Labour left unlikely to abstain on the second vote, even in the sure knowledge that some of them will end up being purged, the centrist coup would be complete.

What might prevent this coming about? Even a landslide Labour victory probably wouldn't be enough because the composition of the PLP won't have changed that much, despite the best efforts of Momentum and other campaigners for greater party democracy, so there will likely still be sufficient rightwing Labour MPs willing to undermine their own government in order to thwart the left. The antisemitism furore has served to slow down the institutional reforms necessary to make Labour more representative. This isn't an ironic byproduct so much as a deliberate aim on the part of many on the right. Paradoxically, the left's long-term interests would best be served by Johnson clinging on past the end of October. Assuming Brexit was then resolved, for good or ill, it would enable the political agenda to shift back to territory more congenial to Labour and would also buy the time necessary for the overdue institutional overhaul and deselections. This means that the chief obstacle to the centrist coup is probably Johnson's appetite for power. The significance of the composition of his new cabinet is not that it is strongly in favour of no-deal, or that it is notably rightwing on social and economic matters, but that it looks like a burning of the boats. Johnson has deserted the centre ground.


  1. Some reasonable points, but some are strange:

    «while it is party members who are closer to the Burkean ideal, voting on principle and having no expectation of tangible reward.»

    Most Tory voters in particular have a very strong expectation of the tangible reward of booming housing rents and prices. Even if I guess that a small minority are "useful idiots" of the Burkean sort.

    «By the same token, he might call a general election, should the EU refuse his demand»

    I guess he is sure that the EU will refuse, just as T May was also sure that they would refuse her cherry-picking demands.
    As to the election he could call for a vote either just before October 31st, or just after it, so a dissolved parliament would not be able to stop "walk away" exit.
    He could even call a referendum between "No deal" and "With deal", and thus force the hand of parliament. Dominic Cummings surely has a plan.

    «Johnson has deserted the centre ground.»

    Because instead Cameron and May were occupying it so well :-). I must have been dreaming when thinking they were both running far-right to extreme far-right policies, so extreme that in Cameron's case IDS resigned as a minister because they were too extreme even for him.

    1. Re the first point, I was making a distinction between interest and transaction. Tory party members would expect any leadership candidate to look after property-owners. In contrast, quite a few MPs expected to get jobs in the news administration.