Friday, 18 October 2019


On the BBC's News at Ten yesterday it was claimed that Boris Johnson had achieved something "that people said couldn't be done". This achievement was to agree a withdrawal deal with the EU27, which was exactly what Theresa May had done before him. You could quibble that the claim referred to the apparent impossibility of squaring the trilemma presented by the conflicting demands of the EU, the ERG and the DUP, which did for May, but as Johnson has proved, this could always be resolved simply by stitching-up the least powerful of those three, which is what he has done. This rewriting of history on-the-fly has become something of a BBC habit in recent years, revealing the extent to which supporting the "national interest" (i.e. the government) has overtaken objectivity in the Corporation's reporting. You'd expect the state broadcaster to be biased, and so discount its interpretation to a degree, but the decline of scepticism at the BBC over the last decade has been alarming.

Despite "No deal is better than a bad deal" and "Do or die", a deal has always been more likely than not, given the associated risks and given also that positive support for no-deal is a minority in both Parliament and among the wider electorate (if not among Conservative Party members). That said, I confess I was one of those who thought that Johnson had decided to try and make the best of a no-deal outcome in early September, when he withdrew the whip from 21 Conservative MPs, though I didn't think he'd get to the end of October without an extension. Insofar as his administration has had a definite strategy, it appears to have been to accept that the government could not effectively operate with the current parliament. Repeatedly losing votes in the Commons simply confirmed this. Prorogation was therefore not just a tactic to minimise scrutiny, it was a way of suspending business to allow a focus on securing an 11th hour deal that would open the way to a general election.

This meant that any kind of deal was acceptable to Johnson, who is after all an opportunist rather than an ideologue. A deal that commands the support of the ERG, who appear to have been won over by the promise of a loose free trade relationship with Europe and maximum deregulation, could not be dismissed as Brexit in name only, thereby securing the Tories' flank against Farage and the Brexit Party. A deal that the EU27, and in particular the Republic of Ireland, can tolerate (and which in its essentials is the original offer they made over two years ago) takes some of the wind out of the sails of those advocating a soft Brexit, even if the eventual outcome will be a long way from EFTA membership. Alienating the DUP, on the other hand, has little in the way of a political cost, both because the unionists have few friends (and haven't used their moment in the sun since 2017 to make new ones) and because their utility as a prop for the government has gone.

The outcome of tomorrow's Commons vote on the deal is too close to call. Johnson's calculation is presumably that he can offset the loss of the DUP by minimising Tory rebels on both the remain and leave flanks (i.e. both the whipless and the ERG will largely fall in line) while picking up a useful number of pro-deal Labour rebels. My guess is that the latter will turn out to be fewer than the number bruited by the media, but I also suspect that the Tory rebels on both sides of the leave/remain debate will be reduced in number and that this may be sufficient to get the deal over the line (though you can bet if only one Labour MP votes for the deal, this will be enough for the Liberal Democrats and others to blame Labour generally). If the government is defeated, then the Benn Act will kick-in, but I get the sense that this very outcome, intended to ensure a soft landing, is increasingly being viewed with dread by many MPs who supported it but are keenly aware of the wider frustration in the country.

It is in the context of this frustration that the attitude of the BBC and the government-friendly press should be read. There is a not-unreasonable assumption that the population is sick and tired of Brexit, that it will accept any halfway tolerable deal to end the Article 50 process, and that it believes the sectional interests of Northern Irish unionists should not hold the country to ransom. However, the dominance of this set of beliefs in the minds of the media, including at pro-remain newspapers such as the Guardian, has led to insufficient scepticism about the substance of the deal and a tendency to characterise dissenting voices as unhelpful and out of tune with the popular mood. Whether this media momentum will be sufficient to cow MPs into supporting the government is open to question, but it highlights the extent to which brainless cheerleading has bled from the tabloids through the broadsheets to the BBC over the last decade.

The relationship of British Prime Ministers with the BBC has followed a distinct trajectory over the years. From the deference shown to the patrician Macmillan to the brief indulgence of Harold Wilson as a talkshow host, the common thread in the 60s and 70s was mutual respect as much as wariness. This changed, as so much else did, during the reign of Margaret Thatcher. Her assumption of a regal style exploited the BBC's institutional deference while aggravating the scepticism of many of its journalists, leading to a number of bitter clashes and the defenestration of Seumas Milne's dad. This antagonism was continued by Tony Blair, who cultivated a more presidential style but also insisted on the supportive role of the state broadcaster, particularly on the issue of Iraq. One of David Cameron's lasting legacies was to tone down this peremptory attitude by Number 10 while ensuring supportive appointments to key editorial positions to reduce the possibility of friction.

This move from antagonism towards manipulation hasn't shifted the BBC on the political spectrum (it's always been centre-right) but it has dulled its journalism. It's easy enough to highlight bias and bad editorial decisions, from the unbalanced Panorama investigation into antisemitism within the Labour Party to Newsnight's habit of giving a platform to unsavoury far-right figures, but this is to ignore the more profound degradation in the Corporation's willingness to hold the government to account. The consequence is the premiership of Boris Johnson. His ascent to the top job was not facilitated chiefly by the press, despite the mea culpas and recent fawning support. The key was the indulgence shown towards him by the BBC in his time as Mayor of London. It was this, rather than his over-rated appearance on Have I Got News For You, that made him a national figure. Nothing succeeds like success, and it appears his supporters at the BBC think that Johnson has now pulled out a plum.


  1. BBC can die. I've got my lefty, wonkish, and strategy gaming bubble to dwell in, and bring my kid up with.

  2. Looking at the votes in Hansard of the 306 Nos 6 were Labour MPs.

    The vote 322 to 306 means 9 MPs have to change sides for Brexit to get through.
    Once whipless Tories like Letwin, Ken Clarke, Amber Rudd are satisfied there won't be a no deal Brexit on the 31st they will vote for a deal.

    Does Johnson need more Labour MPs to vote for Brexit? If so how many?

    The trouble with the media coverage is it lacks detail and it's slow. Hansard takes ages just to list which MPs voted which way. Someone at the BBC/ITV/SKY will have a spreadsheet on MPs voting intensions which will be about as good as the whips, but they would never publish it.