Brexit or Borexit? What worries me most…

14 mins. to read
Brexit or Borexit? What worries me most…
Alexandros Michailidis /

Boris Johnson is the favourite to be elected the new leader of the Conservative Party by its membership – though he is not a dead cert. But his prospective premiership is already beset by questions about his credibility and legitimacy, writes Victor Hill.

Boris: the credibility issue

There are five main reasons why Mr Johnson’s probable nomination as party leader by the 165,000 paid-up members of the UK Conservative Party (or is it 160,000? – nobody seems to know exactly) will be politically and constitutionally problematic – with potential dangers for the UK financial markets.

The first is the role of the monarch in our as yet unwritten constitution. The conventional wisdom is that our monarch, HM The Queen (“HMTQ”), must appoint as PM a member of the House if Commons who is likely to be able to command a majority in the House in the event of a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government (HMG). Aeons ago I studied how this “convention” (as it is called) developed – but I shall spare readers the constitutional history and focus on just where we are now.

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If appointed PM on 24 July Mr Johnson will most certainly not command a majority in the House of Commons. MPs who take the Tory whip are now down to about 311 (out of 650 MPs less seven abstentionist Sinn Féiners).

When Theresa May was called to the Palace on 13 July 2016 she was the mistress of a parliamentary working majority of 17, inherited from the exiting Mr Cameron. When she was re-appointed by HMTQ on the morning of 09 June 2017 (after a hopelessly mishandled election) she could prospectively command a slim majority in the House of Commons with the support of the ten members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Ever since that botched election and Mrs May’s noble (but unfulfilled) effort to get her Brexit deal through Parliament, the Tories have been afflicted by a wave of defections – and the informal coalition with the DUP has been stretched to breaking point. The numerous Soubrinis now sit on the Opposition benches having opted for oblivion by defecting to a political party which cannot even agree on what it is called. And the haemorrhage of Tory votes in the House continues. On 01 August the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election is quite likely to be won by the Lib-Dems.

Moreover, there are about 30 Tory MPs, according to Sam Gyimah MP, who would not support a government led by Mr Johnson in the event of a motion of no confidence following a no-deal Brexit. So there is very good reason to doubt that Mr Johnson would survive such a motion and, ipso facto, HMTQ would not be obliged, constitutionally speaking, to appoint him as PM.

That is why there is now a move, best articulated by Sir Ed Davey MP, one of the two contenders to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats, that there should be some kind of Government of National Unity led by someone who is not the leader of any major party. Of course who that honest broker might be is highly debatable even by those who favour this direction. The name of Yvette Cooper MP has been suggested. (I can hear the raspberries being blown by my Brexiteer friends as I write this in remote Norfolk.)

The second reason is that the selectoral process within the Tory Party was deeply suspect…Many party members received two (or possibly even more) ballot papers because they are affiliated to two or more constituency associations. But the charge that some members voted twice will continue to hang in the air like a bad smell. Why should the PM be chosen by a narrow band of apparatchiks, anyway? I don’t see why this method is any more “democratic” than the magic circle method by which Tory grandees emerged as leader in less neurotic times.

The third reason is that many, if not most, of the people who will have voted for Mr Johnson are not realTories. Many of them are/were “entryists”, mainly from UKIP, who have joined the party in the last twelve months or so precisely in order to influence the Tory party’s policy on Brexit. Seeing no future in UKIP, post-Farage, and despairing of UKIP’s succession of uninspiring leaders, these individuals calculated correctly that the Tories could be transformed from the Conservative and Unionist Party into the Conservative and Hard Brexit Party. At the constituency level, many of these entryists have been behind attempts to de-select known Tory Remainers and even Tory MPs who favour a soft Brexit. Such was the case with David Gauke MP, the Justice Secretary.

It would be difficult to prove that Mr Johnson won by virtue of ex-UKIP entryist votes. But there is something even more flagrant about the Tory leadership election. That is – my fourth point – that an estimated 60 percent of the 160,000 (or whatever it is) membership voted for a party other than the Conservatives in the most recent election. I am referring, of course, to the fact that most card-carrying members of the Tory Party voted for Mr Farage’s Brexit Party at the election for the European Parliament on 23 May. (Just for the record, I am a Tory who voted Tory on 23 May – while firmly pinching my nose.)

Under the Tory Party’s own internal rules, any Tory Party member who votes against the Tories at an election is liable to expulsion. Readers may recall that Lord Heseltine, a former Tory Deputy Prime Minister, had the whip suspended from the party for declaring that he would be voting Liberal Democrat at the European elections. Therefore, by rights, about 96,000 Tory members should have been expelled from the party at the end of May – and certainly should not have had the right to vote in this leadership election.

My fifth reason is that, extraordinarily, Mr Johnson will have won the contest not by winning the argument but by avoiding argument with the other candidates. It is clear that his advisors were so nervous that Boris unleashed would put his foot in his mouth that he was confined to his quarters for the duration of the contest. He has deliberately avoided a detailed grilling on the over-riding issues of the day because his own people thought he would fall flat on his face. If even they have so little confidence in him, then why should we? Everyone understands that, once in power, Mr Johnson would not be able to be contained in such a way.

So there is the constitutional issue and there is the poor legitimacy of the Tories’ own electoral process. This might all seem a bit recondite but it means that if Boris is appointed PM on 24 July by HMTQ he will start out with serious legitimacy and confidence problems. That might not be so insurmountable if there were not three other currents which flow against him.

Issue One: Fitness for the job

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I really don’t care how many children Boris Johnson has got. In fact, I don’t even care much that he doesn’t seem to know how many children he has sired. Boris himself is, after all, the product of centuries of aristocratic miscegenation across Europe and many of his own forebears were royal bastards (of one kind or another). So it is all, one might say, in the genes. (Mr Cameron was also a descendant of a royal bastard so there is form in the Tory party here.)

Please never tell me, though, that character does not matter. Character, as Heraclitus said, is destiny. Classical Greek drama was based on that idea – as Mr Johnson knows.

Outstanding leaders have the ability to inspire trust and loyalty in their followers and even to win over the trust of their adversaries. The City of London became the unrivalled centre of global finance by the 19th century based on the principle that my word is my bond. Trust, as Professor Fukuyama has explained, is the cement which binds modern capitalist societies together.

Boris Johnson does not inspire trust. Last week Lord Adonis told the House of Lords that Boris Johnson doesn’t believe in anything except Boris Johnson. Their lordships murmured their approval. We now know that Mr Johnson, even as Foreign Secretary, was not trusted with certain critical strategic intelligence.

What is more shocking is that most Tory MPs don’t trust him. Here is Sir Roger Gale MP last week in a message to his constituents in East Kent:

My real concern, and the one that Tory Members contemplating voting for Mr. Johnson might care to consider…is that the man who covets the job of leading our country should be so ill-informed. It is inconceivable, is it not, that prior to his visit to West Kent he was not briefed about one of the most significant issues arising from Brexit that might, in the immediate future, face the County…Mr. Johnson`s grasp of detail, as exemplified by his disastrous intervention, while Foreign Secretary, in the case of Mrs Nazanin Zahari Ratcliffe, the young mother still languishing in an Iranian Prison, appears to be minimal. A “broad brush” approach to politics is one thing. Laziness and carelessness in a Prime Minister is something completely different [i]

Now I know that dear Sir Roger resembles Private Eye’s fictitious Sir Bufton Tufton – the permanently indignant knight of the shires. But, to be fair, he has had a brilliant record as a constituency MP – supporting animal welfare issues long before they became fashionable. I know that he would not have written that without deep reflection.

Or, here is an extract from a message I received a few days ago from the chairman of a Tory Constituency Association who, for obvious reasons, shall remain anonymous:

Johnson is an opportunistic amoral chancer. Those who know him well know this but a lot of them are opportunistic amoral chancers themselves. However, it appears that he has done a deal as his campaign has been encouraging his supporters to vote early before he makes any more mistakes…For the past few days they have been attacking Hunt on [fox] hunting – even though Johnson also voted to repeal the hunting ban…

On Wednesday (10 July) Sir Alan Duncan, the Foreign Office minister (admittedly not a great fan) accused Mr Johnson of “throwing Sir Kim Darroch under the bus”. Mr Johnson, in contrast to Mr Hunt, refused to come to our man in Washington’s defence during the televised debate on Tuesday. Sir Alan, like Mr Stewart, is one of more than 100 Tory MPs (possibly more) who would refuse to serve under Mr Johnson.

Mr Johnson has been able to run a campaign without campaigning because he is a celebrity rather than a politician. He is literally someone, like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, who is mostly famous for being famous. (Mr Johnson has a blonde mane; Ms Kardashian has a generous posterior.) As he has built up the expectation that he will win so he has promised patronage to all and sundry, thus recruiting their support.

The leitmotif of his campaign has been that he was an outstanding mayor of London. Many people who actually worked at City Hall during his tenure beg to differ. He is widely thought of as having been lazy but lucky. The entire Telegraph-Spectator machine has been cranked up to extol his virtues. According to Charles Moore, a writer and commentator whom I respect, Boris has a talent for surrounding himself with outstanding people to whom he delegates extensively.

During Mr Johnson’s editorship of The Spectator, so Mr Moore tells us, circulation rose significantly even though Mr Johnson hardly ever turned up at that distinguished journal’s offices. Mr Moore infers that he will make a fine PM because he will let the experts get on with the nitty gritty while the leader radiates optimism and bonhomie to all.

The Daily Borisgraph (if I may call it that) has shamelessly pursued their man’s cause, orchestrated no doubt by a pair of billionaire sibling puppet-masters from their offshore tax paradise in the Channel Islands. Apart from his time as an MP and as Mayor, Boris’s entire journalistic career has been spent on the Barclay brothers’ payroll.

At least The Daily Telegraph’s Michael Deacon was allowed to reveal that, according to a poll by Lord Ashcroft’s polling outfit, only 10 percent of voters would engage Boris as a babysitter. To be fair, the DT’s business section is required reading – even if the main newspaper (including Boris’s column) is eminently recyclable.

Issue Two: He has near-zero chance of re-negotiating Mrs May’s deal

Modern diplomacy and international relations are largely based on close interpersonal relations. In the age of technology and instant communications, global leaders – particularly with the European Union – are in constant contact with one another. When Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel embrace at summits it is because they speak to each other every other day.

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No European leader will call Boris Johnson regularly because they neither like nor trust him. As a matter of fact, they don’t much admire him either – his light-hearted banter translates poorly into German or Swedish. In any case, Juncker, Tusk, Barnier & Co. will have no incentive to negotiate with Boris since they will be pensioned off at midnight on 31 October. The new EU Commission, under the federalist Frau Ursula von der Leyen will not wish to make concessions to someone that they regard as a populist for fear of the consequences that will have in Italy and elsewhere.

Now that Labour since Tuesday (09 July) has become, de facto, a Remainer party (seeking of course to tourniquet the haemorrhage of Labour votes to the out-Remainer Lib-Dems), there is absolutely no chance that the Opposition will back a revised version of the Withdrawal Agreement – even if the Irish backstop were surgically removed and all sceptical Tory Brexiteers were won over.

If Mr Johnson thinks that he can drive through a no-deal Brexit by proroguing parliament it is now clear that a the entire establishment, led by former PM John Major, will – quite literally – put him in the dock. If you think we have been living through a political crisis for the last three years then just wait for the final act.

Issue Three: Un-costed proposals for tax cuts and spending hikes

Then consider that the extent of Mr Johnson’s pledges on tax and spending become more implausible by the day. He wants to cut income tax for the better off while increasing spending on a range of issues: including training up 20,000 new policemen, more money for education, infrastructure and the environment. He promises to raise the NIC threshold for the low-paid and to raise the ceiling for pension pots (the “lifetime allowance”). (This later measure is of topical interest since some hospital consultants have been refusing work recently because they face an effective marginal tax rate of 90 percent on earnings above £110,000). He wants to reduce business rates (as does Mr Hunt) and to slash corporation tax.

Mr Johnson announced his intention on 08 July to tax the FANGs more robustly. Splendid idea! The problem is: how? If it were that easy it would already have been accomplished.

Anarchy in the UK?

The key issue for investors – be they British or foreign – is the risk that highly dysfunctional leadership could translate into a major loss of confidence in the British economy. This could manifest itself as a market crisis, or a cessation of the flow of foreign direct investment into the UK – or both together. Sterling is already under consistent attack: $1.20 seems nigh.

Investment flows into the UK are already well down since 2016 and we know that British exporters have been postponing investment decisions until the post-Brexit landscape becomes clearer. In the event of a no-deal Brexit at midnight on 30 October (“Do or die”) we can be sure that, not only will investment fall to zero, but disinvestment – the relocation of production elsewhere – will accelerate. Quite apart from Brexit, there is abundant evidence that fear of a Corbyn take-over is already starving the UK energy sector of new investment[ii].

Despite the exhortations of the Brexiteers (I am guilty myself), the fact is that Brexit – or at least the failure of the British political class collectively to deliver Brexit – has done huge damage to Britain’s reputation abroad. Many British people do not appreciate that, until very recently, most of the world held Britain in high regard as a politically stable, just, prosperous and civilised country with a vibrant culture. But at present we are a laughing stock: and a Johnson premiership might not look just funny ha-ha, but funny peculiar.

What can we do to mitigate the risks of an impending Johnson premiership? Not very much – unless we decide to live elsewhere. The nation will survive (even if the Union is imperilled) – though booed off the international stage like a rubbish talent show contestant.

I hope I’m wrong.

[i]Gale’s View, 03 July 2019.\


Comments (10)

  • Sohail says:

    With Great Respect Vince many Commentators are despairing at the events
    That are unfolding.However no one has any idea what is going to actually happen.So I guess 1 November 2019 is going to be a very significant day.

  • N C Granby says:

    Thank you for this excellent article. The best I have read about the leadership contest & consequences.

  • Simon Morrison says:

    Journalists have the privilege of being cynical – even negative – about everything – especially British journalists. However we have in this country faced impossible situations before – regularly. No one at the time, for example, expected Britain to survive the Spanish Armada in Elizabeth the First’s time. Neither did she. Yet she made an inspiring speech (which still exists) and that inspiration (together with the weather, admittedly) pulled us through. (There have been many similar such instances when Britain has not only survived against all the odds but been the wonder of the world.) Churchill was under the influence of alcohol when he made his inspiring ‘fight on the beaches’ speech. The general with him at the time was moved to say, ‘Yes, Winston, I believe we can do it.’ Whereupon Churchill turned on him witheringly with the response, ‘In 3 months you and I will both be dead!’ But Churchill’s speeches did inspire us to achieve the impossible and so here we are and we have never ever had it so good! Boris is a man full of faults – just like Churchill was but I believe he can inspire the massive turnaround we need and that will do. If he is then thrown aside as, again, Churchill was – – ok he will have served his purpose. Just so long as he provides the ‘glorious summer to counter May’s winter of our discontent’ we’ll be alright and he will!

  • Snooter says:

    Every political commentator in May 1940 despaired of a Churchill premiership. Most people thought Reagan would be a disaster in the White House. Everyone thought May would be a huge success. Boris has two jobs: get us out of the EU and defeat Corbyn decisively at an election. Things will tick along when those are done.

  • Shekhar says:

    You said ‘ character ‘ of prime minister matters. Really? Since when? I am struggling to remember when was the last time Britain had a PM with impeccable character. May be Thatcher was the last one. John Major was philandering with his diary secretary, Tony Blair was liar and scoundrel of the first order. Gordon Brown was throwing things at staff in anger which may be considered a criminal assault . David Cameron was puddle of Rupert Murdoch and his cronies. Theresa May misguided the nation by saying ‘ Brexit means brexit’ and then trying hard to avoid brexit. Politician with a good character is non-existent these days. This is true all over the world. At least Boris has been a original Brexiteer and not trying to be a fake Brexiteer like May and Hunt. As regards your admiration of Roger Gale, I better not mention what I know of his character. Your hatred for Boris is sadly making you to lose objectivity and perspective in your writing . I have been an admirer of your articles in the past but my feeling is that you are better off sticking to business and finance articles rather than political commentaries. Writing about royal bastards and Kim’s posterior is not really your cup of tea.

  • Judith Gough says:

    I think Boris has the innate ability to get the country onside to make our separation from the EU a success. It certainly wont happen by being doubtful and despairing. He is the man for the moment…and has a very able team behind him.

  • Mark Lyndon says:

    Hard Brexit, blah, blah, blah
    Soft Brexit, blah, blah, blah,
    Crashing out, blah, blah, blah
    Over a cliff, blah, blah, blah
    Operation fear, blah, blah, blah
    Irish backstop, blah , blah, blah
    Island of Ireland, blah, blah, blah
    What worries me, blah, blah, blah

  • Mark Lyndon says:

    You can never fall asleep in the company of BJ. Your article…meh….

  • Paul says:

    Yet another Boris bashing article – its worse than project fear. Its also having the same effect as project fear in that ordinary folk think that if ‘they’ are so worried about him to come up with this risk wave of bilge, then perhaps there is something about him that we want (particularly when you look at the current Tory and Labour alternatives).

    I for one was rather hoping that you journalist’s would have learnt from the referendum. You really do need to get out of London more often and get a feel for what the rest of the country, the majority of the country, are really thinking.

  • Sohail says:

    Boris should be taking over next week.This is a positive move as he is a Brexiteer
    And he will have the opportunity in a matter of days to put his policies into practice.

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