You cannot make the Withdrawal Agreement less malignant by removing the backstop any more than you could make Quasimodo more attractive by giving him a nose job, says Sean Walsh.
The knitting circle that passes for political journalism these days is adamant that last week’s Borgia-esque government reconstruction flowed primarily from Johnson’s animus towards Hunt supporters. The members of the circle need to be told that this is either false or, if true, irrelevant. The Lord works wonders with the crooked timber of humanity. Mr Johnson may be a flawed character, one who lacks the immaculate probity of a lobby journalist, but the important point is this: with unexpected ruthlessness he has terminated the debate between Leavers and Remainers that formed the dysfunctionality at the core of the May Cabinet. That can hardly be a bad thing, whatever the motivation.
Mr Johnson’s most pleasing appointment is the elevation of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Our new Leader of the Commons has already come in for some stick for issuing “style guidance” to officials charged with managing his official correspondence. Once again the critics are missing a deeper point. Mr Rees-Mogg has declared war on the dreary language of contemporary secularism. More importantly, he has disclosed an understanding of the centrality of language to thought. It may seem trivial that one prefers to say that something is “unacceptable” rather than “wrong”; in fact it is very much the opposite. In the current context it needs to be emphasised that the battle for Brexit has to be the battle for the language of Brexit. The Lord President of the Council has signalled that he gets this.
The linguistic consensus that has shaped this process is a false one. It has relied on ambiguity, obfuscation and misdirection. I’ll deal with these in turn.
There are two conflations that are greasing the wheels of the BBC Remain machine: between a deal and a treaty; and between Parliament and the Commons. The Withdrawal Agreement is not a mechanism for the facilitation of EU disengagement, but a treaty designed to lock us in, negotiated in supplication and intended to favour inflexibility over adaptability. There is no reason why the collection of mini-deals whose purpose is to ameliorate any short term disruption cannot be called a “deal”. It is arguable, but false, that “nobody voted to leave without a deal”; it is frankly incredible, on the other hand, to suggest that “nobody voted to leave without a treaty”. To mix the two things up has been the most impressive strategy of those who want to use the “no deal” hysteria as a proxy vehicle for “no change”.
And when we are told that Parliament will not allow “no deal” what is meant is that the Commons will prevent it. Parliament, we are told by the MP for Beaconsfield and Nearest TV Camera, is sovereign. But Parliament doesn’t own sovereignty, she has been lent it. And the Commons is not Parliament any more than a school is its pupils. Parliament is a system of balances between executive and legislature. A “no-deal” Brexit can be halted only by statute. In other words, the executive is in charge of that possibility. Those MPs who want to seize control of the Commons order paper “for a day” are in fact attempting to dissolve the executive in the legislature “for a day”. But a coup-for-a-day tends to end up becoming somewhat more permanent.
We are in the position of a cuckolded husband whose wife has now promised to be faithful. There must be some (reasonable) suspicion that the PM’s intention is to somehow revive the Withdrawal Treaty by amputating the “backstop”. But the Treaty is like a ghastly treatise written by a French postmodernist, deploying layers of complexity to obscure whatever meaning it has. And its awfulness is holistic. You cannot make the Treaty less malignant by removing the backstop any more than you could make Quasimodo more attractive by giving him a nose job. May’s agreement would smother the moral ideas of sovereignty and freedom with the technicalese so loved by the baccalaureate class. It was written by the sort of person who would stand in front of the Mona Lisa and wonder about the cost of the paint.
If there are grounds for some trepidation regarding the trajectory of the Johnson government then this is where they come from: that this obfuscation might be the basis of a misdirection. Get rid of the backstop and we can look at what’s left -maybe there’s something to work with. But there isn’t. Sceptics such as myself have long believed that the backstop was there just for this purpose: to be got rid of at a propitiously helpful stage of the overall negotiation. The decision of Steve Baker to “encourage” the process from the backbenches is not itself particularly encouraging.
But optimism is the order of the day so let’s now be hopeful. If Mr Johnson can reshape the language of this war of attrition then all may be well. And let’s not forget that not all language is linguistic. The Prime Minister needs to stop the embarrassing protocol established by his predecessor which had her constantly journeying to the comfort territory of our “partners”. Never respond when beckoned. Make them come to you. If we see, in the next few weeks, the outgoing President of the EU Commission “emerging uncertainly” from a car outside No 10 Downing Street then we will know that things are finally on course.
And he is helped by the time factor: there isn’t much of it. Political capital is subject to the law of entropy. It degrades. The October 31st deadline is therefore an asset.
Except, of course, that it isn’t a deadline. The deadline was months ago. We are now in overdraft. By October 31st the credit cards will have been well and truly maxed out.