Is this how it will be forever? Week in, week out. Like films in the Saw horror franchise or the Changing of the Guard?
Boris Johnson – former London Mayor, former Foreign Secretary, former liberal conservative – has a weekly column in The Telegraph. Most weeks, The Telegraph choose some line or other from his column as a front-page splash. A gag about religious minorities, say, or a somewhat vacuous call to build more houses. Then the news programmes put this ‘story’ from The Telegraph in their bulletins. And thus, Boris Johnson – a man who failed to make the run-offs for the leadership of the Conservative Party just two years ago – sets the agenda or at least the tone for the week’s political rough and tumble. Today’s missive – saying exactly the same things about Mrs May’s proposed deal with Brussels as he said when he resigned over it – is a classic of the genre. And you can expect this game to run and run – particularly in the week of Conservative Party conference.
To be fair to our esteemed news gatherers, this is not merely a result of their own odd and seemingly indestructible fixation with Johnson. Her Majesty’s Opposition has not been fully engaged in the business of opposition for some time. Partly, this is a political ploy – interrupting one’s enemy when one’s enemy is making a mistake is not good tactics. But it is also a product of the bubbling civil war – over antisemitism, yes, but also still over the political and economic soul of the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench is not dominating the pitch – even when open goals, such as Chris Grayling’s nightmare summer, invite them to do so. And on Brexit the Labour Party has even less of a detailed alternative proposal than bluffer-in-chief Boris does. So they keep schtum.
In truth, as well, the repeated elevation of Boris’ op-eds to news is something of a parable for our present politics writ large. All the most vicious animosity, all of the energy and the anger, is directed not across the House at opponents but sideways, at supposed comrades. The Conservative Party’s pragmatic liberals appear to have finally lost all patience with their Brexit-purist colleagues – tweeting and briefing openly personal attacks which are, to be fair, more than repaid in kind. Labour MPs all but publicly call for one another’s deselections – something that a Momentum motion at Labour conference will make all the easier, should it pass. Entryism – on both sides – rewards purity and punishes pragmatism. Our parties are prone corpses, being picked apart before our eyes by those who find nourishment in carrion.
In such an atmosphere, who can blame journalists for covering Johnson’s unsubtle swipes at the Prime Minister as though they were the Gettysburg Address? It isn’t the press’s job to create meaningful policy on behalf of our political parties.
What all of this serves to disguise – but not, of course, to solve – is the chilling precariousness of our position. There is still no majority in Parliament for any one form of Brexit. There is still a deadline that means, absent a deal, Britain simply falls out of the EU in March. Britain still has not made the proper preparations for that possibility. We are watching the timer on the bomb tick relentlessly towards zero whilst arguing with one another about whose bomb it is and whether being blown up is really as bad as people make out.
Those in both the Conservative and the Labour parties who recognise that things do not look good tend to go in one of two directions – some campaign for a ‘People’s Vote’ to give the public a chance to save themselves from themselves whilst some argue for the EEA as a temporary safe harbour. Both options have their merits but both would represent a significant change of course. Realistically, practically, there are ten weeks to achieve such a u- turn.
For all of these reasons and more, politicians back from their summer holidays have very little spring in their steps. They are preparing for the most vicious but most important conference season of their professional lives. All the while hoping that someone in their midst is – secretly, up until now – an expert in bomb disposal. Don’t hold your breath.