Gerard Howlin: Labour and the remainers fiddled while Boris kept eye on the prize

Tomorrow’s election in Britain is only the end of the beginning. It won’t be the beginning of the end.

Gerard Howlin: Labour and the remainers fiddled while Boris kept eye on the prize

Tomorrow’s election in Britain is only the end of the beginning. It won’t be the beginning of the end.

If, as polls predict, a Conservative majority is in place by Friday morning, and UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, ‘gets Brexit done’, it will be a starting point only. Leaving the EU by January 31 begins the far more challenging process of agreeing a new relationship.

At the heart of that will be Britain’s key financial asset, the capital markets in the City of London. The knives will be out in Brussels, Frankfurt, and Paris for a slice of that lucrative action. And that’s only the beginning.

A Conservative majority of between 30 and 50 seats, based on those same polls, is threatened by a critically important nuance. Many seats turn on incredibly narrow margins. A small swing, or so-called tactical voting, whereby people, regardless of their own party preference, vote for the anti-Conservative candidate most likely to win, could deliver a hung parliament.

That is within the range of realistic possibilities. But it would require everything against the Conservatives to align. It seems it is the best that can be hoped, for those opposed to Johnson’s re-election.

More than this, it seems, Labour cannot hope for. If he fails to become prime minister, Jeremy Corbyn’s political obituary will be devastating. Labour losing tomorrow would be the most slothful,arrogant, sectarian, and bigoted waste of political opportunity or moral obligation in memory. There is simply no equivalent that fits.

What will be unfair is that most of the opprobrium will be heaped on the leader himself. He is simply a vain old man, who has, over a lifetime, substituted positions for principles. There is nobody as amoral as one who prefers the soap of righteous thinking over the dirt of actually doing something. His political life has been the disdain of the dilettante.

More deeply, the Labour Party is an open hole in which to see exposed the political sectarianism of those who now control it. This is where Corbyn’s benignity disappears. The inside of his project, the underbelly of his leadership, is a settling of decades-old scores, both ideological and personal, on the left.

The internal impulse was a purge of MPs not aligned to the new reality. There is an arrogance unseen since the heyday of Militant Tendency in the 1980s.

Once outer circles, but now effectively the collective leadership, are where anti-Semitism was normalised, and the charge itself seen as proof of the very conspiracy theories it feeds off.

This is an irredentist, unrepentant, and irredeemable subterrain of politics. It mirrors the phobias of the right and, ultimately, is a place of political disaffection, not of hope.

The ultimate blame for the re-election of Johnson, if it transpires, will lie with those on the moderate left of the Labour Party who put out a candidate who couldn’t muster enough support from MPs to get on the leadership ballot. There must forever be a special contempt for those who treated the essence of politics as a parlour game and an offshoot of the debating society.

Slightly across the political spectrum, that is exactly what David Cameron did when he gambled three kingdoms that have taken 500 years to collate. No Shakespeare play rivals the drama or the hubris.

Corbyn is also a reminder that the bulwark of anti-EU opinion was traditionally on the Left in Britain. He himself is clearly only a conscripted remainer. It is a position and not a principle. The lack of conviction was part of the reason for the Brexiteers winning the referendum in the first place. Though, for all that, Cameron will always be the main culprit.

The fracture on the remain side has hindered and divided it from the beginning. Cameron never took it seriously, not until it was too late.

Corbyn never believed in it. Theresa May, who was a remainer, barely spoke in public, so as to privately preserve her potency for a leadership election she hoped, against hope, would come in time and in the right circumstances. Disastrously, her hopes were fulfilled. Corbyn couldn’t unseat May in 2017, so she staggered on. Her eventual collapse was finally Johnson’s opportunity.

His opportunity tomorrow is founded not just on nearly five years of political fumbling and greasy dealing. It was immediately presaged by the opportunism and lack of principle of the remain parties in the last parliament.

The best plan was clear. Trap Johnson in Downing St and keep him there. His incapacity to either call an election, to govern at all, or critically to progress Brexit would have taken a toll. He understood that danger and determined, at all costs, to escape the mangle of a parliament he could not control and a course of events that threatened to derail his ambition. One by one, his opponents lost nerve, stood back, and let him pass.

The Scottish Nationalists are arguably most culpable in this. Alex Salmond, their former leader, faces trial on very serious charges in the new year. A political judgement was made that it was in their interest to have any election out of the way first.

The Liberal Democrats desperately wanted an election before Brexit ‘was done’, because this issue is their calling card. They saw in Corbyn’s mealy mouthedness their opportunity to galvanise the remain vote to themselves. And then Corbyn, himself wary of the charge of being too afraid to face the people, and naively believing in his own potency, turned tail.

The Duke of Wellington, as every Eton boy like Boris knows, famously spent the night before Waterloo pacing the battlefield. He knew its terrain and he determined how to hold it.

This election is fought on ground Boris chose, and at the time he wanted. His avoidance of interrogation underlines the growing impotence of traditional media.

The BBC’s Andrew Neil may fulminate about Boris not showing up to be interviewed, but I doubt that influences anyone not already persuaded. The damage done to Boris was self-inflicted: in a doorstep-style interview with ITV’s Joe Pike, he disdained to look at a photograph of a young boy, Jack Williment-Barr, sleeping on a floor in hospital. Boris the callous charlatan was exposed.

The debate swung back to where he least wanted it: the NHS. Will it make a difference, or is it too little, too late? We will know on Friday morning if the great prize Johnson has sought all his life, and held in his grasp for most of this election campaign, is his.

But what is that prize? Walk around Whitehall, and around by Trafalgar Square up the Mall, and you see a Britain that is a Disney-esque theme park in a formerly imperial capital. Great men cast in bronze, usually in uniform and on horseback, are sentinels everywhere.

But it is utterly over, and another world. Those who could have stopped this preferred to settle scores. Those who have won have what they wished for, but at the price of the thing itself.

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