The Gamblers III: It Happened Again?

Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings lost two major bets in parliament this week. They had gambled that they could force an election if parliament blocked a ‘no deal’ Brexit and that they could expel a large number of rebel MPs from the Conservative Party without blowback. They were wrong on both counts and the consequences may be devastating for their future prospects. 

The first loss seems unanticipated and the Gamblers are trying to figure out what they can do next. Despite their protestations, they have wanted a general election from the moment they stepped into No. 10. They have done war games. They have tested ads. They constructed a spending review of vote-grabbing policies. And it has all fallen apart. Barring a sudden new deal on Brexit emerging from non-existent negotiations, Britain seems to be set for yet another extension of the Article 50 deadline. It is hard to stress how humiliating this will be for the Prime Minister. He nailed his colours to the mast of leaving on Halloween. Even if he blames Corbyn and parliament for a new extension, he will have to own this failure of leadership and will be open to a challenge from Nigel Farage that he is simply not up to the job of delivering Brexit. 

The purge of the Tory rebels is equally important. This was anticipated. One imagines that it was done to remove dissident Tories and replace them with loyal candidates in the election they thought would immediately follow. This has backfired because an election, while inevitable, is not in Johnson’s gift. The expulsion had the effect of making this a minority government and in these febrile circumstances it is clear that the government’s agenda is now totally stalled. It also signals a split in the Conservative Party that may not yet be fully appreciated. The expulsion of former ministers, privy councillors, and long standing back benchers is horrendous optics. The Tories now look like, in the words of Ken Clarke, the ‘Brexit Party rebadged’. Johnson does not look strong; he looks like a fragile autocrat who cannot deal with dissent and will inflict brutal wounds on his own party if challenged. It is unclear if the party can mend itself under Johnson’s leadership. The price of reunification must surely be Cummings’ head, but he seems unwilling to throw that in the pot at the moment.

Are there any other bets to make? The Prime Minister has been reduced to complaining that Jeremy Corbyn said he wanted an election, so it’s unfair that he is unwilling to grant one on Boris’ terms. Goading Corbyn and opposition MPs for ‘cowardice’ is puerile and shows how powerless Johnson has become. The Gamblers seem to have run out of chips. 

However, let me hedge a little bit. There is an election coming at some point. If we look at polls there is good news for the PM. The Conservatives have a ten-point lead over Labour. It is not near where May was in 2017, but with the electorate divided this could give the Tories a comfortable majority. But let’s not get carried away. Things are very volatile at the moment and Johnson’s actions this week could shift the polls. Hardcore Brexiters might gravitate to Farage due to the PM’s weakness, while Tory moderates might shift to the LibDems or just stay home. Corbyn’s surprisingly robust performance may rally people to the Labour banner. The problem for Johnson and Cummings is that they are losing control of the narrative and in politics that is everything.