As we enter 2020, all the signs are Johnson’s 80-seat majority all-powerful, all-conquering position is an illusion. Johnson, that exploiter of illusion par excellence is sitting astride a seemingly impregnable illusion, while we continue to wonder on who is the real Boris.
Meanwhile all beneath his considerable backside is shifting sands. He is busy “getting Brexit done”, while he is being bluntly made aware by the EU that the price Britain could pay if he does not compromise will be very great, mostly recently the exclusion of the City from Europe. It appears that he has ruled out an extension, and has ruled out the single market and customs union, and yet presumably hopes to force some middle ground from the unyielding Europeans under time pressure. At home, the ERGites will pressurise him not to concede and if necessary to walk away, and leave us with a no-trade-deal Brexit. We are left with a thought though, that he may engineer some last minute climb-down as he did when he betrayed the DUP. So, despite what he says, the Brexit drama continues.

Across the oceans, Trump has also exposed the illusion of cool Britannia. Despite attempts at appearances, Johnson is beholden to Trump, to his unpalatable trade deal, and to whatever sudden hissy fit he throws at the likes of the Iranian regime. The possibility of maintaining a European front was blown apart by poodle-like obeisance to Trump, and with it the risk of being pulled into a Middle East war. Yet, in so far as Trump has a policy, it is to pull out of the Middle East. He also seems inclined to withdraw from the traditional guardian of Europe role militarily. All this leaves Britain’s position dangerously exposed, and no wonder there is yet another Defence Review taking place.

At home, the fissures in the illusion of “Britain” continue to open, in so far as a concept of “Britain” ever existed. The general election result emphasised once again that the Celtic nations are moving in different directions and that England now has to to find its own real identity. The logic of the shift away from the Protestant hegemony in Ulster is perhaps finally being recognised in that the DUP had to climb down and agree to Stormont reassembling. Perhaps reunification is no longer a distant dream but a tangible agenda item in many people’s minds. At the same time, Sturgeon insists that the election results gives her a mandate to hold a second referendum on independence for Scotland. The result of such a vote could go her way. Set against that is Johnson’s considerable bulk. Yet can the Tories realistically hold out against this for long?

At the same time too, the Tories make, they seem to say, a new pitch for a One Nation party with spending announcements to keep on board the former Labour “heartland” seats in the “left behind” North that switched to the Tories in 2019. Is Johnson therefore going to be able to develop a new Tory proposition to embrace the patriotic former working class of these areas, particularly as Labour fights amongst itself as to whether it can realistically any longer be a party that offers something to these new Tory voters? Or is Johnson really an ERG neoliberal about to unleash a further dose of Thatcherism on a vulnerable country?

It will not be long before the forces that question the new Tory dispensation for a one-nation Britain independent and viable outside the EU start to combine and attack the illusion that Johnson is trying to force on us. As we wake up from post-Christmas slumbers and shake off our holiday apathy, one might wonder if the appearance of stability and unity, and the crushing defeat for the pro-EU cause brought by this election, is an illusion. Johnson is not going to find it easy and he is so far untested as to his ability to navigate complex and conflicting political forces at home and overseas. He might succeed, and yet again, the illusion might be revealed as such, that the Tories have finally and utterly failed.

Thus this year, and indeed the next five, could be very interesting for Boris watchers. A new progressive pro-EU movement, an electoral alliance that can unseat the Tories, carry out constitutional reform to remove the entrenched undemocratic oligarchy that is the Tory party grip on power, and bring back some semblance of sanity, is badly needed. The space in politics is there to be taken. Whether the likes of Starmer and others can do this or stay stuck in factionalism remains to be seen.

John Gloster-Smith
John Gloster-Smith is a graduate of Oxford University, a former Director of History and Politics at Mill Hill School, London, and a facilitator and coach in professional and personal development, working often at the heart of UK government. He is now largely retired, lives in South-west France and writes on politics and personal development. John's personal blog is https://johngspoliticsblog.org/about/

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