One of the most important factors driving the UK and Northern Ireland towards a deal is the assumption that a negotiated agreement guarantees a domestic political boost in the short and medium term: for the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, whose personal poll ratings shot up after his rapprochement with Boris Johnson in the Wirral last Friday and will presumably present a new deal as a victory for Irish statecraft; and for the British Prime Minister, who can claim to have “got Brexit done,” and then proceeds to unite the right and recreate the Tory party as a Gaullist party of the nation, Keynesian in its economic outlook, tough on crime and stripped of the individualist ethic introduced to the Conservative tradition by Keith Joseph in the late seventies.
Alternatively, it is quite plausible to write an alternative history in which Boris splits the right by delivering a Brexit deal. Will the Brexit Party up sticks and like Chief Joseph in 1877 before General Howard declare “I am tired of fighting… I will fight no more forever”? Like hell they will. Farage and his acolytes have been holding rapturous rallies throughout the summer across England. They have a national profile and the funding to sustain it.
It is wrong to believe that Boris has always been working towards an electoral strategy grounded in a people vs institutions narrative – early on in his premiership, he brought in the KCL academic John Bew to the Number 10 policy unit (son of Paul Bew, professor of Irish Politics at Queen’s University Belfast and one of the most important intellects in Northern Ireland’s Unionist tradition) to work away on a compromise solution on customs acceptable to both communities. Now that strategy may blow up – indeed it looks likely to do so under pressure from further possible concessions to be extracted by the EU Commission – but it was clearly a sincere effort to shift the terms of the Brexit negotiations.
In that light, the Tory party’s wager that Boris really is their man might well prove to be an historic mistake. For what sort of man is he? He is a demagogue in a sense that he understands the crowd and knows its instincts. He is bad at set-piece speeches, but brilliant at campaigning where he can let his curious effluent speaking style and his kinetic charisma do all the work. In campaigning mode Boris can be Boris, freed, for a moment, of the obligations and trade-offs of office. He is not your typical party man in a way that David Cameron was – a leader who thought in terms of duty and service.
The delivery of a Brexit deal could allow British politics a grace period in which to reset along subtly different lines, with technical discussions over borders, customs and level playing field provisions receding into the background. The Tories may then face a tough reckoning with the public – with questions over their dire treatment of the public realm front and centre, outflanked by the Brexit party in the midlands and the North and impotent in England’s cities and Scotland.
With the Tory party’s novel communitarian agenda under Boris articulated in more aggressive and sincere terms by Corbyn (or a newly installed McDonnell), politics then resets along the dividing lines that were familiar to the Europe of the thirties – between individualists, who sort of like capitalism and collectivists, who reject it. In that new context, a national liberal party with a strong economic agenda emerges as the best way of taking on the left. And Boris? Perhaps to lead it he would follow his greatest hero, Winston Churchill, who crossed the floor of the House of Commons twice. Alternatively, he might remake the Conservative party as a liberal Tory party shorn of hard-line Brexiteers. Stranger things have happened already.