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The world – so Dominic Cummings tells us – can be understood as a series of competing alternative branches of history.
If Cummings, the chief advisor to Boris Johnson, is to be believed, then there is a world in which none of this ever happened. The 2016 referendum, that is, and the never ending inertia and chaos that has followed since.
So, imagine it is 2005, and all the early predictions were right. Instead of opting for shiny young upstart David Cameron, Tory members have chosen instead to elect as leader the older, more experienced Shadow Home Secretary David Davis.
After the slickness of Blair, and up against a polished young Etonian, the ex-SAS grammar school boy is a breath of fresh air: David Davis, modern Conservative, as his election slogan reads. A new type of Conservative for a new type of country.
The very model of a Modern Conservative he may be, but there is no doubt that he harks back to type in one crucial sense: he’s a eurosceptic. David Cameron may have talked the talk with his pledge to withdraw from the European People’s Parties group, but his eurosceptism was adopted, so it seems, for political expediency rather than out of conviction. Cameron is a spin doctor, Davis is a true believer – and the Tory backbenches know it.
Davis’s pledge to deliver two referendums on Europe – one asking to return a host of powers to the UK, from fishing to borders and social policy, and the other confirming that this had been achieved – is enough to hold his party together where Cameron failed to. He stops short on offering a straight in-out referendum on Britain’s membership. The pressure to do so isn’t there from his backbenchers – because he is a committed eurosceptic, after all.
The party enters the 2010 election united against Labour leader David Miliband. Davis’s tough line on Europe helps him hoover up some of the eight hundred thousand votes that would otherwise have gone to UKIP. His promises to take back control over our laws, our borders and our money win him over some of those traditional Labour voters who in another branch might otherwise have found themselves voting to leave in 2016. Davis scrapes a majority, and then secures a mandate to demand concessions from the EU. With the voters behind him, how could Europe deny him what he wants?
With Davis pursuing a new, more distant, relationship with the EU, there is little dissent among the Tory faithful. Murmurings of Tory defections to UKIP are nothing but tea room chatter, quickly dismissed. Davis could offer a referendum, but why open old wounds: the pressure simply is not there. His party knows he is on their side – he is “one of us”, in the old Thatcherite phrase. Britain continues merrily through the second decade of the 21st century, shepherded by David Davis, Prime Minister, eurosceptic, saviour of the European Union.
Back to reality. There is only one branch of history that actually matters. And that’s the one where parliament is stuck in a Brexit quagmire with last-minute talks going down to the wire, Johnson has unlawfully prorogued parliament, the Conservative Party is beholden to the DUP and the so-called ERG Spartans.
But looking at what might have been illustrates a fundamental truth about the Conservatives who have driven politics over the last few years. When it comes to Europe, the messenger matters as much, if not more than, the message. David Cameron – for all his tough talk – could never hold his party together on Europe. He failed to cultivate a party in his own image. He could not persuade his colleagues that he was a true believer on the European question. The message of Theresa May’s Brexit deal was doomed from the start because its messenger had voted to remain.
For the old Maastricht rebels, eurosceptism is more than a political agenda – it is something closer to a religion. This is not to say they are unthinking, but rather that they have a particular way of looking at the world. Eurosceptic Tory MPs understanding of institutions, and use of language, are fundamentally different. Their axioms differ from their Europhile colleagues. In short, they can spot a non-believer a mile off.
Boris Johnson, some like to joke, could bring back Theresa May’s deal to parliament in a different font, declare a great victory over the EU, and the deal would pass. Indeed, if the noises coming out of Brussels this afternoon are to be believed, Johnson’s deal may distinctly resemble the last Prime Minister’s, and yet already there are some signs that his deal may be gathering parliamentary support. This speaks to the truth that the current Prime Minister has a much better chance of having the eurosceptic wing of his party accept his deal – whatever form it may take – than Theresa May ever did.
They trust his instincts – as they would have trusted David Davis – in a way that they have never trusted Cameron or May. Johnson is, or at least successfully appears to be, a true believer and fellow traveller. Even if his deal falls short of what the Brexit Spartans might have hoped for, they are much more likely than before to accept it anyway. They will convince themselves that Johnson will secure further concessions in the future – something they never trusted May to do. Likewise, when Johnson says he will leave without a deal, he is believed by both the EU and his own backbenchers. May never had this luxury. She had many of the right words, but nobody was buying it.
But Boris is about to be tested and we will find out to what extent the Tories – MPs, members, donors – will tolerate Johnson making these concessions. As October 31st looms, and crunch time approaches at EU Council next week, the question of whether or not Johnson can continue to convince the eurosceptics that he is one of them will become increasingly vital, both to his future and to that of the country. If he is felt by his backbenchers to have capitulated to the EU too far in his bid to secure a last minute deal, he will need to persuade them that this deal is just the start, a staging post to a pure Brexit. It will not be enough to say the right words. Johnson will need to convince the faithful that the conviction flows within his veins.
What if he cannot convince them and his proposed deal falls apart on contact with the Commons? He would be accused by Eurosceptic Tories of selling out and letting them down in pursuit of compromise. And there is no betrayal quite as devastating as a betrayal by a true believer.
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