That fearless fighter against racism Jeremy Corbyn once said that British Jews “don’t understand British irony”. Had this been true, then they would have rather missed out on over three years of political turmoil whose outcome must rank as one of the most ironical in our history.
Ironical because, while it seemed that Corbyn and the forces of Remain were winning, it now appears they were losing. While Corbyn and his followers excitedly saw the many Parliamentary defeats that buffeted the two Conservative governments as leading, almost inevitably, to a Labour government, the general election delivered a decisive Tory victory, and the exit from the EU on 31 January. .
It was not long ago that commentators were speculating that Boris Johnson might compete for being the British prime minister who held office for the shortest time. No British government had been so battered by events since – well, since the May government.
Mrs May calling a general election in 2017 resulted in a massive defeat for the forces of Brexit. Squandering a 20-point lead in the polls, the Tories ended up as captives to the DUP for their majority.
But hidden in this election disaster was some good news. Corbyn’s strong performance silenced the leadership’s rebels on the Labour benches. He would now be certain to fight the next election as the Labour leader, something that turned out to be highly significant in the Tories’ eventual election victory. Jeremy Corbyn’s survival also meant that Tory Remainers would regard a Labour government as an even more fearsome prospect than Brexit and at the next election vote for Boris. Another positive for the Tories was that Labour’s radical manifesto was seen by its leadership as an important factor in their unexpected success. If the voters liked these goodies, why not add more at the next general election? In 2019 Santa Labour promised more presents to be paid for by taxing industry and the rich, forgetting that financial prudence wasn’t widely seen as one of the party’s traditional virtues.
The 2017 election was followed by a war of attrition in the House of Commons while Mrs May, with a stubbornness that was difficult to understand and impossible not to admire, brought her EU transition deal forward only for it to be voted down repeatedly by the opposition parties and Tory Brexiteers.
On his news blog Robert Peston, ITV’s Political Editor, argued that if Labour had voted for Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement deal, which was close to what the party was advocating, then the Tories would have split and Labour taken power. Not a man to hesitate before a hyperbole, he called Labour’s policy ‘the greatest fluffed opportunity of any opposition in history’.
That’s as maybe, but the Labour strategy seemed to make good sense at the time. Block Brexit, blame Tory divisions and Brexit hardliners and watch the Conservatives destroy themselves.
As it was, following the 2017 election things went even better than Labour could have imagined. It seemed only a matter of when, not if, we had a Corbyn government, a very soft Brexit and probably a second referendum.
Three times Mrs May brought her toxic Withdrawal Agreement to the House of Commons and each time it was rejected, on the first occasion by 230 votes – described by the BBC as ‘the greatest defeat for a sitting government in history’.
Nor was this the only May failure that might have featured in a Guinness Book of the worst political records. No prime minister in modern times suffered so many resignations from a government: in three years there were 16 cabinet resignations and, in total, 60 ministerial resignations, two thirds over the Brexit deal.
In the years following the EU referendum, hundreds of thousands of marchers packed central London demanding a ‘people’s vote’. Brexit prospects looked so dismal that on the third time of asking Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg voted for the May deal for fear there would be no Brexit. But the vote was still lost.
While Labour dreamed of government and Brexiteers like me gnashed their teeth over Mrs May’s stubborn refusal to give up on her doomed deal, the clock, as Michel Barnier once said, was ticking. Reporters enjoyed pointing out that years after our vote to leave the EU, deadlines had been missed and Brexit was stuck in a ditch.
Frustration mounted among the general public. I confess I assumed, lazily, that the Tories would eventually pay a heavy price for their divisions, missing their deadlines and failing for so long to deliver Brexit.
When Boris was chosen by the Tory voters as their new prime minister, things got even worse. Carrie Symonds had hardly time to change the Downing Street curtains when the Supreme Court decided that the prime minister had acted unlawfully when he prorogued parliament for five weeks, preventing MPs from properly debating Brexit, something they seemed to have been doing for an eternity.
Boris was even accused of lying to the Queen. Though Her Majesty would not have been the first woman he’d lied to, the accusation was unfair. Johnson believed that proroguing parliament for five weeks was legal which means he was, thanks to Lady Hale and her fellow judges, mistaken rather than dishonest.
There was a further victory for the forces of Remain when parliament voted to stop any possibility of a ‘no deal’ with the so-called surrender bill: 21 Tory MPs who voted for the bill were expelled from the parliamentary Conservative Party.
Boris’s expulsion of Tory rebels was seen as an act of foolish brutality by commentators who had castigated Mrs May for her failure to impose discipline on her divided cabinet. But it helped convince voters that, deal or no deal, the new prime minister was serious about delivering Brexit.
Another parliamentary vote saw the prime minister forced to ask the EU for a further extension and a Conservative government missing yet another deadline. Labour believed voters would punish the prime minister for failing to keep his promise to ‘die in a ditch’ if Brexit wasn’t delivered by the end of October. Instead, many blamed a Remainer parliament.
I have given a brief history of Brexit after the referendum vote to remind us how, for so long, it seemed almost impossible to imagine any other outcome than a Corbyn government and probably remaining in the EU.
There were the multiple defeats suffered by the Tories in Parliament and in the courts, the abject incompetence of the negotiations with the EU, the rebellions and missed deadlines. A catalogue of failure that surely no government could survive.
Yet the biggest factor in the Conservatives’ election victory was that the party tapped into the deep reservoir of frustration, built up over more than three years and shared even by Remainers. It did so with the slogan “Let’s get Brexit done”, surely the most effective campaign message since “Let’s take back control” in the referendum campaign.
Mrs May’s many defeats finally destroyed her. Her successor’s determination and optimism meant that even his defeats convinced people that when he promised no more ‘dither, delay and deadlock’ he would deliver Brexit. The past was history and they swept it aside.
Losing for May was part of winning for Boris. The irony of Brexit is that Brexiteers owe a debt of gratitude to Mrs May. By battling on for so long, she managed to create and increase the general public’s frustration. I thought a new Tory leader would inherit a toxic legacy of voter frustration and Brexit fatigue. Instead, Boris Johnson harnessed it.
What is more, people didn’t vote for a fourth Conservative government. They voted, as Tories discovered on many doorsteps, for Boris and an entirely new government. While Labour and the Liberal Democrats boosted the Conservative’s message by promising yet another extension of Brexit purgatory by holding a second referendum. Hardly an outcome that the big campaign for a People’s Vote had bargained for.
If there had been a Greek Goddess of politics, I think she would have possessed a cruel and ironic sense of humour and enjoyed plotting unexpected consequences. I can imagine her appearing to Boris in a dream. “Boris”, she would say, “be steadfast. You will be buffeted by storms. You will be attacked by one-eyed Remainer giants. Your enemies will rejoice. But Brexit Penelope awaits you. And I will guide your sails”.
And with those words, before Boris could offer to drive her home, she would have vanished.
So far, she has been true to her words.