Treachery upon treachery; back-stabbing upon back-stabbing. Things rarely get as brutal as the raw politics currently on vivid display in Britain’s deeply-divided Conservative Party.
One MP has described the turmoil within the party as making House of Cards look like Teletubbies. There is not just blood on the floor. There is blood everywhere you look. So much, in fact, that commentators and columnists daily reach for Shakespeare as they try to put the extraordinary happenings into some kind of context.
Over the past 24 hours, the preferred text has been Julius Caesar. “Et tu Brute” has become “Et tu Michael” after Boris Johnson’s supposed closest ally, Michael Gove, who is secretary,of state for justice, pulled his backing for the former mayor of London and announced he was entering the race to become the Conservative Party’s new leader.
Realising that he no longer had the numbers to capture the party’s top job — and thus become prime minister by default — Johnson soon after announced he would not be a candidate for the leadership.
By that stage, he had the backing of fewer than 50 of the party’s 330 MPs.
His rise and fall — for the time being at least — is an instructive lesson in political basics.
Johnson is a flamboyant, out-of-the-ordinary politician whose clownish air of wackiness endears him to voters. Despite having a blue-blooded background — he was educated at Eton and Oxford — Johnson is able to cross the barriers of class and reach out to the ordinary British voter.
Last week’s stay-or-go referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union emphatically also showed he is a winner. For centre-right parties like the Conservatives, power is everything. And they are willing to tolerate the eccentricities of a leader who delivers that commodity.
Within the parliamentary wing of the Conservative Party, however, Johnson is in very short supply of two essential ingredients needed to get to the top of politics’ greasy pole — trust and loyalty.
Johnson is hated by a few of his parliamentary colleagues, but disliked and distrusted by many more.
They rapidly turned into a “Stop Boris” lobby. This drew together MPs who had campaigned for Britain to stay in the European Union, along with other MPs who were anti-Europe and read his conciliatory comments after the referendum as a sign he was not serious about implementing the result. Then there were the Cabinet ministers and MPs worrying about their future under a Johnson-led government.
Many questioned whether Johnson was capable of uniting the party and the country.
Furious supporters of David Cameron regarded Johnson as a crass opportunist who had used the referendum and his sudden re-discovery of his Euro-scepticism in order to destroy the Prime Minister.
There were those who saw his backing of the Leave campaign as indicating that he was a politician who put self-interest ahead of the national interest and who played politics with such a crucial question as Britain’s rightful place in Europe.
And there were those who simply did not think Johnson was up to handling the job of prime minister.
There is, of course, poetic justice in Johnson having stabbed Cameron in the back, only to feel Gove’s cold stiletto this week doing the same thing to him.
Up to that point, Johnson’s cynicism had gone unchecked.
Stamping his imprimatur on the Leave campaign was a cost-free exercise for Johnson. The referendum was a matter of political life and death for Cameron.
Had the Leave campaign been thrashed, then Johnson would have looked a fool. But the polls showed there was no danger of that happening. It was was all upside for Johnson. Had the referendum resulted in a narrow majority in favour of Britain staying in Europe, Johnson could have still claimed a kind of victory because most people expected the Remain camp to win by a reasonable margin.
In contrast, Cameron had to win — and preferably win big. The victory of the anti-Europe lobby was a de facto vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. Cameron had to go.
UKIP’s Nigel Farage was meanwhile declaring “Independence Day” for Britain. Having achieved its goal, UKIP had made itself redundant.
But within hours of the final vote count, the full title of Farage’s party — the United Kingdom Independence Party — was looking like a sick joke. The Kingdom was no longer United.
Farage and Johnson could have never imagined that in their moment of triumph that the result would be sliced into tiny pieces by Scotland’s formidable first secretary, Nicola Sturgeon.
Suddenly, the only talk of independence was focussed solely on Scotland’s future in the United Kingdom.
It quickly became apparent that Brexit had achieved much. But none of it could be deemed as being positive. Or in Britain’s national interest for that matter.
The British pound has slumped in value. No-one can claim to know Brexit’s impact on the British and European economies along with those beyond the continent’s shores. There is the likely break-up of the United Kingdom. There has been abuse of migrants from Eastern Europe and the prospect of inter-generational friction between younger voters and the elderly.
Worse, Britain’s two-fingered salute to Paris, Berlin, Rome, Brussels and Europe’s other capitals has given succour to extreme parties on the right peddling variants of the ugly and dangerous brew of ultra-nationalism — the very thing that the architects of a united Europe were trying to eliminate.
Brexit has coincided with those political movements already making strong gains in support on the back of public fears that the tidal wave of economic and other refugees crossing the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East will take their jobs, lower wages and increase taxes to fund the extra housing, education, health and other social services that will be required to cope with the sudden influx.
The political casualties of this public panic are the old centre-left and centre-right parties who provided the foundations of the European Union, but who are now paying a price for that.
Those parties largely provided the cement which has made the integration of member nations’ economies possible. The sharp decline in support for those parties, most notably those of the social democratic variety, is bound to weaken the European Union.
Someone else stands to benefit from fracturing of that collective — Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. Having been hit by European sanctions following his military excursions in the Crimea and Ukraine, no doubt the smile on his face is as broad as the one exhibited in public by Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s right-wing National Front following the result of the referendum.
If Johnson did not think through the possible implications of victory for the Leave option, then he is not qualified to be prime minister If he was aware of the possible repercussions, then his silence on those matters shows a bottom-of-the-barrel level of cynicism that likewise disqualifies him from the job.
Those potential implications explain why officials running the European Commission along with MPs in the European Parliament want Britain to exit the European Union as quickly as possible.
They do not want things to drag on.They want to remove the uncertainty surrounding the mechanics of the parting of the ways. They don’t want other member states to catch the British disease.
They have made it crystal clear that Britain will not be allowed to dine a la carte during negotiations on the country’s exit. In other words, Britain cannot expect to get trade-offs and compromises on things that really matter to London.
For example, post-referendum, Johnson’s advisers were floating the notion of not banning completely the free movement of citizens of countries in the European Union by granting work permits to those who had secured a job prior to arriving in Britain while blocking entry to those who were going to Britain merely to look for work.
In return for this supposed concession to European Union rules, Britain would still retain access to the single European market.
The message from a very angry Europe is forget it. You are either in or out.