In two recent visits to England, the ostensibly Conservative government has allowed the Extinction Rebellion extremists to shut down central London. The last time, in April, the police signaled how cool and climate-aware they were by doing nothing to prevent the gridlock and by dancing and skateboarding with the activists.
That was in the Theresa May era. In the latest protests, under the somewhat more traditionally Tory Boris Johnson, the police were less supine. True to form, they initially accepted the extremists’ creating gridlock. And when the vegan wing of Extinction Rebellion occupied and tried to sabotage the Smithfield meat market, police asked workers arriving early in the morning not to disturb their sleep. But then the police moved with surprising robustness to end the disruption. Any residual support for the activists among ordinary Londoners dried up when they then tried to stop commuters from getting to work by gluing themselves to underground trains.
A week in the Yorkshire Dales after London under the control over the eco-loons felt like a different planet. A highlight was the annual sheep fair at Masham, a journey back to a gentler, non-PC England of muddy Landrovers, wellington boots, ethnic diversity meaning lots of local Viking surnames and the newsagents carrying more copies of Country Life than the Guardian. Big attractions were the local Morris dancers and betting on the hilarious ‘sheep races’, involving Swaledales chasing a local carrying a bucket of feed.
Masham is in a safe Conservative seat where Leave comfortably won the 2016 EU referendum, despite lamb being the biggest local industry and 40 per cent going to the European Union. Local farmers said they never imagined a no-deal Brexit – meaning EU tariffs on lamb of 40-50 per cent. They admired Nigel Farage for having been a long-term champion of Brexit but thought his advocacy of no-deal took no account of EU-export-dependent communities like theirs.
I wrote earlier this year that the British establishment underestimated Boris Johnson and that he could confound his critics by achieving a Brexit which restored Britain’s sovereignty while keeping the Irish soft border and safeguarding the almost half of UK exports which go to the EU. Johnson has duly wrong-footed the Remainers by securing a deal from the EU which would achieve those objectives and also by pressuring Jeremy Corbyn into accepting an election on 12 December – against the advice of many senior members of Corbyn’s team, who fear Labour will be slaughtered.
Indeed, Labour’s poll ratings are shocking, a good ten points behind the Tories, with Corbyn consistently on a disapproval rating of around 60 per cent. In normal circumstances there would be a Tory landslide. But the rivalry between the Tories and the Brexit Party puts in doubt Johnson securing a majority, even though Farage has climbed down from his earlier threat to challenge the Tories in all their seats. Farage’s commitment to run candidates in seats held by Labour and the Liberal Democrats will still split the Brexit vote in those seats, where Johnson hoped to secure his majority. The recent Peterborough by-election could be the template for other seats: the Tories won 21 per cent of votes, the Brexit Party 29 per cent and Labour won with 31 per cent. Farage could be playing the risky strategy of wanting Johnson to fall short of a majority so as to be dependent on Brexit party support.
Farage has softened his criticism of Johnson’s deal but in contested seats is still likely to repeat his criticism that it is a reheated version of May’s and isn’t Brexit. But unlike May’s deal, it takes Britain out of the EU Customs Union and allows it to pursue its own trade deals. It’s true that under Johnson’s deal Britain would effectively remain part of the EU during the transition period, when he aims to conclude a free trade deal. The alternative would be post-Brexit devastation to exports and jobs as the EU imposed tariffs on British imports.
Johnson’s new commitment to the transition not going beyond 2020 means a high chance there will be a no-deal Brexit after all – the prospect of the EU finalising a free-trade deal in a year is close to zero. Nevertheless, Johnson will argue that his approach to Brexit involves less risk to jobs and the economy while Farage will argue that a ‘clean break’ from the untrustworthy EU is the only true Brexit.
The British conservative establishment was out in full force for a memorial service at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, for the great historian and Thatcher advisor Norman Stone, who died earlier this year in Budapest. Attendees included his former student Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief strategist. Eulogies highlighted that his brilliance was accompanied by epic intakes of alcohol: Thatcher once wryly commented after a flight to Taiwan when a tired and emotional Stone collapsed onto a table: ‘Dear Norman seems to be suffering from jetlag’.
Another great event while we were in London was a Speccie evening of Douglas Murray and Lionel Shriver, attended by 2,000, discussing identity politics. The discussion produced numerous hilarious if disturbing insights: government forms offering twelve options for gender; transgender activists stopping the London tube from referring to ‘ladies and gentlemen’; and the new PC ban on ‘pregnant women’ (it should be ‘pregnant persons’). Murray, summing up, said the West’s obsession with identity politics is a massive distraction from important issues. (see it on YouTube).
Mark Higgie is the Spectator Australia’s Europe correspondent.