Britain’s beleaguered Prime Minister has good cause to regret that the Indian “family” for whom he claims to take bottles of Scotch to New Delhi is only a piece of whimsy. Had Boris Johnson really been an Indian politician, with or without a host of Indian relatives, he wouldn’t have to guard against the machinations of the Tory rebels, possibly tacitly encouraged by a Speaker who denounced the decision to prorogue Parliament as a “constitutional outrage”. India’s stern anti-defection law would have thrown them out of Parliament for having the temerity to defy the party whip.
So far as I can remember, that law, reflecting public impatience with the crass opportunism of “Aaya Ram Gaya Ram” antics, allows just one exception. I recall my old friend, the late Hardwari Lal, explaining with righteous patience to some European or American journalist that if he was at all a defector, he was a “principled defector”. The law says that if one-third of the legislators oppose the party leadership’s diktat they can claim to have seceded to form a separate party.
Since Hardwari’s Haryana-based party whose name I have forgotten had only three MPs to start with, his change of allegiance amounted to an act of secession. The 21 British MPs who repeatedly voted with Labour and other Opposition parties to defeat their own government over Brexit can’t claim that dignity since Boris Johnson is still left with 289 supporters, albeit with two fewer ministers. One former minister is his brother Jo, whom some readers might remember as the Financial Times correspondent in New Delhi who used to come across in Indian TV programmes as a very superior person. He quit saying he was “torn between family loyalty and the national interest”.
Whether or not the “Blond Beast” (as the Prime Minister is sometimes termed) emerges unscathed from this week’s crucial tests, the battle for a Britain that has lost an empire without finding a role (to quote Dean Acheson, a former American secretary of state) will continue to rage. It’s more than a role, it’s an identity that “Little Englander” Britons like Nigel Farage, head of the Brexit Party, say they are trying to preserve in what they call an existential struggle. Once they were worried about the abolition of Greenwich Mean Time and third-class railway compartments and perceived threats to the Queen’s sovereignty. By retaining its own currency instead of adopting the European Union’s euro, and by rejecting the all-EU Schengen visa, Britain emphasised an individualism that rests on two props. One is the vanished empire whose memory lingers uneasily in an etiolated Commonwealth. The other is the instinctive and historical suspicion of foreigners (more particularly, of Asians and Africans) that persists even amidst a seemingly vigorous multiracialism and with a Prime Minister who has surrounded himself with ministers of Indo-Pakistani origin and boasts of his Turkish ancestry and Sikh relatives.
Despite such PR gestures and indications of his public appeal as he goes charging round the country as if already on the election trail, Boris Johnson does not seem to inspire much confidence in Westminster. He reminds me of Father Schepers, the Belgian Jesuit who taught me history in what was then Calcutta, describing King Charles I, “If you boys come to me and say ‘Father, Father, we want a holiday for winning the match against La Martiniere’ I’d say ‘Yes, of course you will get a holiday’, but if I were King Charles I would add in my own mind ‘On Sunday!’” Mr Johnson swears he is negotiating a divorce settlement with the EU and only if those pesky foreigners in Brussels, Berlin and Paris repulse his overtures, will he take Britain out of the union on October 31 do-or-die. Amber Rudd, the latest minister to quit, says he is not negotiating at all. The charge seems to be borne out by the evasive showmanship of diversionary taunts and flamboyant histrionics that are Mr Johnson’s only response every time Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party’s Prime Minister-in-waiting, seeks information on London’s proposals for a deal and Brussels’ response.
It would appear that there has been hardly any progress since Parliament’s three rejections of the draft settlements which Theresa May achieved.
There is little doubt it would add tremendously to Mr Johnson’s popularity with ordinary voters if he walked out of the EU on October 31 without so much as an agreement. In their present insular truculence, many Britons might welcome it as thumbing the national nose at the EU. But a no-deal Brexit might trigger a separatist movement among Scottish nationalists. The sudden severance of commercial and legal links could add tremendously to Britain’s economic problems. Ulstermen are unlikely to take kindly to the imposition of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Boris Johnson himself will head a minority government at the mercy of his Scottish and Northern Irish allies.
An election might enable him to ride high on a wave of ultra-nationalistic euphoria but Mr Corbyn, the rest of the Opposition and the Tory rebels will not allow him to go to the country until after Brexit has been decided.
Since Parliament has passed a law against a no-deal Brexit, defiance might even mean legal prosecution that could send Mr Johnson to prison. But as in India, jail might be seen as martyrdom and perch a shining halo atop the Blond Beast’s flaxen mop.
If he does have to go, he might go down as the shortest-serving Prime Minister in British history, beating another Old Etonian, George Canning, who died in 1927 after serving as Prime Minister for only 119 days.
Meanwhile, British radio and TV keep beaming constantly that people should look to their travel documents, licences and insurance policies so that they are prepared for the break on October 31....