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Johnson’s Cunning Plan

The plotting reflex is strong in the populist politicians who currently run both of the big English-speaking countries. President Trump dreams up underhanded tricks even when he has no need of them.

Why would he bother to sabotage the campaign of Joe Biden, the candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who would give him the least trouble in next year’s election? He’ll probably face impeachment over it, but he couldn’t help behaving that way. You might as well ask why even well-fed cats catch and kill mice.

They are acting on instinct, and so was Donald Trump. ‘Boris’ Johnson is a habitual plotter too, but this time he actually needs a cunning plan.

Britain’s prime minister has only been in office for ten weeks, and he is already in potentially terminal trouble. Boris Johnson was never an ardent Brexiter: he even voted for the relatively sane version of Brexit that his predecessor Theresa May failed three times to get through Parliament. But he is consumed by ambition, and he saw in her fall an opportunity to seize the top job at last.

He won it in July, in an internal poll of Conservative Party members, by promising to ‘deliver’ Brexit quickly no matter what the cost. (The 60,000 Party members who chose him are far more extreme than most Conservative members of Parliament and certainly than the average Conservative voter.)

Unfortunately, Johnson can only deliver by crashing out of the European Union without a deal. The deal Theresa May negotiated would have caused Britain only moderate economic damage, but that deal was repeatedly killed by the votes of the ultra-nationalist ‘head-bangers’ on the far right of his own Conservative Party.

They’d kill it again, and Johnson’s long-sought prime ministership with it, if he made the kind of concessions needed for a negotiated deal. In practice, therefore, he has to deliver a kamikaze Brexit to stay in power at all – and then he has to hold an election immediately afterwards, to confirm his hold on power before the Brexit damage piles up and even dyed-in-the-wool Leavers turn against it.

So Johnson’s Cunning Plan A went like this. Meet Parliament for a couple of days in early September when it comes back from recess, promise that you are negotiating hard with the EU and confident of getting a deal – only a “one in a million” chance of failure – and then close Parliament down for five weeks (‘prorogue’ it) .

By the time Parliament comes back in mid-October and it is clear that there is no deal, it will be too late. The law says that the United Kingdom will leave the EU automatically on 31 October unless there is a deal. Parliament will then vote Johnson’ government out, but he’ll just call an election – for AFTER the 31st.

The election will roll around some time in November, and by then Johnson will be the Leavers’ hero for having delivered Brexit after 40 months of delay. He’ll win, and be safely back in office for five years even if the economy then goes into slow-motion collapse. The plan would have worked perfectly if the opposition parties were hopelessly stupid.

Unhappily for him, they weren’t. In early September, before Johnson could prorogue Parliament, the opposition parties passed a law obliging him to ask the EU for a three-month extension if there was still no deal on 19 October. It passed only because 21 Conservative members of Parliament who saw ‘no deal’ as a disaster for Britain voted with the opposition.

Johnson promptly expelled them from the Party – and thereby lost his majority. But the opposition parties did not vote him out, which would have let him call his election as Plan A required. They just left him hanging there, twisting in the wind.

Then all eleven judges of the Supreme Court chimed in to say that Johnson’s decision to shut Parliament down for five weeks in the midst of a political crisis had been unlawful. Time for a different plan, and quickly.

So here’s Cunning Plan B. There is an obscure law called the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 that allows the government to override Parliament in the event of a national emergency. If Johnson could engineer such an emergency, he could ignore the “surrender bill” (as he calls it) that forces him to seek an extension rather than crash out on 31 October.

What kind of an emergency? Well, it would probably require blood in the streets, which Johnson can only obtain by provoking Leave supporters to acts of violence. That is why he now uses extreme language to stoke resentment and mobilise anger, talking incessantly about betrayal and treachery.

As the Labour Party’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, told ‘The Observer’ on Sunday, “Whipping up the idea of riots or even deaths if we do not leave the EU on 31 October is the height of irresponsibility. But it is also pretty obviously being orchestrated.” And the death threats on social media to MPs who are trying to thwart Johnson have multiplied fourfold in the past week.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 1, 2 and 3. (“The plotting…plan”)

Three Small Victories: A Turning Point?

Have we reached peak fascist in Europe? Well, all right then, peak hard-right nationalist, but are we there yet? That would be reassuring, and three events in the past week give some cause for hope.

First, on Sunday Germany’s far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), failed to win first place in the two state elections where it had a chance of forming the government, Saxony and Brandenburg.

Both states seethe with resentment because former East Germany is still poorer than the western part of the country thirty years after reunification. Never having experienced immigration under Communist rule before 1990, many people in the east live in permanent panic about being overwhelmed by immigrants (although there are actually very few immigrants there).

So out of Germany’s sixteen states, Brandenburg and Saxony should have been the easiest wins for the AfD – but they didn’t win. They came a close second in both states, but they were beaten by an unusually high turn-out, clearly made up largely of people who don’t ordinarily bother to vote but realised that their votes were needed to stop the AfD.

Secondly, on Tuesday it became clear that the hard-right League party in Italy has been comprehensively snookered. Back in the days when it was the ‘Northern’ League it was more openly racist, and wanted to secede from Italy to get away from the allegedly lazy and corrupt southern Italians. “South of Rome lies Africa,” as the nastier variety of northern Italians say.

The League, although renamed and prettied up, is still the Nasty Party, but for the past eighteen months it has been in a coalition government with the anti-establishment (but not so nasty) Five-Star Movement (M5S). The League was doing well in the opinion polls, however, so its leader, Matteo Salvini, broke up the coalition in the hope of winning sole power in a new election.

Instead, the Five-Star Movement found a new coalition partner, the Democratic Party, and the League is out in the cold. On Tuesday 79,634 members of the M5S ratified the deal in an online vote – the party is ultra-democratic – and the League may have to wait another three-and-a-half years for a general election. Maybe by then its polling numbers will be down.

And then there’s the United Kingdom, where new Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson met parliament for the first time on Tuesday and immediately lost a key vote – because 21 members of his own party voted against him.

Boris –‘Al’ to his friends, family and many lovers, but he switched to ‘Boris’ as a young man because he thought it was more memorable – is not a neo-fascist. He is not ideological at all, just an opportunist who will wear whatever identity gets him where he wants to go. At the moment, his identity is hard-right English nationalist.

Many of the people around him have drunk the Kool-Aid, however, and really are ‘Little-Englander’ nationalists who don’t care if Brexit breaks up the United Kingdom. Together they have hijacked the Conservative Party.

Johnson is currently pretending to negotiate with the European Union while actually planning to crash out of the EU in a ‘no-deal’ exit that would do severe damage to the British economy. But it would secure his own political future as the man who finally delivered Brexit (albeit a Brexit far more extreme than anybody imagined back when they voted for it in 2016).

Such a Brexit would create enormous opportunities for the ‘disaster capitalists’ who have been quietly funding the Brexit movement, and who hope to asset-strip a crippled England. It certainly offers the non-English parts of the ‘United’ Kingdom, and especially Scotland, a perfect pretext for holding independence referendums of their own.

But Boris’s political future is unclear. He is currently a contender for the title of shortest prime ministership in British history, because his defeat in parliament and the defection of so many moderate Conservative members of parliament mean that there will have to be an election – which Johnson may well lose.

There have been no epic victories this week, no decisive turning points. The virus of nationalism still infects the politics of many European countries, and even the long-term future of the European Union, guarantor of peace in the continent for the past sixty years, cannot be taken for granted. But clearly the far-right nationalists can lose as well as win.

That should have been obvious, but the populists seemed almost unstoppable when they first surged to prominence in 2016. Brexit and Trump, then Hungary and Poland, then Italy and Germany – the only question was ‘Who’s next?’.

Now the bloom is off the rose. They win some, they lose some – and they lost three big ones in the past week. They will doubtless be around for quite a while, but we may be nearing peak populist.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Johnson…own”)

Brexit: Johnson Makes His Move

Shock! Horror! Johnson prorogues Parliament! End of democracy in Britain! The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, says he was not even consulted, and calls it “a constitutional outrage.”

Or, to put it a little less dramatically, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has cut the amount of time that parliament will meet before he crashes the United Kingdom out of the European Union in a ‘no-deal’ Brexit on 31 October by six working days.

Johnson will face parliament for the first time as prime minister on 4 September, but they will all go off on holiday again on 10 September, not on the 13th as scheduled. And then parliament won’t meet again until 14 October, not on the originally planned date of 9 October. So no need to panic, and a rather small constitutional outrage.

Great commotion in the media, of course, but the reports that zombies will roam the streets of London eating the children of Remainers after Britain’s ‘no-deal’ departure from the EU on Halloween are absolutely untrue. (There have, however, been some werewolf sightings in the City.)

Johnson is an accidental prime minister. Few people even in his own Conservative Party thought he was fit for the job, but they panicked after the Conservatives came fifth – fifth! – in last May’s European Union elections.

The British only voted in those elections at all because Theresa May’s government still hadn’t managed to leave the EU after three years of trying. It lost so badly because a lot of Brexit-backing Conservatives defected to Nigel Farage’s single-issue Brexit Party in exasperation, and to win them back the Conservatives had to change leaders.

So out goes May and in comes Johnson, who may be a liar and a clown but is popular with Conservative voters. And this new prime minister, chosen only by a vote of Conservative Party members, inherits the task of keeping the Party’s promise to take the UK out of the EU. Alas, the parliamentary arithmetic to do that still does not work.

The Conservative government has only a one-vote majority in parliament, but that’s the smaller part of the problem. The bigger part is that Conservative members of parliament are so split on the question of Brexit that there is no exit deal that all of them will vote for.

Theresa May did actually negotiate a realistic exit deal with the EU late last year that allowed for a smooth continuation of trade and avoided the danger of re-creating a ‘hard’ border in Ireland. Unfortunately, that enraged the extremist ‘head-bangers’ on the far right of the Conservative Party so much that they voted May’s deal down three times.

The alternative is simply to leave without a deal. That means accepting a huge hit to British trade (half of which is with the EU), a crash in the value of the pound, and a great many lost British jobs. Johnson himself is no head-banger, but he is a chameleon who will change colour if it serves his purposes, and he has adopted the no-deal policy in order to become prime minister.

This still does not end the Conservative Party’s civil war over Brexit, because a small number of moderates on the other wing of the party will rebel and vote against a no-deal Brexit rather than see the country dragged into economic ruin. They may be as few as a dozen, but that might be enough to bring the government down.

So where are the opposition parties in all this? All over the place, is the answer. There are four of them, and they can’t agree on the time of day, let alone on a common strategy for stopping ‘no-deal’.

Given time they might, because it is really their duty to avoid economic disaster in Britain, avert a new war in Ireland, and hold the United Kingdom together. (Scotland will probably secede if there is a no-deal Brexit.) But they are taking their own sweet time about it.

That’s why Johnson thinks it’s worth taking flak for cutting down the number of days parliament will meet between now and 31 October. The fewer days the opposition has to work on the problem, the less likely they are to get all their ducks in a row. It’s as simple as that, and it’s entirely legal.

So what are the odds that Britain will really commit this massive act of self-harm? About the same as they were last week, actually. On learning of Johnson’s new move on Wednesday morning, analysts at the Royal Bank of Canada raised the probability of Britain crashing out of the EU without an exit deal to 44%. Last week it was 41%.

Small crisis, not many hurt.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“The British…leaders”; and “Given…about it”)

By Gwynne Dyer

Shock! Horror! Johnson prorogues Parliament! End of democracy in Britain! The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, says he was not even consulted, and calls it “a constitutional outrage.”

Or, to put it a little less dramatically, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has cut the amount of time that parliament will meet before he crashes the United Kingdom out of the European Union in a ‘no-deal’ Brexit on 31 October by six working days.

Johnson will face parliament for the first time as prime minister on 4 September, but they will all go off on holiday again on 10 September, not on the 13th as scheduled. And then parliament won’t meet again until 14 October, not on the originally planned date of 9 October. So no need to panic, and a rather small constitutional outrage.

Great commotion in the media, of course, but the reports that zombies will roam the streets of London eating the children of Remainers after Britain’s ‘no-deal’ departure from the EU on Halloween are absolutely untrue. (There have, however, been some werewolf sightings in the City.)

Johnson is an accidental prime minister. Few people even in his own Conservative Party thought he was fit for the job, but they panicked after the Conservatives came fifth – fifth! – in last May’s European Union elections.

The British only voted in those elections at all because Theresa May’s government still hadn’t managed to leave the EU after three years of trying. It lost so badly because a lot of Brexit-backing Conservatives defected to Nigel Farage’s single-issue Brexit Party in exasperation, and to win them back the Conservatives had to change leaders.

So out goes May and in comes Johnson, who may be a liar and a clown but is popular with Conservative voters. And this new prime minister, chosen only by a vote of Conservative Party members, inherits the task of keeping the Party’s promise to take the UK out of the EU. Alas, the parliamentary arithmetic to do that still does not work.

The Conservative government has only a one-vote majority in parliament, but that’s the smaller part of the problem. The bigger part is that Conservative members of parliament are so split on the question of Brexit that there is no exit deal that all of them will vote for.

Theresa May did actually negotiate a realistic exit deal with the EU late last year that allowed for a smooth continuation of trade and avoided the danger of re-creating a ‘hard’ border in Ireland. Unfortunately, that enraged the extremist ‘head-bangers’ on the far right of the Conservative Party so much that they voted May’s deal down three times.

The alternative is simply to leave without a deal. That means accepting a huge hit to British trade (half of which is with the EU), a crash in the value of the pound, and a great many lost British jobs. Johnson himself is no head-banger, but he is a chameleon who will change colour if it serves his purposes, and he has adopted the no-deal policy in order to become prime minister.

This still does not end the Conservative Party’s civil war over Brexit, because a small number of moderates on the other wing of the party will rebel and vote against a no-deal Brexit rather than see the country dragged into economic ruin. They may be as few as a dozen, but that might be enough to bring the government down.

So where are the opposition parties in all this? All over the place, is the answer. There are four of them, and they can’t agree on the time of day, let alone on a common strategy for stopping ‘no-deal’.

Given time they might, because it is really their duty to avoid economic disaster in Britain, avert a new war in Ireland, and hold the United Kingdom together. (Scotland will probably secede if there is a no-deal Brexit.) But they are taking their own sweet time about it.

That’s why Johnson thinks it’s worth taking flak for cutting down the number of days parliament will meet between now and 31 October. The fewer days the opposition has to work on the problem, the less likely they are to get all their ducks in a row. It’s as simple as that, and it’s entirely legal.

So what are the odds that Britain will really commit this massive act of self-harm? About the same as they were last week, actually. On learning of Johnson’s new move on Wednesday morning, analysts at the Royal Bank of Canada raised the probability of Britain crashing out of the EU without an exit deal to 44%. Last week it was 41%.

Small crisis, not many hurt.
_____________________________________
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“The British…leaders”; and “Given…about it”)

Amazon Fires

The Amazon is not on fire. There are fires in the Amazon rainforest, as there are every year in July-September, because this is the dry season. There may be more fires than usual this year, and it may even be the fault of Jair Bonsonaro, the Trump mini-me who became the president of Brazil last January, but that is not clear.

Yet there now is a great outcry, with French president Emmanuel Macron saying that Bolsonaro lied to him about his stance on climate change. Macron is even threatening to withhold French ratification of the recently signed free trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur (of which Brazil is the biggest member).

British prime minister Bori Johnson declares that it is “an international crisis”, and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel calls the fires “an acute emergency…for the whole world.” The Finnish foreign minister even suggests that the European Union should boycott Brazilian beef. Concerted international action at last!

Well, no. They might have done it at the G7 summit of the world’s richest countries last weekend in Biarritz, but they all knew it would just prompt another Donald Trump walk-out like last year’s. And some of their advisers may be warning them by now that they are not on very safe ground when they paint Bolsonaro as the sole culprit of the piece.

Bolsonaro is not a good person. He is an obtuse and obnoxious bully who doesn’t give a fig about the climate and advocates ‘developing’ the Amazon in ways that would ultimately destroy the rainforest.

When environmental activists claimed that farmers encouraged by Bolsonaro’s incendiary rhetoric were setting fires to clear Amazonian land for ranching, he blamed the activists themselves, saying that they were setting the fires to discredit him. He had no evidence, he admitted, but he had a “feeling” about it.

Of course Brazilian farmers and the agribusiness interests behind them are setting fires to destroy bits of the forest, but this is not new with Bolsonaro. The amount of forest they destroyed annually went into steady decline after the Workers’ Party (PT) took power in 2003, but the damage has been trending back up again since the last PT president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached by Congress (on spurious charges) in 2015.

Bolsonaro is definitely the icing on the cake, but it’s questionable how much impact he has had after less than eight months in power. The number of fines handed out for illegal burning has dropped by a third this year, but the great majority of illegal burns always went unpunished anyway.

When Brazil’s National Space Research Institute reported an 88% increase in deforestation in June compared with the same month a year ago, nobody except Bolsonaro questioned the data. But that was before this year’s burning season (Queimada) began, and presumably referred to losses of forest due to illegal logging and land-clearing for mining operations, not to fires.

When the same Brazilian space institute claimed more recently that satellite data showed an 83% increase this year in forest fires, mainly in the Amazon region, Bolsonaro promptly fired its director, claiming that he was manipulating the data for political reasons.

Bolsonaro’s relationship with the truth is as distant as Trump’s, but it must be pointed out that NASA’s Earth Observatory, also relying on satellite data, reported on 22 August that “total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years.”

There is, to be sure, a pall of smoke hanging over Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, at the moment. It’s as bad as Singapore six years ago or Vancouver last summer, and there’s no doubt that it comes from forest fires. They are, however, fires in the Bolivian part of the Amazon, not Brazil’s.

What the hell, you may say. Bolsonaro may not be guilty this time, but he’s guilty of lots of other things, so let’s hang him anyway. This is not a wise way of proceeding, even if you are doing it with the best of intentions.

The data about the climate crisis are always complicated and open to dispute, because the planet is a very complex system. Those who claim to understand enough about it to offer policy advice must be above suspicion, and to go along with the assertion that ‘the Amazon is on fire’ and that it’s all Bolsonaro’s fault is neither prudent or provable.

Although I must admit that it’s very tempting.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 6. (“When…it”)