Brexit will be Jo Swinson and Boris Johnson's true test

WITH the election of Jo Swinson as leader of the UK LibDems and Boris Johnson as leader of the UK Tories, Westminster has truly spoiled us this week! Here at the outset, I’ll say congratulations to both, and I’ll work with anyone to bring sense to where we are, if they’re willing and able. I hae ma doots. Before we get caught up in the emotion and drama of it all, I was trying to count how many such leaders I have seen come and go since my own election in 2004, but lost count. However, it is worth thinking on what, if anything, their elections mean for us in Scotland and what it all means for Scotland’s place in Europe.

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First published in The National, 25 July 2019

Above all else it is also worth remembering the wise words of the excellent Buzzfeed journalist Alberto Nardelli, who said more than two years ago “the UK economy is deteriorating. British politics looks like Italy’s (trust me, I’m Italian, I know)”. These words have stuck with me since. Remember when the UK media used to rather sniffily look at other countries? Well, on the few times they actually did, usually via the funnies on Have I Got News For You or some-such sneering cynicism-fest, we would be treated to punch-ups and riots in the Greek or maybe Turkish parliaments; porn stars being elected to the European Parliament; dodgy Polish politicians throwing water at each other in TV interviews; or the antics of Silvio Berlusconi (now a fellow MEP incidentally) and be invited to chortle that such nonsense couldn’t happen here. Such antics are for wacky foreigners!

How deluded that looks now as we contemplate Prime Minister Johnson. How threadbare that delusion has worn over the past few years as a succession of over-promoted no-marks (Johnson among them) have come over to Brussels full of vim and vigour only to find that gravity does exist, 27 is still bigger than one and the laws of political or economic physics do not suspend themselves at Calais.

How humiliating it has been for the first-class UK officials to have to sit quietly in meetings and watch their own work be ignored or trashed by these spivs, philistines and charlatans. I do not include Theresa May(and about two ministers) in that, our now former and unlamented prime minister. Her deficiencies were many, but I do believe she was trying to square a circle. Her tragedy is that instead of explaining the hard choices involved in Brexit, she chose to pretend there aren’t any, pandering to the flat Earthers within her own party to maintain her own residence in No 10 as long as possible, for reasons best known only to herself. She was the very definition of in office but not in power.

But, brutal as politics is, she’s old news, who cares about her? Two shiny new leaders stand before us, one a self-proclaimed Brexiteer and the other who says she will not rest until she has stopped Brexit.

Swinson has reasons to be cheerful. She has just won, after all, and the LibDems, having bet the house for three elections now on an anti-Brexit bounce that was slow in coming, had a good UK result in the European election, albeit losing handsomely to the SNP in Scotland. They should be looking good to win an important by-election in the Brecon and Radnorshire Westminster constituency from the Tories after the disgrace of the local MP in an expenses stooshie (and the decision by Plaid Cymru and the Greens to give them a clear run).

The LibDems as recently as the turn of the year were being written off and urged to fold themselves into the shiny new Change UK, or whatever they’re calling themselves these days – it seems the reverse will be the result.

The UK Government is weak and divided, with a majority so slim it will be inherently unstable and surely cannot last long. So, much as Swinson has reasons to be cheerful, Adlai Stevenson’s dictum for success in politics (“learn to count”) will kick in for her soon enough. Teamwork and working cross-party will be the name of the game if we are to bring sense to a UK executive lacking in sense itself.

It remains to be seen if Swinson will be as amenable to seeking cross-party solutions as her predecessor. The door will be open from the SNP side.

And as for Johnson, we know a chancer when we see one. He has promised the undeliverable and that reality will crash into his elegantly constructed daydreams soon enough. Even his recently much-publicised rambling story about kippers was proven, within hours, to be false. This is a grown man who deals in fairy stories. That they are sufficient to win him the leadership of the Conservative Party should give Tories pause for thought enough, but his stories will crumble when exposed to chilly reality.

So what now? The choices remain the same: leave, without or with a deal; or revoke, by a vote in the House of Commons or a referendum. The withdrawal agreement, backstop and all, will not be re-opened, fact. The Political Declaration could be amended with some warm words and fluff, but if the Tories unite to nod that through, then they will deserve the conflagration to come as they try – in a familiar sounding two-year window – to work out what sort of future relationship they want with the EU. Because until that is worked out, they cannot work out what “global Britain” is and will assuredly see no benefits.

So the best option is to stay. None of this “remain and reform” nonsense. It will be remain, show a bit of humility and maybe learn a bit about the EU you’re part of while you’re at it. Scotland has been ahead of this game since day one, we voted to remain and still want to.