Boris Johnson is a genius at just one thing. He will always get this one question right: what’s best for me? That’s why it takes no psychoanalyst, telepathist or cup of tea leaves to read his simple mind over his great deal-or-no-deal dilemma. It has to be a deal.
Look back at his short night of the improbable soul, when he emerged to tell the world that after an unlikely “huge amount of heartache”, he would join the leavers. Of course he would: it was the only route to get the Tory party membership to select him as leader. To back remain would have cast him on the sidelines with Michael Heseltine, one of the many who “could have been a contender”.
With Wayne Sleep choreography, with a pantomime macho display and songs of Brexit defiance to soothe his backbenchers, the ego-pilot is skilfully steering HMS Boris safely to port with a trade deal on board. The ever-patient EU looks on, unamused but willing to “go the extra mile” so he can proclaim a last-minute victory against the tyrants of Brussels.
It was bound to happen, once the no-details prime minister was forced to take a cursory glance at actual facts. The Sunday Times is the bellwether he watches with care: Murdoch moves when change is inevitable. This week’s edition was designed to frighten the living daylights out of its readers, provoke a stampede of panic-buying and terrify Brexit MPs into a deal. “Ministers warn supermarkets to stockpile food,” it splashed. “Emergency planners predict that no deal would spark panic-buying”, while “health ministers have told suppliers of medicines to stockpile”. No deal makes “borders vulnerable to people smugglers and criminal gangs”.
If that doesn’t shiver the timbers, the paper’s economics editor explodes Johnson’s “we will prosper mightily” shtick. He writes, “I feel sorry for those with the job of attracting new foreign capital to this country,” exposing the post-referendum collapse in investment and productivity, long before Covid. The leader reads, “This looming crisis is not the Brexit the PM promised.”
In its own inimitable fruitcake fashion, the Telegraph reports that ministers are promising “billions in no-deal help for farmers and factories”. Mega-compensation for no-deal tariffs for all in the fishing, farming, chemicals and cars sectors? Really? If true, we are leaving the EU’s “appalling” common agricultural policy, because it spends a fortune propping up unprofitable farming, in order to subsidise in perpetuity not just our farming, but just about everything. At a stroke that reverses every Thatcherite “lame-duck” taunt that killed off mining, steel and shipbuilding.
But look, lo, on the pantomime stage see a gleam at the end of the tunnel. Now the Brexit press sees “Mounting speculation Brussels is preparing to climb down” (Telegraph); “EU chiefs appear to be buckling” (Express). We can all write the rest of the script. Johnson tried “deal” and “no deal” in front of his mirror to see which best saves his political skin. There will be a deal in these last days: a lousy, rotten, flea-bitten thing, but infinitely better than nothing.
Now all Johnson has to do is face down the pantomime villains on his backbenches – a mere handful of true diehards such as Iain Duncan Smith, who still bellows, “Surrendering to the outlandish demands of Brussels is simply not an option”. Oh yes it is.
The prime minister only had to glance at the polls. Britain Thinks finds fewer diehard Brexiters, fallen since February from 35% to 25%. They still support Brexit, but with less confidence. Opinium finds more disappointed Brexiters turning away from the Tories. Another poll finds only one in six back no deal.
There may not be many Bregretters: changing one’s mind on something so identity-defining is rare. But now Britain has left the EU, here’s what will matter: YouGov finds a large majority say the government is handling Brexit badly, by 64% to 23%. Blame lies with Johnson alone; his genius for self-interest won the referendum and the election, but his outrageously false promises are now flapping home to roost. Now he owns every consequence.
The idea that remainers share any responsibility is preposterous. Devious class framing tries to cast all 48% remain voters as an out-of-touch metropolitan elite, while all the 52% Brexiters were left-behind hard-done-by red wallers. Youth versus age is a better match. Brexit was swung by well-heeled elderly Tories of shires and suburbs with less to lose. They were led by Etonian Johnson and Nigel Farage the commodities trader, bankrolled by the likes of the billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, who has just decamped his car factory to the EU.
They were wrong, and every day that passes will prove it. But that class framing is clever politics: the left is so good at absorbing social guilt. Remainers need to get off their apologetic knees and make the blame land where it belongs. No, not rerunning the referendum, that’s over – but guarding the future.
Bad times are rarely fertile ground for better politics. The lesson from the 2008 banking crash is that blame for the pain was easily perverted and diverted; that demagogues and rogues feed on hardship, warping it to their own use. As Labour draws level with the Tories, with Johnson’s ratings tumbling since the election, the remain parties together have the firepower to make sure those who led the country into this calamity will be the ones to pay the price.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist