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ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: Boris Johnson is a journalist who can’t get his story straight

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks with prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photograph: Neil Hall/PA. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Boris Johnson is spinning a line about Brexit which has no basis is truth, says ALASTAIR CAMPBELL.

Michael Gove hailed Boris Johnson as the “Pep Guardiola of British polotics”. Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images – Credit: Getty Images

How long ago it seems that “they” were going to need “us” “more than we need them”? How very badly have aged the boasts that we could “have cake and eat it”, leave but enjoy “the exact same benefits”, have “all the cards” in the negotiations?

And now, waaaaagh, boo-hoo, they wail… ‘we are being bullied by the pesky Paddies’. How the mighty fall when they fail to think through the consequences of their own words and deeds, bulls**t and bluster.

Regular readers know that I don’t mind repeating myself. To take just four favoured themes from my time on these pages… 1.) Brexit can be stopped. 2.) It would need time for the realities of Brexit to be exposed, and a second referendum to give real democratic legitimacy to the rejection of it. 3.) Brexit would come to devour itself because of the impossibilities at its heart. 4.) The reality of the border in Ireland, the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement, and the workings of the European single market, combine to provide the greatest impossibility of them all.

So it has come to pass, and those who made the boasts and false promises have come to see that slogans are easy, and campaigning can be fun, but the hard graft of delivery is neither. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are journalists at heart. What matters to them is the story, the line.

Michael Gove listening to Sir Keir Starmer’s speech criticising the government’s EU negotiations. Picture: Parliament TV – Credit: Parliament TV

They are good at stories. They are good at lines. But when you are prime minister, your stories and your lines are of greater import, and come under more sustained scrutiny, than a headline or a column forgotten by the time you file the next one to pick up a few more grand from the Barclay Brothers or Rupert Murdoch.

Do or die… die in a ditch … no ifs no buts, we are leaving on October 31… it is not just because of Johnson’s undoubted skill as a communicator that these have already entered the political lexicon; it is that he is now the prime minister and his words matter far more than those of any journalist.

So when he is clear, absolutely clear, couldn’t be clearer Laura, that there is no question of customs checks on the island of Ireland, and no question of Northern Ireland being treated differently to the rest of the UK, then these words and thoughts stick.

If you are a journalist in the Johnson mode, and your story turns out to be wrong, you always have others to blame. You can accuse the government of making (Political Reporting Cliché Handbook alert) a ‘humiliating U-turn’. You can suggest that the original story was right, but then the situation changed as the result of (PRCH Alert 2) ‘a huge cabinet bust-up’. What you don’t have to do is hold up your hands and say ‘hey guys, that story about Brussels banning bent bananas… I made it up… bit of fun eh?’

Boris Johnson delivers his speech during the recent Conservative Party Conference. Photograph: STEFAN ROUSSEAU/PA – Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Johnson has been conducting himself since entering Downing Street more as a journalist who assumes his stories will be forgotten as soon as they are published, than as a politician handling complex issues, whose every word is being analysed by serious people home and abroad. His regular refrains – “intensive negotiations… progress being made… the outlines of a deal becoming clear… cautiously optimistic…” these have been stories, not realities. They have been aimed at the media, especially the Brexit Propaganda Lie Machine, and not at the leaders of the EU, who have known throughout what nonsense they are.

He flew by the seat of his pants as a hack, and he is flying by the seat of his pants now. But he is discovering that the leaders of Europe pay more attention to detail than those in the media, who were broadly happy to take his half-baked fictions. His letter to the EU with his ‘plan’ for ‘solving’ the border conundrum was the equivalent of a story filed without fact-checking.

Because he has his posh Eton-Oxford accent, can spout Greek or Latin phrases, and wrote a book about Churchill, he likes to parade as a historian. But there is a terrifying lack of understanding of even recent history in Northern Ireland at the heart of his so-called plan. Brexit having started as a Tory Party psychodrama, Theresa May’s election having brought the DUP centre stage into that psychodrama, the only really intensive negotiations Johnson has been involved in have been with them. Hence the regular sight of DUP leader Arlene Foster and colleagues trotting in and out of Number 10, while back home Stormont sits idle as the longest non-functioning political body on the planet.

That is because his next big story is the blame game when his ‘plan’ is rejected. He wants to be able to say he has the numbers in parliament – which he doesn’t – and the DUP are key to that story. Giving them an effective veto, at regular intervals, on the operation of the complex two-border proposal he has put forward as an alternative to the backstop, is one of many insurmountable problems in his plan. So it will have to be rejected. Far from being ‘a reasonable compromise’ (fantasy), it was a non-starter (fact.)

Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images – Credit: Getty Images

Channel 4 News carried a report recently on the dairy industry in and around the Irish border. There was a very good interview with a businessman who explained very calmly that in the event of no-deal, the industry will quickly be in chaos, and he added that ministers literally had no understanding of the impact of what they were proposing on the livelihood of him, his staff, other businesses, not to mention cows whose milk would be heading down a drain.

Even as I write that, I can imagine the Brextremists snorting… Channel 4 Remoaner propaganda… chaos and collapse, all part of Project Fear. But what is happening is that all their stories are now colliding with a reality which has not shifted from day one – the reality of that open border and its centrality to the peace process, and the single market.

And now it is the Brextremists who are relying on Project Fear. Michael Gove’s Brexit planning team has drawn up a list of potential disaster areas for Ireland in the event of no-deal – disruption of medical supplies, customs delays, the loss of fishing rights and a ban on the transport of horses to the UK among them. So, no-deal will be a disaster for Ireland, but fine for the UK is the latest story. Ever get the feeling they are making it up as they go along?

The big hole in the Johnson story is that the guarantee of no new border-related infrastructure is a legal requirement, that the Good Friday Agreement represents not just UK law, but international law too. It also overlooks the reality of even more recent political history, the Act of Parliament under which Brexit is supposed to happen, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

Assuming Johnson is aware of its contents, I wonder how he squares his ‘plan’ with Section 10(2)(b) which states that the UK will not “create or facilitate border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after exit day which feature physical infrastructure, including border posts, 
or checks and controls, that did not 
exist before exit day and are not in accordance with an agreement between the UK and the EU”. So much for no new checks, no ifs no buts. The new story puts such checks at the heart of the plan, and then seeks to blame the EU, or more specifically Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, for intransigence in the face of his wheeze. Herein lies another grotesque miscalculation that the Tories have made: To treat Ireland as the Ireland of old, a country to be pushed around by the Brits, when in truth for the purposes of the Brexit debate, Ireland is not so much little old Ireland as the very large and powerful EU, which we have voted to leave, and whose leaders have been treated with a desperate lack of seriousness by Johnson, with dollops of bad faith thrown in.

There is no frontier in the world which separates different custom or market regimes without infrastructure and checks. It is a fantasy to will that fact away.

As for Johnson’s understanding of Northern Ireland, is it of no interest at all that the DUP appears to be utterly isolated in its support for his plan? Just as he does not speak for a majority in the UK, they do not speak for a majority in Northern Ireland, yet he treats them as though they are the only voice that counts. The Ulster Unionists, Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Alliance, the Greens, the Chamber of Commerce, the CBI and the unions, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Food and Drink Federation, Manufacturing NI, Freight NI, Retail NI, virtually every major economic and political body in Northern Ireland is warning his plan is a disaster.

But that all conflicts with his story. The one on which he is spaffing £100 million of our money to tell us he is going to get Brexit done… even if it means wrecking the economy and destroying the Union. And if he is allowed to let it happen, you can be sure it won’t be his fault. It will be those big bullies from Dublin, refusing to go along with the idea that if the UK shoots itself in both feet, the Irish should do it too.

If and when we get to a People’s Vote, there will be a lot of debate about the exact wording of the question. But the broad dividing line is becoming clear – the choice is chaos or closure. Nowhere is that closure, and a return to stability, more needed, than in Northern Ireland. It is a disgrace that Johnson and his fellow Brextremists continue deliberately to put that stability at risk.

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