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Fool of six – The week Boris Johnson advocated breaking the law

Cartoon by Martin Ronson. - Credit: Martin Ronson

“Regulations….are not to be regarded as unlawful on the grounds of any incompatibility or inconsistency with any relevant domestic or international law”– Clause 45 (2) (a) on state aid in the Internal Market Bill

It already seems an age ago, but when I first heard Boris “Moonshot ” Johnson used the phrase “the rule of six” I immediately wondered who the other four might be. Dominic Cummings would obviously be the driving force behind the new junta. And Michael Gove, he’d be there as Dom’s note-taker and executive officer. I supposed that Boris would have to be included to make the coup look vaguely respectable. But who would make up the numbers?

I didn’t have to wait long. The rule of six applies, of course, solely to the Covid-19 crisis. But the government’s authority, its competence and legitimacy, are increasingly bound up to both the pandemic and its confrontational gamble over the post-Brexit negotiations. So the Two Horsemen of the Johnson Apocalypse may eventually collapse in an exhausted heap together.

For all his bluster, Johnson’s position looks increasingly implausible. After all, the real link is the opportunity cost of Brexit. From day one of the Wuhan pandemic the ministerial eye was on another ball. This week the airwaves are full of dreadful test-and-trace stories. NHS staff are unable to get a test for five days – while Boris fantasises (but fails to consult his experts) about doing three million tests a day. In the real world Michael Gove’s transition team is being warned of 7,000 lorries stuck at Dover and two hour delays on Eurostar if there is no post-Brexit deal. No wonder individual anxiety levels has reportedly tripled in a decade.

The World King’s credibility could finally unravel in floundering diagnostic labs (“world-beatingly bad,” says loyalist, David Davis) or in the choppy Irish Sea. Jittery Johnson’s shabby performance in justifying the Internal Market Bill to a ghostly Covid-Commons on Monday evening was the most intellectually disreputable second reading speech by a senior minister that I can recall in 34 years of sitting in the press gallery, gazing down on eight prime ministers. Boris stepped in when it was decided Alok Sharma wasn’t up to the task. Nor was Boris.

As respectable people in most respectable countries lined up to express shock and amazement at the cabinet’s declared willingness explicitly to “break international law” – it’s customary to bluff out such offences – the cabinet’s second-rate Yes men and women did what they were appointed to do. They fell into line behind the Cummings Doctrine, the one borrowed from Facebook: move fast and break things.

The tech giant’s motto does not look so smart now that Silicon Valley is engulfed in smoke from distant forest fires, fuelled by climate changes the choking techies cannot fix. Donald Trump puts it down to bad forest management and promises California it will “get cooler” soon. He’s wrong, but there as well as here many people in virtual reality headsets believe what they feel comfortable with, even if it burns their house down.

Never mind. Robert Buckland, justice secretary and (it’s his turn) lord chancellor, rallied behind the boss after Brandon (“specific and limited”) Lewis had blurted out the strategy at the dispatch box last week. All five living ex-PMs – united at last ! – plus pro-Brexit Michael Howard, Norman Lamont and sacked attorney general, Geoffrey Cox QC, expressed varying degrees of dismay. So did EU flip-flopper William Hague and Brexit’s Sajid Javid. Undeterred, Cox’s successor, Suella Braverman, seemingly perjured herself for the cause and has packed her advisory panel of lawyers with Leavers too. No wonder the head of Whitehall’s legal department quit.

We now know too why the Falstaffian Cox, briefly a hero of the Tory sketch writers, was ditched: he wouldn’t take the knee for Cummings. Young Sue eagerly did. Buckland, Lewis and Braverman, they’ll do to make up the vassal numbers in the rule of six gang. Theresa Villiers or Andrea Jenkyns can stand by to be the token woman if Ms B has to socially isolate. In craven opportunism women can definitely be the equal of men. The SNP’s Joanna Cherry QC ripped Braverman’s stance apart.

In fairness, after watching the debate in which 60 MPs spoke, I must report that widespread disquiet about the stalled UK/EU negotiation was not confined to London’s latest theatrical (“Nixonian madness”) posture. Labour MPs, including Hilary Benn, chair of the Brexit select committee, and Ed Miliband, deputising well for Keir Starmer (self-isolating while a family member gets a Covid test) registered displeasure at the EU’s hard negotiating stance. “Exit summary declarations” for goods travelling from Northern Ireland to the mainland are unnecessary, added Benn. Starmer’s Labour is trying to avoid No.10’s “Remoaner” trap.

Several such complaints sound valid. But that is what EU Commission negotiators do, doggedly rigid until last minute flexibility, they have 60 years of practice. The issue here is whether Johnsonian talk of a “blockade” of goods moving between Britain and NI – among other horrors – has any serious basis in fact or is just Boris in columnist mode. He is a notorious fantasist, as EU officials old enough to remember his Telegraph days in Brussels remember with a shudder. In the debate there was plenty of assertion, eagerly amplified by backbench lapdogs, but scant evidence from the talks. Secrecy is another Cummings weapon.

Brussels denies any ambition to “break up” the UK or even detach NI from it. And why should it? Dublin has happily fudged the province’s sovereignty for years, as does the withdrawal protocol. It can hardly be keen to take on all Belfast’s burdens, let alone Brussels embrace indebted Scotland. A Britain isolated and broken by populism and nativism, cut adrift from Europe and the US, is what EU leaders fear when they can spare a moment from their own pressing problems. It’s why Putin the Poisoner and his bots back Brexit.

The EU27 may be being rigid and short-sighted, but it is Boris who is letting the genie of conspiracy theory nationalism out of the bottle. He is already finding it a hard genie to control. Have you noticed that the ‘libertarian’ rabble-rousers most in favour of breaking international law include many who are also actively defying the government’s latest pandemic laws, which seem less coherent by the day?

Priti Patel’s demand that you dob in your neighbours for unlawful mingling in the street merely makes the home secretary look absurd to ‘libertarian’ Tories as well as to the party’s embattled internationalists. They want to obey both sets of law. Right wing lawyers like super-brain, Lord Jonathan Sumption, tear strips off the Covid regulations – insensitively so in Sumption’s case – but so do progressive lawyers, more gently. It is all grist to an ugly mill where serious medics suspect that ministers’ T&T contracts for flagging private test centres are backdoor privatisation of a key NHS service.

Back to Brexit. Assuming that UK ministers have a genuine negotiating grievance, the appropriate way to handle it was what troubled Tory rebels – two (Roger Gale and Andrew Percy) voting with Labour and 30 abstaining in the 10pm vote, won by a reduced majority of 73 (340-263). Sir Bob Neill led a very gentle charge, saving his energy for next week’s amendments. The Lords have made their displeasure known, but don’t bank on them. Their Lordships usually avoid dying in the ditch.

On Monday Neill and Jeremy Wright, another discarded attorney general, argued that a dispute mechanism exists within the Withdrawal Agreement and the joint committee which Michael Gove co-chairs. It is there to resolve ambiguities in the Northern Ireland protocol regarding state aid provision, sensitive goods – notably food stuffs and UK products ‘at risk’ of seeping into single market Ireland via Belfast or Larne. I had missed the news that Whitehall is requiring Stormont to build posts to make phytosanitary checks on the Irish land border. Apparently Stormont’s trade minister is using this week’s bill as an excuse to stop the work.

Beyond that there are international mechanisms – the WTO even – untainted by the “political” European Court of Justice for a wronged UK to seek redress. Whitehall mustn’t implement the Internal Market Act until all other routes have been tried, says Sir Bob. Even passing the bill is a breach of international law, other MPs insist. Alas, the damage is already done to Britain’s relatively respectable reputation, though much exaggerated in the minds of its former colonial subjects, including 60 million Americans who claim Irish ancestry. That’s why speaker Nancy Pelosi threatened to block a US trade deal if the Good Friday Agreement is damaged. She can do it. Another win for the Kremlin poisoner.

Even among Johnson loyalists that points to an appalling communications strategy since the FT got a sniff of the plan two Sundays ago. After five days of shifting explanations No.10’s boy geniuses came up with the “blockade” idea for “breaking up the UK” which Johnson floated in the Telegraph at the weekend. He luridly embellished it in the Commons with stories about English clotted cream and blue cheese being stopped at an internal UK border.

There is a serious case for tidying up all sorts of regulation of the internal UK market, now that Brussels no longer has that regulatory role. Useful work has apparently been started. It does not help that devolved governments – separatist and pro-Union – suspect Whitehall plans a power grab to keep most to itself. It certainly plans to set up a UK-wide Office of the Internal Market to oversee developments. Did anyone mention “unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats”, asked the SNP’s Ian Blackford. Surely the biggest threat to the Union at present comes from Boris the careless Unionist, who keeps boosting SNP poll ratings?

Two passages in the Commons debate struck me forcefully. One came when ex-cabinet minister, Andrew Mitchell, recalled sorrowfully that he had sometimes cast votes he later regretted – for section 28 on gay education, for the poll tax and for Tony Blair’s Iraq war. “But I do not believe I have ever gone into a lobby to vote in a way that I knew was wrong. And I will not be doing it on this occasion either.” He abstained. Ouch.

The other was the prime minister’s own opening passage in defence of the four nation union of 1707 (with Scotland) and 1801 (Ireland), “not just a political event but an act of conscious economic integration that laid the foundations for the world’s first industrial revolution and the prosperity we enjoy today. When other countries in Europe stayed divided we joined our fortunes together and allowed the invisible hand of the market to move Cornish pasties to Scotland, Scottish beef to Wales…. (etc)”, the eternal columnist declared.

This is complete and sentimental nonsense which we might forgive in a less educated minister, but not this one. Yes, 15 of the 25 clauses of the 1707 Act of Union were economic and it served bankrupt Scotland’s merchant class well in terms of tobacco and the slave trade. Among them was the great 18th century philosopher, David Hume, whom grievance archaeologists have de-platformed at Edinburgh University this week, for his “comments on matters of race”. But the Union was a contentious affair – resented then, even more so in today’s world of identity politics.

As for the 1801 union with Ireland, a bloody wartime imposition just after the 1798 uprising. Promises of the vote for Catholics were betrayed, the Irish economy dominated by absentee landlords and by a potato crop which would lead to mass famine in 1845, the sheer historic insensitivity of it made Jeremy Corbyn look like a Friend of Israel. As for “other countries staying divided”, by my calculation all the EU’s member states except Sweden, Portugal and the Netherlands were under the thumb of imperial autocracies – Russian, French, Austrian, Turkish, British too – and/or domestic tyrannies in 1707, 1801 and well beyond.

Many have been oppressed in living memory. The avoidance of repetition is partly what the EU is about. New York-born, Brussels-Eton-and-Oxford-educated Johnson should know this. We will pass on his “invisible hand” nonsense and what it did to the industrial working class. To regurgitate this thoughtless rubbish drafted by a speech-writer is an insult to all concerned – and a disgrace to his office. It serves to remind us what a casual half-baked crew we are ruled by.

If it is any guide to their serious intentions, voters should brace themselves for a U-turn disguised as a triumph. MPs got a taste of that prospect when Liz Truss – speaking before Johnson on Monday – hailed her draft free trade agreement with Japan as opening the way for Britain to share rising prosperity around the distant Pacific.

Are Japan’s agreed terms on state aid more onerous than those sought by the EU? Don’t ask. Is the deal worth 0.1% to UK GDP compared with 15% at risk with the EU27? Ditto. If things turn out badly Team Johnson can blame Truss – as they did Matt Hancock this week when the new Covid rules proved unpopular in tabloid-land.

How long can this last, rational TNE readers must ask themselves? A while yet, I fear, because the crises we now face are so challenging in so many ways – 700,000 jobs lost, Covid infections rising along with the unseasonal heatwave – that many of us take refuge in irrational belief. The EU’s threatened “blockade” of the Irish Sea is one of many. Will it deploy the Austrian or Hungarian navies?

But there are so many genies out of bottles now. By Trump standards Johnson’s regime is a model of restraint and probity even as he pillages the White House playbook for ideas. Presidential aides accuse Covid-cautious doctors of treason and newly-pardoned Roger Stone urges his president to seize power if he seems to be losing on November 3. Stone has been letting the dark genie of authoritarian populism out of the bottle for decades. The captured Republican party is a more recent enabler of unconstitutional actions that soon become the new normal.

But it’s a bit late for Messers Howard, Lamont and Geoffrey Cox to throw up their hands in horror. They have been Boris and Cummings enablers up to now. Time to ship out to Venus? I hear it’s not as uninhabitable as we feared.

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