BARNABY TOWNS warns those looking for a second referendum while Boris Johnson is in power to be careful what they wish for.
Boris Johnson is Britain’s political celebrity par excellence, taking that art to heights that the likes of his predecessor as London mayor, Ken Livingstone, and Hartlepool mayor Stuart Drummond, elected under the guise of the town’s football mascot, didn’t dare scale. Perhaps Johnson’s only equal in Western politics in this regard is former reality TV star Donald Trump. Unlike Trump, with whom what one sees is what one gets, Johnson’s carefully-crafted, genial and affable public persona conceals a ruthless ambition to which all else is subordinate.
Few, if any, doubt that Johnson embraced the Leave cause to further his chances of being elected Conservative Party leader by its nationalist, anti-European members, a cool calculation made after having written two draft newspaper columns—one for Remain and one for Leave.
Old hands in Johnson’s party are familiar with his opportunism and self-serving capacity to cut corners. Twice Tory London mayor candidate Steve Norris says of Johnson: “Total chancer who doesn’t read his papers. Cynical and self-indulgent.”
Ex-Tory Party chairman Chris Patten observes: “He lied his way through life, he’s lied his way through politics, he’s a huckster… As well as being mendacious he’s incompetent.”
Former Tory attorney general Dominic Grieve describes him as a “charlatan” and “pathological liar” who has “no moral compass at all.”
These character traits comprise the thread that ties together the right-wing Europhobic journalist who described gays as “bum boys” and African children as “picanninies” with the liberal image and positions he cultivated in his mayoral days and his subsequent championing of Vote Leave in 2016.
From Johnson’s persistent penchant for conflating fact with fiction; to his work ethic and inattention to detail that led onetime Tory MP Matthew Parris to describe him as “a do-nothing mayor of London and the worst foreign secretary in living memory”; to his elastic, easily-erased ethics and habit of embracing then discarding people and principles alike, all are part of a piece.
But Johnson’s lifelong ambition to occupy 10 Downing Street is about to claim its greatest victim yet, as he veers between proposing the UK crash out of the EU without a deal, or attempts to sign the nation up for the hardest of hard EU-exits to burnish his Brexit credentials come the next election. His characteristically cavalier disdain for parliament, the Crown and the Supreme Court in the government’s failed, illegal five-week attempted prorogation and his flirtation with flouting the Benn Act, requiring him to request an extension of the UK’s EU membership in the absence of a deal, are likely a foretaste of the price that the country will pay for his pursuit of power.
The withdrawal agreement — which is not a future trading relationship—that Johnson has concluded with the EU envisages an ultra-hard Brexit for the 97% of the UK economy that is Great Britain. By abandoning the lucrative half-billion person internal market and customs union and free movement of goods, services — 80% of the UK’s economy — capital and labour, including the City of London’s passporting rights, Johnson’s plan would be brutal for jobs, investment and living standards. Income per head would drop 6.4% according to analysis out of King’s College, London University, compared to an estimated 4.9% cut under May’s deal.
Frictionless trade in goods — which featured at the heart of May’s compromise — is jettisoned, adding to business costs with the UK’s largest trading market.
Social, consumer and environmental safeguards have been moved from the legally-binding withdrawal agreement to the Political Declaration, placing them up for grabs in the future. Scaling protections back would almost certainly mean the EU refusing tariff-free trade in any future trade agreement.
The special provisions for Northern Ireland protect the invisible border between North and South at the price of undermining its place in the Union and fueling arguments for Scottish independence — secondary considerations for Johnson.
And there is no guarantee that a Johnson administration would conclude a deal before the withdrawal agreement’s transition period ends after 14 months, leaving open the possibility of crashing out with no deal.
Johnson has an almost infinite capacity for letting down people to whom he has made promises — Northern Ireland’s unionists, whom he told that no Conservative government could or should sign up to a customs border in the Irish Sea being but the latest example. Remainers too should be wary of advocating a referendum while Johnson remains in power, controlling the machinery of government and perhaps the question, franchise and timing.
Behind the smile, Britain’s clown prince is deceitful, dishonest and dangerous.
Barnaby Towns is a former Conservative Party special adviser