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MICHAEL WHITE: Boris Johnson is full of sound and fury – but not much substance

Boris Johnson seems to be making a lot of Brexit-noise, but not a lot of strategy. Cartoon: Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE on the government’s sirens and alarms signalling – which spells plenty of activity, but no strategy.

One of our children used to live on a road which he shared with the local police station and a branch of the London Fire Brigade. It was a residential recipe for lots of blue flashing lights and noisy sirens at all hours. Oh yes, the road 
was also on the route between two large, busy hospitals. A nice flat, but our son moved.

I often feel that way about Boris Johnson’s government. ‘GNEE, GNAW, GNEE, GNAW…’ as minister Brandon Lewis admits planning to ‘break international law,’ but only slightly. ‘GNEE, GNAW,’ clear the front pages for a new Covid clampdown which pushes the government’s illegality down the news agenda. A coincidence? Probably.

That Keir Starmer, he gets quietly on with building a solid reputation for unflashy competence in the thankless task of being leader of the opposition during hard times. But the Johnson administration is blue flashing lights and constant noise all the time. Reading weekend extracts from ex-Washington ambassador, Kim Darroch’s account of his dealings with the chaotic, capricious Washington court of King Donald felt uneasily familiar.

But first, an apology. I was wrong here last week (pause for catcalls) when I casually suggested that Rishi Sunak’s Treasury team had leaked some of the chancellor’s thoughts about tax rises for the well-to-do to the Sunday Times to prepare Conservative backbenchers for unpopular decisions in the new parliamentary term. Unless that paper’s redoubtable political editor, Tim Shipman, was playing games with his readers this Sunday the leak dismayed Sunak.

So it may have been a pre-emptive warning shot from No.10 to the next-door-neighbour. A blue flashing light, you might say. On Sunday night we heard a very loud siren. Someone had told the FT that Wednesday’s publication of the UK’s internal market bill would override aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement that we-all-know-who signed as recently as October.

That’s an international treaty, right? You don’t just unilaterally amend them and expect other people to trust you, let alone lend you money. At first the FT story, which came on the day Brexit negotiator, David Frost, broke cover with a patsy interview in the Mail on Sunday, was confirmed by No.10 – ‘stood up,’ as the trade puts it. Then a flashing blue light sped down the road in the opposite direction. Mere ‘technical’ adjustments, the PM breezily assured president Macron who had clearly decided not to feel provoked.

Exploiting loopholes (‘minor clarifications’) to minimise disruption across the Irish Sea, if you prefer. A constructive phone call, declared Macron, leaving others to wave angry fists. Heading to London for Round 8 of the Groundhog Day trade talks, Michel Barnier did his familiar ‘you’re treading on my foot’ act. The Commission’s head prefect, Ursula von der Leyen, said she trusts the British government to behave, though diplomatic cables leaked to the Guardian suggest otherwise.

A malicious FT leak by ‘Remoaners’ or sabre-rattling by Team Boris? A calculated provocation or clueless idiocy? As usual, it was hard to tell. Theresa May felt moved to break her silence and protest in the Commons about the sanctity of treaties. Well done her, for staying as an MP sharing long experience, not scampering off to make money. At the dispatch box Brandon Lewis astonished Tory MPs by owning up to the illegality. He will carry the can for that.

So a pretty average start to the week for the Lord of Misrule. Especially so if we put aside what would otherwise be a lively scandal: Johnson’s refusal to let the sacked cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, publish the report into Priti Patel’s bullying of Whitehall officials because he backs her refusal to apologise.

Over to you, Sedwill’s replacement, Simon Case. A Test Case indeed. Undeterred, the home secretary has been caught trying to open side-talks on internal security with five major EU states – behind Barnier’s back. Remember, she’s got form here: that trip to Israel which got her fired last time.

Even by feckless journalistic standards, self-entitled Boris built his career by breaking promises, letting people down and spending other people’s money while not worrying too much about the bills or the disorder he leaves behind. Google ‘Boris’ and ‘Max Hastings’ (his old boss) if you don’t believe me. The PM is a chancer who surrounds himself with chancers and vassals, never rivals.

I wonder if the new Lord Frost is a bit of both, deferential to power, disinclined to see the EU point of view, not a man to point out his own boss’s mistakes. That would clearly distinguish him from Sir Jonathan Jones, who resigned as head of the government’s legal department on Tuesday, apparently over that ‘loopholes’ caper.

As worries about a resurgent coronavirus collide with the Covid debt challenge it hardly needs saying that Johnson is shiftily opposed to higher income tax and in favour of more spending – especially if Rishi wants 
to be more prudent. And he does. As 
a share of GDP, public spending is 
likely to be at least 54% this year, higher than since post-war 1946 (it peaked at 46.3% after the 2009 bankers crash). Most of the £300 billion of extra Covid-19 spending has come from borrowing, not tax. It’s not the ‘levelling up’ Boris had in mind.

Except this chancellor is almost as unsackable as Gordon Brown once was, albeit very differently – more of a team player, more at ease with himself, less disgruntled. He got the top job because overbearing Dom Cummings forced Sajid Javid to resign. Sunak has done so well that party activists as well as voters trust him, as they increasingly don’t the boss. The influential ConservativeHome website’s poll confirms it. As do those leaked EU cables.

So in the next showdown – one will come – Johnson may be relieved to let Dom go if the alternative is himself. Populists hate being unpopular, it’s not what they’re for.

Which tempts me to a brief digression on the picture which Collateral Damage, ambassador Darroch’s memoirs, paint about the Trump White House, as he experienced it before Boris effectively forced him out.

Team Trump had few veterans of past governments to call on. They weren’t much interested in governing or in policy, only in day-by-day campaigning and settling scores with Trump’s perceived ‘enemies’ (who didn’t include Putin). The senior figures all attended key meetings, hoping to catch the mercurial president’s attention. He dominated everything and shouted a lot. Advisers intrigued against each other. A US journalist told Darroch there was virtually a phone queueing system (‘if you want to brief against Bannon, Press 2.. against Kushner, Press 3.. etc’). In a revolving door system, only family was safe from instant dismissal, sometimes via leaks to media pals.

Most startling, at a big meeting Darroch attended with POTUS and his team none of the Americans took notes – standard procedure – presumably because they were all too important. Such informality happens in ministerial corners everywhere (‘sofa government,’ Tony?), but not on this scale or with foreigners. Not even in Johnson’s Whitehall, where sackings of senior civil servants, a mounting backlog of decisions not taken, chaotic U-turns and the avoidance of transparency or honest accountability in a cowed courtier regime, make Mrs May look masterful.

But the White House comparison makes for ill-ease. Cummings’ new creation of what amounts to a new Prime Minister’s Department (located not in No.10 but next door at 70, Whitehall) is unlikely to achieve the revolutionary transformation of central government’s performance (‘using real time data’) that is promised. Big screens and white boards are not enough if those handling the data are idiots with little experience of government or of real life. Did you notice that another of Dom’s ‘weirdos and misfits’ had resigned last month for some offensive comment? How long can Australia’s Tony Abbott keep his mouth shut as a trade adviser? Why do they give such hostages to fortune?

There’s plenty wrong with Whitehall’s instincts and performance, Cummings is right about that – as is every new broom regime. The difference is that, when a Trump or Johnson pulls a lever and little changes, they are both surprised – as more experienced operators would not be – and angry too. They blame, they sack. We might welcome determined reformers armed with all that data can offer if only we had not seen their lamentable leadership performance over Covid, GCSEs and A-levels, planning and much else, including Brexit.

So when we read that the ‘Three C’s’ – Cummings, Simon Case and comms chief Lee Cain (formerly the Daily Mirror reporter obliged to harry David Cameron dressed as a chicken) – have it all in hand, we are entitled to reluctant scepticism. A no-deal Brexit? Fear not, the Three C’s and their G-Man, Michael Gove, have set up a trendy Transition Hub to tackle it. Bags of time, eh? ‘The doomsters and gloomsters will be wrong again,’ cries arch-booster Boris.

Except that the people actually doing it out there in Covid-battered factories and offices across the country are in meltdown. Friday’s FT led on a cry of frustrated pain from 11 leading UK customs and logistics organisations about the failure of ministers and officials to grasp the real world complexity of 10,000 trucks crossing the Channel every day. Their lack of knowledge leads to a lack of detailed solutions needed if there is no-deal on January 1 and ‘critical gaps’ in the 10 new logistical systems are to be closed.

The Times responded the following day with summaries of key industries’ concerns. The City is resigned to relocating more staff because the ‘equivalence’ deal is stalled by the wider stalemate; ‘significant disruption’ for pharmaceutical imports is predicted; under WTO-rules-only food prices must rise because of tariffs; manufacturing is engaged in ‘damage limitation’ (and Nissan have delayed production of their promised new car in Sunderland).

Passports? Immigration? Freight that also covers Heathrow cargo holds as well as Dover lorry queues? Don’t ask. As for data, does Boris realise that without a deal it would become illegal to send data from the EU (many UK servers are in Ireland) to Britain? As with much else there are ways around it, expensive ones. Patel’s commitment to curbing migration, legal and by dinghy, not to mention security cooperation over terrorists and crooks, are not so easily fixed by cash alone.

As the Scots-German CDU MEP, David McAllister (he speaks much more coherent English than Boris does), said on Radio 4 mid-week, the EU’s border regime is prepared for a no-deal outcome from January 1. Is ours? No, not according to those who will have to engage with it. Grappling with so many headaches (including the Irish Sea), Michael Gove admits he is not ready to impose reciprocal tariffs until July 1 if it comes to that.

Enter David Frost, or Lord Frost as we must now call him. What was he doing in that MoS interview, repeatedly blathering on about the EU needing to treat Britain like ‘an independent sovereign country’? Serious countries do not resign from the golf club, but ask to keep on playing.

Johnson said much the same on Monday, setting his latest five-week October 15 deadline for a deal (Barnier’s is October 31). It sounded like a reheated version of ‘Do what I say or I’ll shoot myself’. But Frost was clearly on message. If we don’t get a deal, it will be OK to trade under WTO terms. Don’t try and call our bluff like you did Theresa’s. That was a mistake since it goaded Gavin Barwell, May’s chief of staff, to point out what TNE readers know: that bombastic Boris’s ‘triumph’ in October was actually 95% May plus a shameless Irish Sea betrayal of the DUP. It’s what came back to haunt his loopholes.

Does Frosty (as Boris calls him) believe this stuff? I don’t know him as I did the other David Frost. But people who do know him well say he was a mid-ranking diplomat, ambassador to Denmark (2006-08), who was competent but not remarkable. Not the sort of person you notice enter a room, his Oxford medieval history tutor recalled for Rachel Sylvester’s Frost profile in Prospect. Indeed the tutor didn’t actually remember Frost. A suit and tie man, not theatrically extrovert like Cummings, he does not seek the limelight.

But something has changed. As he recalled in his February 17 speech in Brussels – it’s worth finding online – Frosty served in the UK’s EU team in the 1990s and turned against it. That did not stop him becoming CEO of the Scotch Whisky Association, promoting the single market for Scotch, as late as 2013, after he left Whitehall a disappointed, passed-over man, so they say. ‘Hard-working and clever, but stodgy and unimaginative, a Field Marshall Haig, definitely no Napoleon,’ says a senior FCO colleague before adding ‘Just like Barnier’.

Notwithstanding which Frost entered mayor Johnson’s circle at City Hall courtesy of fixer, Eddie (now Lord) Lister, and was appointed his special adviser (2016-18) during Boris’s lamentable interlude as foreign secretary. Today he is neither elected politician, not civil servant, but a ‘spad’, national security adviser and a peer too, the Midlands grammar school boy and loner trusted enough to hold Boris’s fate in his negotiating hands while prudently singing Boris’s tune.

What happened, Frosty? My ex-FCO friend, admittedly an ardent pro-European, unkindly rejects Frost’s claim to a ‘Damascene conversion’ over Europe. Belief in Brexit did not lead to his resignation but followed it after he realised he would never scale the FCO’s heights, as Kim Darroch, another clever grammar school boy, had done. Nowadays Frosty talks like a politician, a courtier who saw his chance and took it. History is full of such people, necessary but expendable. Johnson likes insiders-turned-outsiders. Why does the murky world of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels spring to mind? Brandon Lewis is a perfect Tudor villain’s name. Off with Master Lewis’s head, axeman.

Who is bluffing whom in this predictable parade of toughness? We won’t know until one side blinks. As 
we saw last October my hunch is that 
the blinker will again be blustering Boris, claiming the EU caved. But the risks of miscalculation when trying to reduce complexity to a few pithy phrases is huge.

In Berlin, where left-wing agitators joined forces on the street with anti-vaxxers and Covid conspiracists last weekend, academic analysts of such politics flagged up warnings that a large swathe of voters are drifting into the collective delusion of alternative realities. You could say the same after watching a Trump press conference.

But here Trotskyite micro-parties join forces with Extinction Rebellion to offer easy culture war targets to Johnson and Patel. Perhaps Covid reality is too painful to bear, making social media confirmation loops or virtual reality headsets safer spaces. Some 25% of Germans reportedly believe in Covid conspiracy. The bonkers QAnon website, which believes Satan-worshipping paedophiles are plotting to overthrow Trump, has a large German following – as it does in the UK and US.

Perhaps Lord Frosty has bought a Brexit virtual reality headset of his own. Cue sirens and blue flashing lights.

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