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The week Brexit happened and Boris Johnson once again promised the earth

The union flag colours projected onto 10 Downing Street as the UK leaves the EU. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA. - Credit: PA

MICHAEL WHITE looks back on the week Britain reclaimed its disputed sovereignty, the coronavirus took over, and pundits grappled with the ‘Johnson project’.

‘Let’s outwit the Frenchies and set full sail for the sandbanks’ Martin Rowson – Credit: Archant

Did you catch his Greenwich speech, the bit about trading Australia-style: the new euphemism for a hard Brexit? What on earth is he on about now? You don’t really know. I certainly don’t claim to know. And Boris Johnson himself is unlikely to have given it much thought. He conjures up lively phrases as he goes along, always has done, government by column. A champion of the cake-and-eat-it school of policy, he is as committed to a long-term strategy as he is to his wives and girlfriends. What works is what works for Boris today.

This was Johnson’s equivalent of Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech, all those red lines which wobbled, a new version of “no deal better than bad deal”, but spun with so much more panache in front of a similarly-startled audience of local and foreign bigwigs, minus the dissident pro-EU business leaders, the CBI, IoD etc. Enemy journalists were also excluded. The prime minister chose instead to surround himself with what he called “well-fed nymphs and cupids” which peered down adoringly from the ceiling of the Old Naval College’s 17th century Painted Hall, the curvaceous tech trainers of their day.

Even allowing for strong competition for headlines I was surprised how little media attention the text got. Brexit fatigue? By his own florid standards the symbolism was blatant. James Thornhill’s masterpiece (‘Britain’s Sistine Chapel’) is called The Triumph of Liberty and Peace Over Tyranny and depicts William III vanquishing Louis XIV in the name of global expansion, science – intellectual liberty – and ever-freer trade. Dutch William was dead, the bloody war with France was actually still going on, but who’s counting? 1707, the year the work was started, was also the year of the Anglo-Scottish Act of Union, now threatened with rupture.

The trade substance was pretty strong stuff too. Britain has reclaimed its disputed sovereignty and is once again taking its place in the world, specifically its chair at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva, subsumed in the EU chair since 1973. Our diplomats have been instructed by Bruiser Raab to steer clear of our EU allies and strike an independent pose, we learned via a “leak” (selective briefing?) at the weekend.

“We are re-emerging after decades of hibernation as a campaigner for global free trade” – and not a moment too soon. “Free trade is being choked and that is no fault of the people, that’s no fault of individual consumers, I am afraid it is the politicians who are failing to lead. The mercantilists are everywhere, the protectionists are gaining ground,” the PM declared.

Fortunately Clark Kent – yes, he really did say this – is at hand (himself) to lead the fightback. Which is why he wants a trade deal with the EU27, but not if it means regulatory alignment in the name of maintaining standards and “a level playing field”. UK standards are as good as EU ones, often better. To torment his listeners he rattled off a list from plastic waste to veal crates, via paid paternity leave, carbon targets and lower levels of state aid to industry, half France’s level, one third of Germany’s. Boris’s Britain will not lower standards – far from it – but it won’t be told what to do. There was much more, about fish (annual quota deals only) and Welsh lamb exports to China. Cardiff is closer to Beijing than Auckland, he said. Only as the crow flies, Boris. Lamb carcasses don’t fly, but it was a typical columnist’s trick.

Certainly not a dull speech, is it? Pretty alarming in unsettled times and a pretty selective version of our imperial history. But it’s also important for the millions of us who voted for Remain and against Johnsonism to keep reminding ourselves that not everything the prime minister says – or even Dominic Cummings does – is automatically wrong. Or that everything will turn out as badly as we fear it may for Boris No Mates, self-proclaimed free-trading Clark Kent in a world of protectionist economic blocs.

Of course, Johnson’s flamboyant rhetoric may be just that, a noisy prelude to capitulation like his much-trumpeted “renegotiation” of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. When dour Michel Barnier unveiled his own tough talking, negotiating mandate – just an hour earlier – it sounded diametrically opposite to Johnson’s. Barnier has been cruelly chained to his oar in the Brexit galleys for another voyage instead of getting the top Brussels job, so he is rowing on a familiar tide. “Our trade terms or you can walk the plank,” he warned. Predictable opening salvoes from both sides.

But is Barnier right? And how much does he mean it? Both he and Ursula von der Leyen (who did get that top Brussels job) have been sounding a teeny bit flexible on the dread word “alignment”. To meet Downing Street’s December deadline trade experts tell us the UK will have to compromise much more than the EU27. But eurozone growth is even feebler than ours. Donald Trump sees Brussels as his new best enemy. And Britain is now led less by clean-cut Clark Kent than by a pirate. In Boris’s new order, the CBI will be cold-shouldered, biased and hostile reporters – he built his Brussels career by being exactly that – kicked out of Number 10 briefings. Backbench mutineers will be flogged by First Mate Cummings, then flogged again by the Daily Mail. That’s the theory anyway. It will be tested when he decides to defy revolting backbenchers and go ahead with HS2. They should note that when Johnson mocked “mumbo jumbo” hostility to US food production methods and GM crops in his Greenwich speech, the Mail cravenly sucked it up as if it had never invented the phrase “Frankenstein foods”.

Long John Boris is a familiar English type in European demonology – “the pirate Drake”, as unkind Spaniards still describe Sir Francis. Like mercenaries – ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare died in his bed this week – pirates are morally ambivalent figures, brutal, audacious Captain Kidd (hanged at Wapping in 1701) a Johnny Depp hero to some, certainly an intermittent ally of the Royal Navy. Johnson’s evocation of England’s buccaneering global past – much of it conducted in the spirit of very unfree trade – is bound to unsettle Brussels. Francis Drake was knighted just upstream at Deptford in 1581. Such echoes may not resonate much in Bucharest, but Madrid has already tightened its negotiating noose on Gibraltar, British naval booty from 1713, which it wants back.

If bygone echoes aren’t enough, more contemporary events keep interrupting, as events tend to do. Monday’s peacock parade between Johnson and Barnier was overshadowed by the Streatham jihadi attacker whose release from prison Tory briefers are eager to blame on “the shocking influence of lawyers on policy”, specifically on constraints imposed by the European Convention on Human Rights in Strasbourg. A British invention to protect us all from Nazi atrocities, the ECHR long predates the Common Market and is quite separate. Lawyers can be a nuisance, but it’s better to have them than leave it all to First Mate Cummings, angry and impatient. He has blogged about an ECHR referendum (“we’ll win that by more than 52-48%”). That’s a campaign worth fighting against.

Potentially more lethal than Streatham was the threat from Wuhan, the fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak. Talk of the Chinese quarantine triggering a global economic recession is a less fearsome scenario than millions of pandemic deaths. Have the Chinese been sufficiently frank? As with those trade talks or the Huawei 5G controversy we can only take precautions and hope for the best.

Two startling developments this past week illustrate the unpredictability of 2020’s stormy seas and the need to adapt fast to change. Pirate Boris did so when he tacked towards the US on the Trump ‘peace plan’ for Palestine, then tacked towards the Sino-EU buoy on Iran and the purchase of Huawei 5G kit. He tried the manoeuvre again in Greenwich’s Painted Hall. First he urged “naïve and juvenile anti-Americans” to grow up and embrace Trump’s optimism. Then he berated the US for its own protectionist rackets. It “goes without saying” that the NHS, food hygiene or animal welfare will not be on the table in future US trade talks, he added. That’s not what Washington says.

Pure cake-ism, Long John Boris trying to keep his balance as he swings in the rigging, risking a fall at any moment. If only we could believe he has some guiding principles we might applaud his agility. Thus – startling development number one – it was announced that fast-track Tier 1 visas for scientific brains wanting to work in Britain will in future no longer be managed by the plodding Home Office, but by UK Research and Innovation, the funding agency that does what it says on the tin.

That sounds right and was seen as a win for First Mate Cummings. He wants chancellor Sajid Javid substantially to increase R&D’s share of his March 11 budget. Improve the UK’s skills base with better apprenticeship schemes while you’re at it, Saj, employers have been saying this week.

The second nugget was the FT’s jaw-dropping claim that Nissan’s options for its troubled, post-Brexit European operations include the possibility that it might shut down its production in Spain and France, not in Brexit-excluded Britain. Instead it would expand its highly-efficient Sunderland plant – with 7,000 staff – in a bid to turn its 4% share of the UK domestic market into 20% at the expense of what may become tariff-hit imports. A tall order by any standards, not least because Nissan’s EU-dominated supply chain could be hit by tariffs. It is also in partnership with Renault so the high politics are daunting. Boris’s photo-op’ cabinet meeting in Sunderland won’t quite fix it.

Nissan has been blowing hot and mostly cold since then chairman, Carlos Ghosn, the Lebanese fugitive, promised to build the Qashqai and X-Trail in Sunderland in 2016 after assurances from Theresa May of a soft Brexit. Amid rising confusion, at Nissan as well as Westminster last year, it cancelled the X-Trail and threatened the Qashqai. Remember, the FT – which is a Japanese-owned company too – is strongly pro-Remain. But its business readers have to adapt to changed circumstances or perish. Just look at the fate of disgraced, pro-Brexit fund manager, Neil Woodford: from hero to zero in a few months.

Rival newspapers were a bit sniffy about the FT’s story and Nissan sort-of-denied it. But the business pages of our patriotic press are almost as desperate for good news in deep winter as the government’s political acolytes on the political pages. Manufacturing orders seem to be up, but sterling is down again. Government by column decreed on Tuesday that UK sales of both petrol and diesel cars – hybrids included – will be brought forward from 2040 to 2035 to help meet that 2050 zero carbon emission target. Business was not thrilled. It craves more certainly, but gets less.

The latest carbon gimmick, not backed by anything like a plan, was the Pirate King’s contribution to the launch of December’s Glasgow climate change summit. By sacking ex-minister, Claire (Perry) O’Neill, as its president last week, he provoked her savage denunciation of a PM who is ignorant and duplicitous – I paraphrase politely. Unedifying, but disloyal, vengeful leaders get paid back in similar coin. No one does it to David Attenborough. It was leaked that both William Hague and David Cameron turned O’Neill’s job down. And he’s already trying to carve up Nicola Sturgeon. “You may think he’s cynical? You’ve only seen 10% of it,” a senior Whitehall official tells a pal.

The Mail confined the FT/Nissan story to page 70, though it covers page one with half-baked fliers a couple of days a week. Why so glum? I share its scepticism, but I wasn’t writing euphoric “free at last” editorials or celebrating Brexit night in Trafalgar Square with Nigel Farage. “Who are the fruitcakes and loonies now?” he crowed. Still you, Nigel, still you. Your achievement is to infect the Tory party. The Brexit Party leader was conspicuously cold-shouldered by official celebrations where the B-word is no longer used. At the Number 10 bash Pirate Boris improvised the Big Ben bongs after his staff’s improvisation failed. First Mate Cummings – more Captain Pugwash than Captain Kidd? – apparently wept with emotion. Me, I went to bed early.

All this is extraordinary stuff. Voters may have switched off again, but the UK is now officially a ‘third country’. There will be a nasty jolt sooner than later. That does not invalidate Pirate Boris’s critique of EU hypocrisies or his belief that optimism is infectious. But the cake-eater has difficult circles to square. Should he prioritise trade talks with the US, assuming he can trust newly-acquitted Trump and his minions not to stiff him, as he does most people?

Should he focus on Japan and the Pacific states so close to Wales, as some suggest? Or will they all want to see what sort of compromises his team eventually reaches with Team Barnier on finance and fish, on state aid and competition, on environmental standards, data protection and workers’ rights, on the inevitable role of the European Court of Justice in dispute arbitration?

The list is long and time is short. If a Canada deal (seven years in the making?) can’t be struck, an Australian deal is virtually hard Brexit on WTO terms at a time when the WTO is under sustained US attack. If Johnson’s attachment to free trade proves as strong as his attachment to free speech (not strong at all) we could end up in the authoritarian protectionist club by default.

Pundits struggle to reconcile the contradictions in the Johnson project closer to home, on the backbenches and in former ‘red wall’ seats. The FT’s Robert Shrimsley highlights the tension between Dominic Cummings’ vision of a nimble high-tech ‘Start-Up Nation’ and supporters of ‘Cohesion Country’, who seek to use state interventions and taxpayer money – whatever we can afford – to fix the social problems which led to the Brexit vote. Across at the Times, Rachel Sylvester sees Johnson as less of a “Brexity Hezza” and more of an “interventionist Maggie”, who eventually fell because she didn’t understand what her policies were doing to those who lost out.

For all his conciliatory words, does Pirate Boris really get that from the bridge of the Jolly Bullingdon? Not much evidence that he does, no time for losers. But they know where he lives.

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