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MICHAEL WHITE: Foul Boris Johnson is a yellow cad

Boris Johnson's own goal. Illustration: Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE on more own goals from the Foreign Secretary as he dodges Heathrow vote and patronises the public.

It is tempting fate to invoke the success of the England football squad at the World Cup before knowing the outcome of this week’s final Group G games. But the sun is shining, so let’s do it anyway.

Appropriately enough in the Year of Brexit, fate picked England to play Belgium, home of the battlefield of Waterloo, the Menin Gate at Ypres and this weekend’s EU summit.

On the strength of Sunday’s outstanding performance against Panama’s wrestling team England manager, Gareth Southgate, could usefully be rented out to Theresa May’s Brexit negotiating team when his young lions meet their match – as realistically they must, Boris – before the final in Moscow on July 15.

Southgate has a strategy, he imposes discipline and hard work. He demands a team effort which constraints mere ego and he drops Wayne Rooney. He is calm and understated about what he hopes to achieve. Need I go on? All right, I will. Southgate does not talk about ‘Bog Roll Belgium’, nor say ‘F*** Russia’ in semi-public about his hosts while tucking into their canapes. He takes decisions and does not pass the buck.

In short he is not a bit like Theresa May and her cabinet. This lacklustre body, with its squandered corners, missed penalties and own goals, seems at first glance to have reached a fresh stage of disintegration in the days since Dominic Grieve enigmatically withdrew support for his own ‘meaningful vote’ amendment as the EU Withdrawal Bill passed its final fateful stages.

At least three of its members are currently playing to the press and public gallery with an eye to the captaincy. Will it be worth having if they dislodge her prematurely? Ambitious but inexperienced politicians rarely think that far ahead, though Michael Gove, self-appointed kingmaker and assassin, will be happy to feed them the occasional pass to see what they can do. Less goal-hungry strikers than canaries in Gove’s cage.

As harsh choices needed to end Brexit paralysis become daily more acute, one topical measure of the enfeebled state of the governing class – I hesitate to flatter them with ‘elite’ – has been the drama over Heathrow’s third runway. Not even the Daily Dacre can blame the EU for 40 years of dither. Nor for Boris (‘Where is he?’) Johnson’s shameless truancy in Afghanistan, a dodge not used since Saturday when Jeremy (‘Where is he?’) Corbyn turned up in a refugee camp, expediently absent from the People’s Vote rally in London.

People who claim to care about the suffering of the wider world should surely not use that suffering as a prop for their domestic manoeuvres? But Britain’s horizons, along with its international credibility, are shrinking fast. Yes, the retreat preceded Brexit – Iraq and the financial crash the twin triggers – but the Brexit vote two years ago confirmed what was becoming apparent. The negotiating shambles which have followed put flesh on the hypothesis.

None of this is yet irreversible. Donald Trump’s blundering, self-regarding diplomacy, which ingratiates the US with authoritarian regimes but alienates liberal allies, looks increasingly likely to trigger trade wars across both the Pacific and the Atlantic – though no one seems to have told his pal, now Washington’s hapless ambassador here, Robert ‘Woody’ Johnson. Woody thinks Brexit will be just fine if the Brits were more confident about it.

As an hereditary billionaire, heir to the Johnson & Johnson medical products conglomerate (funded 1886), Johnson Jnr (71) hasn’t done much since being the right sperm in the right place at the right time. By way of contrast, fellow billionaire, Michael Bloomberg (76), made his own vast fortune and was a successful mayor of New York. He thinks Brexit was ‘the single stupidest thing any country has ever done’ – as least before Trump got started.

My own hunch – stated here before – is that the scenario most likely to persuade the ‘Just Get On With It’ majority of British voters to settle for a soft Brexit, or even a People’s Vote on May’s deal (‘a one in three chance,’ an optimistic ex-Whitehall mandarin tells me) is a back-to-the-Thirties-beggar-my-neighbour trade war. Either that or, even worse, an accidental ‘war for peace’ in Korea. That might even wipe the thin, supercilious smile off Jake Rees-Mogg’s face. In any kind of war between the big blocs it will be very cold out there.

But that spine-chilling possibility might also have a sobering effect on the negotiating brinkmanship now being practised, not just by Rees-Mogg and the Hard Brexit crew, but by Michel (‘on the phone to Paris’) Barnier, by Emmanuel Macron and the fast-fading leadership of Angela Merkel. I’ll come back to that.

What the Heathrow shambles reminds us about the parlous state of Britain – HS2, the UK’s vulnerable energy supplies and its acute, affordable housing shortage do the same – is that those in charge are incapable of sustained strategic planning. It’s hard when markets are driven by a lethal combination of ‘shareholder value maximisation’ theory and financial short-termism, when governments are bullied 24/7 by a demented and inconsistent media.

But if Macron – and even Gareth Southgate – can stand up to the vested interests, it reminds us all it can be done. Thatcher and Blair often did it quite well. Remember, Maggie pushed through the Channel Tunnel project, linking us to Europe forever (she would have opposed the current Brexit) and drove the single market as well as EU enlargement to the ex-Eastern Bloc. That’s vision.

What we have now got at Heathrow is another myopic fudge, dressed up as ‘action this day’. Airport bosses claim they can deliver the new runway at £14 billion without help from the taxpayer, though few believe them. Most Labour MPs voted Yes on Monday night. Unite Godfather, Len McCluskey is behind the runway, but his godson, Corbyn, equivocates and says he might cancel it in the unlikely event he gets to No 10 and starts having to take decisions.

John McDonnell, whose Hounslow constituents suffer far more than I do from aircraft noise, says he wants the jobs, but not the runway. Very New Old Labour. The shadow chancellor wastes all the effort he has made to convince business he is ‘Friendly John’ by likening the planned compulsory purchases of ancient Middlesex villages (if it actually happens) to the brutal and sustained 18th century Highland Clearances – fatuous and insensitive.

Uxbridge’s ‘Own Goal’ Boris was allowed to play truant. In fairness Phil Hammond, whose Surrey voters don’t like Heathrow plane stacking either, was also away in India, though as current owner of the cabinet’s pair of long trousers he was probably doing genuinely grown-up work. But don’t sack the fat fraudster, Theresa, that’s what he wants. Make Boris suffer like the rest of us.

For harder choices than Heathrow are closing in on Johnson, as they are on David Davis and Liam Fox, the ‘Three Brexiteers’ of 2016’s fanciful cabinet conceit, now much diminished by their inconsequential performances in office. On last weekend’s second anniversary of the Brexit referendum, all three offered bombastic upbeat messages via the crony press. They included Johnson’s ‘bog roll’ metaphor for Sun readers, convoluted as well as condescending.

The foreign secretary is kept well away from the talks. The international trade secretary clocks up air miles while saying ‘we mustn’t rush a trade deal’ (fat chance of that) and fails either to listen to business’s needs or even produce the kind of handy guide to trade barriers across the world that his US counterparts do. As for Davis, did you ever notice that Michel Barnier was once Romano Prodi’s regional policy commissioner (1999-2004) and knows the Irish border problem well from countless visits to Belfast? No, nor did I. But apparently it annoys him that he has to educate the self-styled Brexit Bulldog on the subject.

The Irish question is one of the several due to be resolved (again) at the cabinet’s overnight session at Chequers which May has ordained to resolve the long-delayed Brexit white paper. It will take place only after this weekend’s EU summit is ‘safely’ over.

That presumes no substantial progress on Brexit and most of the EU27’s oxygen consumed by the existential crisis over migration from Africa and the Middle East, where (surprise, surprise!) right-wing populists like Italy’s new home secretary, Matteo Salvini, are making most of the running.

Temporary or more profound, this is a mass movement of peoples which eerily parallels Donald Trump’s problems on the US southern border and for the same reason: the flight from economic mismanagement, tyranny and the corruption that always accompanies it towards what migrants hope will be the chance of a better life.

There is no point in progressive voters anywhere simply pretending that we can just be nice to everyone who wants to come. You cannot run both a welfare state and an open-door policy. But nor can neighbours resolve the problem simply by national measures, punitive or not. Vienna’s new right-wing government forgot too quickly that Merkel opened Germany to Syrian refugees in 2015 to take the pressure off little Austria.

Like nationalist trade policies, nationalist door-slamming over immigration is ultimately self-harming – in the US, in Brexit Britain or in Orban’s Hungary with its ageing, unskilled work force. There has to be a better and more humane way of managing the numbers. Well-funded transit camps in Libya or Arizona? Perhaps. Development aid and active peace-making in troubled regions. Certainly. Global growth? Of course.

But the contrasting response of British/EU and US business leaders to the crudely populist response of the White House to both immigration and trade challenges is instructive. When Trump’s policy separated parents from children, the domestic outcry was loudly joined by big business. Earlier business had also distanced itself from his climate change folly and warned that tariffs on Chinese – and EU – steel imports would cost more American jobs than they save. Even Trump the provocateur backed off on the kids (for now).

When Harley-Davidson (of all totemic US brands!) moves to protect its business by shifting production outside the tariff crossfire the president denounced the firm for ‘white flag’ conduct – though others are moving production into the US for similar reasons. The US is enjoying a tax-cutting boom on its credit card. When it ends unscrupulous Trump will seek to shift the blame, he always does.

In Britain major businesses usually leave it to their trade bodies, the CBI, the IoD or the British Chamber of Commerce to speak for them, if at all. Though its members were 60-40% pro-Remain the BCC’s cautious decision to stay neutral in the Brexit campaign wasn’t enough for its director-general, John Longworth, who became the only industry leader to back Brexit. He’s still noisily doing it – in tandem with politicians and their media pack, so quick to cry ‘betrayal’ but to offer no solutions. Ditto the debate on skilled migration. Business has tended towards muted prudence. Unheroic but hardly surprising when the media pack (newspapers are not much of an export industry) can be so savage.

So Airbus’s weekend warning that it might offshore UK production of its aircraft wings from Britain if there is a ‘catastrophic’ Brexit negotiation, produced a howl of outrage from the usual suspects. BMW joined in. Even worse! How dare they state the obvious! In reality Britain threw in the towel on Airbus when the Blair government foolishly allowed BAE to sell the UK’s 20% stake in 2003, a ‘market knows best’ decision which looked dodgy even then.

But beneath the bombast about preparing for a no-deal crash out of the EU on March 29 there are also signs aplenty that more thoughtful Brexiteers are looking for a way out of what they know would be a reckless outcome. Even Desperate Dan Hannan MEP talks of compromise and deplores the shocking decline in civility since June 23, 2016, being careful, of course, to blame both sides for the ‘intimidation’ of opponents.

This is laughable from the ‘Crush the Saboteurs’ and ‘Enemies of the People’ posse and we must assume Dan knows it. So it must be a coded message to his own side: send Paul Dacre on a well-deserved retirement holiday and send Boris to keep him company while the soft Brexit majority in parliament and the country do their best to patch up a seaworthy solution – or Hurricane Trump forces the vessel back into harbour.

After all, it is not just the UK which is exposed to the Beast from the West, nor the Hungarian foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, the only one to point out that both sides need a Brexit deal. Brussels politics or the integrity of the EU’s four freedoms (already fracturing) should not overwhelm economic good sense. Thus the UK is the largest export market for German cars – 769,000 of them sold last year, 50% more than to the US, three times their Chinese market.

Angela Merkel told her business leaders to stay out of Brexit and mostly they have. But she is facing a career-ending challenge from her Bavarian CSU ally and coalition home secretary, Horst Seehofer, over immigration. Seehofer is fighting off the radical AfD right. Cars are important to rich Bavaria, that’s what the B in BMW stands for. Neither Merkel nor Seehofer can risk a motor trade war with all three big markets, this on top of the accelerating diesel emissions scandal.

So get real, guys. And you guys in the May cabinet, and the lady guys, you all get real too. Time is running out and Nigel Lawson’s cliff is in plain view, giving industry and finance sleepless nights, though their leaders are too manly to cry in public. As for replacing May, Offside Johnson and Hand Ball Davis have under-performed themselves out of contention as a would-be saviour of the Brexit talks. Good.

Bumptious Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary’s combination of arrogance, chutzpah and complete lack of realism about the UK’s wildly-overstretched defence budget rules him out of everything except the sack. Voters are not ready for Sajid Javid in No 10 and I’d say he’s not ready for them either. In the trio of visible wannabes that leaves health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the emollient Remain-turned-Brexit conciliator, the only one with a touch of the Gareth Southgates.

Let’s see how it looks by the quarter finals. But my bet remains that Submarine May (copyright D Cameron) will still be at the helm on March 29, bumping along on the ocean floor and clutching some sort of deal that does not quite drown the crew.

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