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As we head to Brexit day the blame game has already started

Boris Johnson stands in front of cabinet ministers at the despatch box in the House of Commons. Photograph: PA Wire. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

MICHAEL WHITE on the first signs of the grievance-mongering that lies ahead for us after January 31.

As we head towards Brexit Day it’s getting ever-harder to find news about this shape-shifting event in most of the newspapers which campaigned so passionately for it. Not enough conflict to hold their attention, eh? Apart from the nonsense about Big Ben’s bongs, Fleet Street’s restless emotional energy – plus 15 pages a day – have moved on what the brutes have dubbed “Hard Megxit” in honour of Meghan and Harry’s belated discovery that the royal family is another institution where it’s hard to be half-in, half-out. No gateau, no chateau, as the royal cake-ist joke goes.

There’s an obvious lesson here for Brexit voters who have been assured that changes ahead can only be for the better. Yet Sajid Javil is telling business – via that FT interview – that regulatory de-alignment with the EU is imminent: “We will not be a rule-taker.” Divergence will be tough for some businesses, our banker chancellor airily concedes, though everyone knows he is a rule-taker-from-No-10 himself, a vassal minister, as Common Sense Mogg might put it. Despite which, one of my more cerebral tabloid pals insists that on February 1 Britain will remain “for nearly all practical purposes still signed up” to the EU – and won’t be persuaded otherwise. I think it will be Norway-minus, paying and rule-taking but no vote or say, as chilly as an Oslo summer. Not long to go now to find out who’s right.

But widespread media indifference to all practical considerations of this momentous shift – except for bongs trivia – highlights two other aspects of our current situation. One may just be reflex action. In making that doomed demand that repairs on the nation’s iconic clock tower should be disrupted for a symbolic – and costly – gesture, the Farage-iste wing of the Brexit alliance instinctively chose to create a fresh grievance. In their hour of supposed triumph they fashioned a disappointment which allowed them new opportunities to blame “the establishment” – unimaginative officials, the new speaker, project engineers who apparently know less about clocks than Mark (“gun in my mouth”) Francois, the chippy Essex MP. Even Arron Banks got a walk-on part as a thwarted donor to the “let the bells speak” cause.

That’s interesting because we may soon hear a lot more of grievance-mongering as the constraints of Brexit reality unfold during 2020. “Who will they blame next?” is always a good question whenever populist remedies are tried and fail. Jews, Muslims, liberals, the super-rich, the metropolitan elite, kulaks, we all know the familiar list. I confess I slipped in ‘banker’ myself two paragraphs ago. The coppers have been adding Extinction Rebellion activists and dear old Greenpeace to their own counter-terrorism targets. Not very discriminating or helpful, more like the hyped and destructive coverage of the Sussex de-alignment.

There’s a second point that screams at us from this week’s short media attention span. On the Sussex divorce from the House of Windsor, the press plays down its own role and undeclared vested interests, much as it does on Brexit and the climate crisis. Far from being simply fearless speakers of truth to power – its own preferred self-image – tabloid Fleet Street (plus the Daily Borisgraph) are activists in the Extinction Rebellion sense of obstruction, intimidation and legally dubious provocations. It’s the equivalent of what it likes to dismiss as “trustifarian hypocrisy” or “luvviedom” whenever Emma Thompson flies in from Hollywood for a protest. The oligarch media has a mixture of motives, ideological and commercial, to resist state (or EU) regulation. Whether it is on privacy and data, workers’ rights or environmental standards, they encourage their readers to think the same.

It shouldn’t need saying that there’s fault on both sides. The Sussexes have behaved selfishly, probably foolishly, and it is not racist to point it out. Not even Brussels or saintly Greenpeace are above criticism. But as far as Harry Windsor is concerned the paparazzi hounded his mother to death in a high-speed car chase. As you may not remember, the phone hacking scandal first unfolded when they hacked Harry’s own phone. The News of the World fell back on the “rogue reporter” defence. That lie turned out to be the tip of a criminal conspiracy that saw several paid tipsters jailed – but very few of the reporters who bribed them. Fall-guy editor, Andy Coulson, was unlucky. The papers got away with a “public interest” defence, they often do. But they’re still paying out to avoid hacking cases being heard in open court.

Actually, there’s a third point here, waving its arms to attract attention. What sort of British government have we just elected to lead us into a new chapter of what my childhood history book called ‘our island story’. Ex-MP and sage, Times pundit Matthew Parris thinks we are watching the emergence of a “new Boris”, calmer, duller, less eager to win at any price, even at PMQs where he displays brevity and (relative) emollience. I’m not convinced. This is just a honeymoon lull before the storm when the charm will give way to manipulative bullying – as it has done throughout his mercurial career. The only constant principle in Boris Johnson’s life has been Boris.

We all know it’s still early days, but his government of vassals gives the impression of being all over the place. During his sofa interview with BBC Breakfast last week Johnson declared himself in favour of those Big Ben bongs, but backed off in favour of a light show, when confronted with stubborn, costly facts. This week he or his minions briefed the Sunday Times that his constitutional commission exercise will include the possibility of moving the House of Lords to York – not a serious centre of political power since Richard III, a tyrant worthy of our times, last headed the Council of the North.

Yet on the same day Home Secretary Priti Patel appeared to be taking the credit for a tightening of restrictions on “low-skilled” workers – below £30,000 a year is what 76% of EU citizens in Britain earn – by dropping the two-year transition promised in Theresa May’s 2018 white paper. Just 24 hours after rule-taker Javid had frightened business with his implicit no-deal Brexit talk (“no single market, no customs union”) in that FT de-alignment interview, it struck another unsettling blow. Business secretary Andrea Leadsom has already cut back on regular meetings with the CBI and similar bodies. “F*** business,” as someone once said?

If we are ever to bind up the nation’s wounds, we should strive to be generous. So I think I can see the outlines of a wholesome attempt here to rebalance the economy away from London and the south east. Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill once shared the sentiment as chancellor (1924-29) while accidentally worsening the north-south divide with a tight monetary policy, known as the gold standard. Every government since then – can you remember Lord Hailsham’s 1960s flat cap? – has tried to revive what were then known as “the depressed areas” and still lag behind, the legacy of the collapse of heavy industry.

Ministers all tried, but not hard enough. Durham’s Dominic Cummings wants to try “levelling up” again. Eton’s Johnson wants Redcar to stay Bluecar. So the Treasury’s investment rules are being rewritten, reducing the expected rate of return on capital to London’s disadvantage. Infrastructure projects are being encouraged which will better connect great cities of the north while interest rates on borrowed capital (up 50% by 2025?) remain low-to-negative and falling – as they now look set to in such uncertain economic times. More town-to-village buses – another Thatcherite policy failure – are a good idea too, but less glamorous and less profitable for big construction firms.

Small firms and entrepreneurs – businesses of the future, not the legacy one of the past, as the blithe new cliché puts it – are also hearing encouraging noises. Lower business taxes (they help to cripple high street retailers too) and better skills training for staff? Yes please. Javid himself got his first break at an further education college. Embattled fishing communities in faded seaside towns with too many retirees or benefit claimants? My dears, we are about to regain sovereignty over our fish. All excellent – if it amounts to very much. No lesser figure than Peter Mandelson says Cummings is right to want to move fast, but not to break things. Public-private collaboration is the way forward. Indefatigable Michael Heseltine gives similar advice to Boris – a “Brexity Hezza” in his own fevered imagination.

But hang on a minute. New Tory MPs from seats in the once-red wall have barely found the Commons loos, but have realised they can safely join forces with their home counties nimby colleagues to threaten revolt against the biggest infrastructure project of them all. No, not the third runway at Heathrow, where Flybe’s wealthy owners, Delta Airlines and Virgin, have already played the regional card to take Brexity Hezza to the dry cleaners for tax subsidies they don’t need (they do need Flybe’s Heathrow landing slots). The Tory target is HS2, the Y-front fast track to London from Manchester and Leeds whose costs rise as its business case falters.

Those revolting red wall Tories want HS2 money invested more effectively on better trains and buses at local and regional level. They have a point. But regional councils, led by Heseltine-inspired, elected metro-mayors – Manchester’s Andy Burnham (Labour) and Brum’s ex-John Lewis boss, Andy Street (Tory) – are insisting they want both if Northern Powerhouse talk is ever to be more than just talk. Incidentally, Labour leadership punters might want to place a modest, long-term bet on ex-cabinet minister Burnham, who is a fast learner, as Lancashire as Rebecca Long-Bailey and (50 this month) seven years younger than Sir Keir.

Johnson has always been a fantasy projects man, Boris Island on a Thames bomb site, the Garden Bridge, the Irish bridge, the zip-wire river crossing and those fare-dodgers open buses. Only the last two were actually built, neither successfully. But now the columnist is a grown-up. When he says “Big Ben bongs” officials jump, only to jump back again. I have a feeling they will jump back again when the reality of the York House of Lords scheme emerges. Regionally-elected peers (senators, anyone?) on the German or US model is an interesting idea, though Republican senators may be poised to disgrace themselves and the US constitution over Donald Trump’s impeachment. But the near-universal distain which peers of all parties expressed on hearing it serves to remind everyone that the gesture may not be worth the trouble and expense.

Still, it got the Downing St machine through another weekend set of headlines. “Government by headline” was a jibe often hurled at Tony Blair and his Tory successors in the 24/7 social media jungle. Fair point. In Johnson’s case I’m old-fashioned enough to think of it as “government by column”. In Just Boris, his candid biographer Sonia Purnell describes his column-writing technique when they shared an office in the early days of his self-invention as Brussels No.1 Euro-sceptic. He would lock himself away and “like Superman undergo a startling and virtually instantaneous transformation from Bumbling Boris to Bilious Boris before penning yet another explosive tract”.

Just ahead of the Telegraph’s deadline it was known as the “four o’clock rant”. Fuelled by Lion d’Or chocolates provided by his motherly Flemish secretary “he would then work himself up into a frenzy by hurling repeated four-letter abuse at a rugged yucca plant near his desk”. While colleagues outside the door took fright at the noise, Boris would eventually settle and dash off a rapid “brilliantly damaging and inventive 1,000 words” on a grubby Tandy laptop, sometimes quoting himself as “one British source”. Woe betide anyone who dared interrupt the process.

My hunch is that this is a useful insight into policy-formation in the Johnson administration, though not with Cummings as the yucca plant because he would walk out. When Johnson wooed him back into government he initially refused to answer his or Michael Gove’s calls. Eventually Boris had to go to Dom’s house, not vice versa. Perhaps “Trust Me” Govey plays the yucca part. Unfortunately real life is not like columns where errant ‘facts’ can later be corrected on page 99 if absolutely necessary.

Sooner, probably later, red wall voters, more transactional than nostalgic elderly Tory nimbies, will notice that those bongs or the House or York were just columnar wheezes. Sooner, not later, decisions must be made on HS2 and that third runway. Sooner still, problems of nursing staff shortages or penal pension policies for doctors will produce an acute NHS crisis which it will be hard to blame on Muslims, the metropolitan elite or even expendable Matt Hancock. A winter flu crisis or – God forbid – a viral pandemic from China would guarantee that crisis unless a scarily mild winter spares us, the climate change dividend (for now).

All that and more on the domestic front, even without looking further to Kremlin intrigue, vice-like pressure from Beijing to buy Huawei hardware we can’t build ourselves and from Washington not to buy it on security/protectionist grounds. President Trump, strutting his malevolent stuff at Davos while Congress debates his fate, has used trade threats to squeeze Germany, France and Britain this past week to instigate a review of Iran’s breaches of the nuclear deal – when everyone knows the first, fatal breach was made by him.

Boris doesn’t like being disliked, it’s his Achilles Leg. Past form suggests that a cornered Johnson will react by finding a convenient yucca tree to abuse. With BBC chief Tony Hall stepping down to protect Global Britain’s most trusted global brand from attack by Little Britain MPs, the corporation is an obvious target, almost as unpopular among his core voters and Fleet Street’s Finest as foreign care workers. The Withdrawal Agreement bill may have completed its parliamentary voyage this week but populist regimes need a steady supply of new enemies. A “look at me” reshuffle in February and Javid’s circle-squaring budget on March 11 serve to raise the political temperature – just when the weather has been unseasonably warm outside.

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