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Ex-Irish ambassador’s undiplomatic take on Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson reminds Irish ambassador to the UK Bobby McDonagh of a rodent he saw on holiday that locals would bet on. Picture: OLI SCARFF / AFP) - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Former Irish ambassador to the UK BOBBY McDONAGH has some very undiplomatic words to say about Britain’s new prime minister.

Some years ago I rented an apartment in Roccatederighi, a small hill town in Tuscany. Unfortunately, the planned week of family peace and quiet coincided with the town’s annual medieval festival. If your thing is raucous music into the small hours every morning, I strongly recommend the experience.

In the piazza outside our window, amidst all the fun of the fair, was a stall which I christened Rodent Roulette. A live hamster would be placed under a small cage in the middle of a circular table, the circumference of which was divided into numbered sections. The public could then place bets on whatever number took their fantasy. When the cage was lifted, the hamster pondered for a moment before scuttling over to one of the numbered sections, thus determining the winner.

Reflecting recently on which Brexit option Boris Johnson might plump for if he gets to No.10, the image of Rodent Roulette came to mind.

Even his supporters acknowledge it is hard to know what, if anything, he believes in. The tolerant internationalist, pro-business mayor of London morphed seamlessly into the xenophobic, insular, anti-business courtier of the Tory Party electorate. In his quest for the party leadership, Johnson has bamboozled a wide coalition of supporters with contradictory intimations of intent.

My mental image of Johnson, if he becomes prime minister, is of a dashing blond-haired political hamster. He finds himself centre-stage, a position he has always craved, on a Rodent Roulette wheel of his own careful design. Suddenly the cage goes up. Punters who have wagered their political futures on contradictory outcomes watch nervously. But the startled hamster has no plan.

The patrician nostrils quiver. He sniffs the air for a whiff of political advantage. Then, relying on instinct rather than intelligence, he scurries impetuously towards whatever option has most recently titillated his olfactory gratification receptors.

Strangely, this scenario is not necessarily bad news. The predominant Johnson pitch, designed to make him prime minister, has necessarily been a hard-line “do or die” narrative about leaving the EU on October 31.

He delivers this no-deal message with an insouciance which only the very privileged can have. It is quite possible that, in the event, the monied marmoset will indeed dart towards such a crazy outcome.

Enticed by the prospect of a rousing reception at the Tory Party conference, he could opt to try to crash his country out of the EU without a deal. He could continue to dress that madness up with a fiction about renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement. Or he could, on the promise of no-deal, call a general election which would, of course, have zero effect on the EU’s negotiating position. One democracy does not trump another, let alone 27 others.

Thus far, Johnson’s central scenario has been his pitch to extreme Brexiteers. There is therefore every reason for the British public to be very worried. But if I were a committed Tory Brexiteer I would also be pretty anxious because, when that cage goes up, nobody has the slightest idea what the hamster will do. Least of all, I suspect, the hamster himself.

Johnson and I, at different times, attended the same Oxford college and studied the same subject, although I have pointed out, in my defence, that I at least ceased to an undergraduate several decades ago. When later I was the Irish ambassador in London and he was the mayor, we met a few times. As might be expected he was charming and ebullient. Like others I am quite unsure what Johnson will do if elected. However, I still have some hope that the pleasure reflex might take Johnson towards a less damaging option.

He presents himself as a One Nation Conservative, an objective entirely incompatible with further deepening the Brexit rift at the heart of British society. His wish to win back Farage voters is presumably balanced by some recognition that elections are generally won in the centre ground.

His already fanciful portrayal of himself as a modern Winston Churchill would become farcical were he wilfully to destroy the British economy.

Perhaps not insignificantly, his girlfriend seems to have been trying to soften his image. Her thing seems to be saving whales rather than, as it were, swimming with sharks.

The burghers of Roccatederighi are very serious about their Tuscan celebrations. On entering the town during festival week, visitors are encouraged to exchange their euros for plastic medieval florins.

Although valueless in the real world, these florins are deemed to be legal tender for the period of the festival. Johnson likewise has been trading heavily in the Tory party’s counterfeit currency of bravado and bluster. In the auction for party leadership, he continues to bid merrily against his rivals, as if braggadocio were the world’s new reserve currency.

Eventually, however, the hamster will have to lead instead of taking pot shots at those who lead. He will have to choose one option rather than keeping all options open. He will have to trade in the recognised international coinage of reality, good will and respect. The hamster may well scurry off towards the number on which Jacob Rees-Mogg has wagered his fool’s gold. I wouldn’t bet my shirt on it.

– Bobby McDonagh was Ireland’s ambassador to the UK from 2009 to 2013

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