On a week united in sporting glory, Boris is bowled out by an old pro. MICHAEL WHITE discusses the ups of sport and the lows of a divided Britain.
As Theresa May prepares to depart the Downing Street stage it is conventional wisdom that our cricket-loving PM has left us an even more divided nation than we were before she went in to bat. After deciding that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, she then failed to make good her divisive Brexit stance with an incompetently managed election and EU negotiation. Run out by her teammates.
Yet watching good-natured celebrations of an extraordinary sporting weekend – the cricket and tennis, Lewis Hamilton’s F1 win at Silverstone, watched by a much larger crowd than Lord’s and Centre Court combined – it was easy to think otherwise.
How nice to imagine that, between them (let’s not forget the women’s netball World Cup either), sporting enthusiasms cut across familiar dividing lines of age and class, gender, race and region, that disfigure modern Britain. A moment of respite on a gorgeous summer’s evening. No wonder the media went bonkers for days.
Too good to be true? Yes, of course, but it’s worth bearing in mind as World King Boris reaches for the hollow crown, promising decisive and optimistic – let me repeat that, optimistic – leadership that will bind up the Brexit wounds. Do we believe him? No. Only 13% tell pollsters they would buy a used car from the rascal. The City has always under-priced the risk of a hard Brexit, so most FTSE chairmen don’t believe he will deliver his “do or die” Halloween deadline. Many Tory MPs are holding their noses. Nigel Farage purrs in anticipation of fresh “betrayal” opportunities. Jeremy Corbyn is gardening.
But surely the positive lesson to bear in mind from Sunday night’s sporting thrills is that healing moments of unity can be achieved. It’s a bit like the Moon landing 50 summers ago. What it takes is sustained leadership and vision, planning and hard work, good will and realism. Team work too and luck, of course. What will not suffice is breezy, groundless optimism and the occasional half-decent joke, Boris.
Nor do you get to be a Lewis Hamilton or a Federer without ferocious and continued application. You need guts, as well as skill, to keep your nerve as Jofra Archer did bowling that final ‘super over’, despite family tragedy. Novak Djokovic showed it when two championship points from defeat. Ditto Neil Armstrong, always one mis-step from lunar disaster.
Mutual respect matters too. New Zealand’s underdogs showed exemplary sportsmanship on and off the pitch, not always the case with cricketers these days. Sky Sports behaved wisely and well in letting Channel 4 share the final. Why, on Radio 4 the next day, even self-absorbed Geoff Boycott did not claim personal credit for England’s famous victory.
It can be done. But can Boris do it? There is a touch of Ben Stokes in him, the unruly rule-breaker who can hit both sixes and civilians outside Bristol pubs. But where in Johnson’s career are the redeeming great innings? Ball tampering in Brussels, MeToo-ism at the ‘Sextator’ magazine, out for a duck as foreign secretary. His media groupies are trying to persuade themselves that we will get the bold, inspiring team leader in No.10, liberal and cosmopolitan ‘Good Boris’, not ‘Bad Boris’, the populist bully and cad.
They rest heavily on his mediocre London mayoralty. So does he. Up to the moment when Kiwi batsman Martin Guptill was run out at Lord’s, my weekend television highlight had been Andrew Neil’s summer barbecue on BBC1, the Friday night hour in which he successively toasted Jeremy Hunt nicely, then burned the World King to a cinder. It was such fun that next morning I broke a 15-year habit and bought a Daily Telegraph to see how it covered their hero’s overnight evisceration.
It is a long time since the paper first fell into the clutches of very un-Tory zealots and became the ‘Borisgraph’. So its tactics were obvious. It duly splashed “Scotland Yard Warns over Leak of Secrets” and pushed the Barbecue Boy – its regular page one pin-up – safely back to page four. There, conscientious readers found a statesmanlike studio photo of the World King in Waiting – rival papers rightly made him look demented – under a headline worthy of an Evelyn Waugh satire. “Boris blames BBC for ‘conditioning UK into No Deal Negativity”.
So there you have it: a double switch. First, deflect the legitimacy of official inquiries into a serious security breach into a spurious ‘press freedom’ cry. Kim Darroch’s views on Trump’s misrule were hardly original or surprising. But they were politically damaging and meant to be so, as the suspect’s identity is likely to show. If the law has been broken newspapers can plead a ‘public interest’ defence, as the Telegraph itself would have done – successfully, I’d say – after printing stolen data about MPs’ expenses in 2009.
How would that defence play for the Mail on Sunday over its scoop, acquired via journalist Isabel Oakeshott, girlfriend of Richard Tice, the Brexit Party MEP? The leak revealed nothing new, but damaged UK-US relations at a time when the incoming Johnson regime plans to prioritise a pioneering trade deal with the US. A dangerous illusion, as Philip Hammond was quick to point out, but No Mates Britain is likely to be short of options and a bit desperate.
The Telegraph’s second deflection was to reframe the WK’s lamentably petulant performance against Neil into a story about BBC “negativity” over Brexit. It is a legitimate complaint against many at the Beeb, as metropolitan and louche as Boris, but surely not against old Brillo Pad whose long and distinguished CV reeks of Brexitry. It was the Stakhanovite Neil, as newly installed chief executive at the Spectator/Sextator, who eased out his moonlighting editor, Bad Boris MP, in 2005.
When Johnson justified his claims to the premiership – a joke on the media and political party circuit for decades – on the basis of his track record fighting serious crime in London (“20% down”) Neil snapped back that it had fallen 26% in the rest of the country. It was downhill from there. The more Neil steamrollered him, the snippier the WK became, cheekily trying to unsettle his tormentor over details. If you were watching the tennis on Friday night, check it online. We may have months, if not years, of such evasive bluster to endure.
The fatal moment came when Johnson repeatedly rested his confidence that no deal Britain could successfully trade tariff-and-quota-free with the EU after October 31 on Article XXIV of GATT, the Holy Grail of true believers. Paragraph 5b allows a temporary standstill arrangement, as long as it does not unfairly damage trade with third countries.
When Neil accidentally referred to “Article 5b” Bad Boris risked saying “Paragraph 5b, article 24, get the detail right, Andrew”. Big mistake. Neil retaliated by asking: “And how would you handle Paragraph 5c?” Johnson said again (twice) that he would “entirely confide in Paragraph 5b”. “And do you know what’s in 5c?” “No.”
Actually, 5c is pretty important and the World King’s admission should have been front page news on Saturday. In order to prevent stop-gap agreements going on forever, it requires the two parties – here the UK/EU – to have a “plan and schedule” for a full free trade area “within a reasonable length of time”, usually defined as 10 years.
Do we think No Details Boris’s reliance on what is a reheated version of the widely-rejected Kit Malthouse Compromise will provide such a plan by October 31, let alone persuade the EU – its consent is necessary, as the WK conceded to Neil – to go along with it. No, we don’t. Yet Boris’ petulant response to his old boss’ inconvenient facts was another burst of “why this defeatism, why this negativity? Why can’t we rely on the goodwill and the common sense of these parties to get this done?”
Nothing is coming out of Brussels, Paris or Berlin to suggest this is other than escapist nonsense. Spurious optimism in the face of unpleasant realities is cowardice, not boldness. But the Boris bandwagon rolls on, dragging Jeremy Hunt behind it. At Monday night’s Sun/talkRADIO hustings both unabashed candidates committed themselves to rejecting compromises on the Irish backstop. When in a hole, stop digging boys.
Worse may follow. Johnson, buffeted every which way on the economy, on immigration and other sensitive policies tries to have his cake and eat it, annoyed when critics dig up inconvenient opinions from his archive – so much wordier than Jeremy Corbyn’s – which express pro-EU views, favour Turkish admission, then lurch into ignorant Islamophobia or gay-baiting.
Bozzie Bear doesn’t like pressure, though happy to dish it out, but faces pressure from his fan club to avoid inconvenient facts in cabinet by purging non-believers. This is high folly in a showman of Johnson’s temperament, mercurial and restless. He is uninterested in details (apparently they annoy him) and needs more than most to be surrounded not just by talented subordinates doing the work – as he was at City Hall – but by near equals who will stand up to his nonsense.
Optimists (proper ones) who have served him believe Boris’ attention-lite style of management at City Hall might allow his government enough space just beneath the top for useful reforms to be at least attempted in ways more hands-on and cautious PMs might veto. I think they mean you, Theresa. The Boris-is-really-a-liberal camp hope this is so. But so do so-called libertarian “Uber-riding freedom fighters” like Liz Truss.
His approach to Brexit – vague but prescriptive – gives encouragement to both camps and is intended to. “Just leave the voters to me,” says the candidate.
Yet someone as experienced as Robin Harris, high-minded veteran of the old Conservative Research Department and Downing St, the man who ghosted much of Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs, wrote a demented column in Sunday’s Telegraph (which also ignored the telling para 5c howler) demanding a purge.
May, Hammond, Lidington, Gauke, Clarke, Stewart, Mundell and (who he?) Lewis – but not Grayling – should all be fired as useless. Amber Rudd should go too and Hunt be dispatched to Darroch’s job – happily vacant – as ambassador to Washington, much as Boris’s hero, Churchill, exiled his leadership rival, Lord Halifax, in 1940. And who would replace these sackees? Dominic ‘Dover’ Raab (“he knows the Brexit game like nobody else”) for foreign secretary and a gamble on Michael Gove – Harris’ one concession to independent thought – for the Treasury. Oh yes, and a comeback for hack politician, John Whittingdale, and for John ‘Vulcan’ Redwood, briefly Welsh secretary 25 years ago but no wiser today. Jobs too for the Moggster and his bagman, Steve Baker. It must be a cabinet of “fighters … proven champions of Brexit” or smart enough to grasp that “without it the party, not just Boris’s premiership, is lost”, wrote Harris.
That’s certainly true, though he might have mentioned the country first. But Harris, whose team-tips are echoed elsewhere (there is a ‘Saj for No.11’ camp) mis-reads the lessons of Thatcher’s cabinet reshuffles for which he had a ringside seat. Far from strengthening her by installing Thatcherites in the key economic departments (loyal Nigel Lawson, eh) and padding it out with “honourable duffers” she devised her own downfall.
By imperiously imagining she was always right, even on the poll tax, which loyal Nigel opposed but did not resign over (that came later), Thatcher replicated Ted Heath’s fatal dominance. Cabinets need weight in the centre, balanced on both wings, to fly properly. Worse, Harris – even now – fails to acknowledge how dangerous capable critics, still full of life and ambition, can become when exiled on the backbenches.
Thatcher knew that and was careful who she fired and when. Jim Prior and other “wets” were discredited by the time they went, Kens Baker and Clarke’s promotions long delayed, Geoffrey Howe’s caution endured – no reckless optimism for dogged, decent Howe – until she pushed him too far. In any case, allies fall out, loyal Nigel for example, still sniping at successive Tory leaders from his French redoubt to counter Ken Clarke’s Euro-heresies to this day.
Last month the World King himself warned against “peacock” performers among his supporters – did he mean you, Matt Hancock? – a sign perhaps that there is only room for one peacock on Boris’ lawn.
Is he wise enough to tolerate loyal dissent on the overriding issue of the day by planting a big tent cabinet on that lawn? Whether from liberal private conviction or because he spots Thatcher’s error he would do well to heed Dominic Grieve’s warning to colleagues.
We might not have enough votes or procedures at our disposal in parliament to block a no-deal Brexit, the sacked attorney general conceded mid-week, though John Major and Gina Miller threaten to do so via those ‘Enemies of the People’ judges. But a government bent on an October 31 departure at all costs “might fall”, Grieve mildly observes. Ken Clarke, still firing on several cylinders at 79, says he would be prepared to topple the government.
How many other sacked ministers, sharing a passion at least as great as Michael Heseltine’s backbench Europeanism in the 1980s, might persuade themselves that duty requires them to stop the madness which – so Philip Hammond reportedly believes – could cost the Treasury alone £90 billion in lost revenues.
Surely the better way to resolve the crisis would be a compromise endorsed by a referendum, even one my side might lose, muses Grieve. He is far from being alone. Corbyn-led Labour would now sort-of-back a referendum and Remain, at least for now, if there was no chance of the general election that is Labour’s equivalent of paragraph 5c, an escapist Holy Grail.
Ah, the election scenario. Casual slips of the World King’s tongue excite speculation that Team King might be plotting one behind closed doors. After what happened to May in 2017 I doubt he would risk one. Like Gordon Brown, Johnson talks too much of courage to possess a large private supply. Grieve warns him that the election option might deliver no majority government capable of decisive action, but a four-party stalemate instead.
I think he means the Scot Nats and resurgent Lib Dems as well as shrinking Labour and Tory contingents, rather than a Brexit Party insurgency. Over a drink last week a veteran ex-Labour MP, now disaffected, spun me a government of national unity scenario, 80 or so Lib Dems as kingmakers. Myself, I fear it might be nastier with Brexit’s bad fairy, Nigel Farage, in the mix.
If only the BBC would change its mind about standing down Andrew Neil. I’d pay top Wimbledon prices to see him take the People’s Nige apart. I can’t see anyone else capable of doing it – certainly not you, Blustering Boris.