Defence of 'oven-ready' Brexit pledge takes 'Orwellian' speak to new levels

James Cleverly on BBC Breakfast

James Cleverly on BBC Breakfast - Credit: BBC

Alastair Campbell on Boris Johnson's 'oven-ready' Brexit pledge - and the ministers who have attempted to spin it.

With the possible exception of my good friend Andrew Adonis, has there ever been a politician more misnamed than James Cleverly?

Yet it is becoming ever more apparent that in the Johnson government, having a good brain, capable of independent and original thought, is low down the list of qualities required, and certainly well below these:

1. Loyalty to ‘Boris,’ as he must at all times be called, so as to preserve the myth that he is the same ‘loveable rogue’ who almost a decade ago was trapped on a zipwire, not a prime minister leading the UK inexorably to decline on the back of personal ambition in which the EU referendum served as a pawn, and against the backdrop of an ever shifting kaleidoscope of lies and promises he has failed to keep.

2. The acceptance that the Tory party interest should come ahead of the national interest.


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3. The willingness to defend any act of incompetence or corruption by a ministerial colleague, no matter how venal.

4. The determination to remove any checks and balances on government power, incompetence, or corruption.

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5. The ability to take whatever line to take/lie of the day is served up by Number 10, and repeat it ad nauseam, without regard to truth or personal credibility.

Against these criteria, you begin to see why Cleverly is viewed in the Johnson set-up as being of above average use and effectiveness. Added to which, unlike most of the Jenrick/Sharma robots served up to deliver the line to take/lie of the day, he has an affable manner, and neither looks nor sounds like he went to school with Dave, ‘Boris’ and Jacob.

That he is indeed viewed as one of the better performers by Number 10 was evidenced by the fact that on Monday, in anyone’s book an important day in the Brexit process, it was Cleverly who was sent out to bat for ‘Boris’, and pretend that the whole sorry saga was playing out just fine.

It was obvious from his performance that the nightly taxpayer-funded focus groups had been expressing concern at the gulf between the position the Brexit process had reached, and the position they remember from last year’s election, when Johnson donned chef’s garb and promised that a vote for him and his party would lead to an ‘oven-ready deal’ being implemented.

In seeking to rewrite this, Cleverly displayed what Johnson would view as admirable adherence to all five of the above points. Indeed, the ‘Ministerial Code’ having been effectively discarded so that Priti Patel could continue in her work as the most inhumane home secretary of our lifetime, I think it is fair to say Johnson expects colleagues to stick more closely to my 1-5, than he does to the seven principles of public life which are supposed to govern the conduct of ministers… selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership by example.

Johnson certainly leads by example, but primarily in showing his ministers how not to abide by the principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness and honesty.

Cleverley was at pains to point out that when Johnson talked of his ‘oven-ready deal’, he was only referring to the Withdrawal Agreement, not to any future trade deal between the departed UK and the EU from which we were departing. As Tim Walker of these parts tweeted – and by the way if you don’t follow Tim on twitter, you should, because he surpasses even my loathing of Johnson and all he stands for – this was ‘Orwellian’.

Now cast your mind back to the election. I know a lot has happened since, but it’s only a year and a bit ago… so hands up, anyone who saw Johnson taking his oven-ready deal pie from the oven, and thought "I’m pretty sure this only refers to the Withdrawal Agreement, not the deal we are going to get at the end of the transition period"?

Nobody on Planet Earth thought that, least of all the Tory MPs who won their seats, nor anyone who voted for them. If the agreement was the deal they were talking of, then how come they have since had to pass new laws so that they could break the old one that had been cooked to perfection?

As with the whole Brexit story, the aim was less about informing the public about the complexities of what lay ahead, but seeking to con the country to believe that there were none.

There have been so many lies, so many broken promises, it is genuinely hard, as with Trump, to keep track of them. But whereas democracy has corrected America’s 2016 error, the Tories have managed to subvert it so that we cannot correct ours. But here are just my top ten of the hundreds of broken promises left lying in the wake of this disaster.

1. Exact same benefits as we have in the single market and the customs union.

2. Trade deals galore ready to sign the day we leave.

3. No threat to the integrity of the Union, no change to the border in Ireland.

4. No risk to security co-operation.

5. More money for the NHS as a result of leaving.

6. All rights protected.

7. No chaos in ports and borders.

8. End to austerity.

9. Massive boost to employment.

10. Less red tape.

It is bad enough that these people are so bad, in every sense of the word. But just as bad is how they keep on getting away with it, helped by a biased and distorted media with such short attention spans, an all-too becalmed public and an opposition that, unbelievably, has been trying to justify supporting a Brexit deal despite knowing the damage it will do.

I am aware it is impossible to prove a counter factual… but let’s imagine for a moment that the Liberal Democrats and the SNP had not leapt into the Tory election trap, thus making it virtually impossible for Labour not to leap in behind them… let’s imagine the momentum had been maintained, which had seen the People’s Vote campaign grow from fringe to mainstream, with millions in the country supporting it, and a growing number of MPs supporting it too… and let’s imagine the position we have now reached was being put to the people… I am in no doubt whatever that the result would be very different to 2016.

That being said, I accept that the fundamental weakness in our argument was the fact that we were calling for a second referendum when the first one had not been implemented, and David Cameron – remember him? – having not foreseen the possibility of losing had not bothered to think through why a second vote was actually a sensible and necessary measure given the scale of change proposed.

Oh, and while we are on the subject of Cameron, last Sunday was the 15th anniversary of the speech in which he promised an end to "Punch and Judy politics", insisted "everyone is invited to this modern, compassionate Conservative Party", (RIP that one) and told "this modern, compassionate Conservative Party" to "stop banging on about Europe".

They – and we - are going to be banging on about Europe for a long, long time yet.

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