F.O. for Boris

PUBLISHED: 09:00 14 October 2017

Theresa May should leave Boris Johnson exactly where he is, free to do as much harm to himself as he can manage while being safely kept away from the grown-up stuff.

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MICHAEL WHITE on why the fat fibber is best left in office where he can do himself maximum harm.

That went well, didn’t it? Still tottering after her near-death experience on the party conference circuit, Theresa May turned up at the House of Commons to reassure MPs that there is slow but steady progress in the Brexit negotiations.

She also took the opportunity to remind the EU 27 both that the Brexit ball is now in their court and that, yes, Whitehall is making contingency plans for a “no deal” outcome – just in case. Her new word is “creative”.

All perfectly reasonable if you think Brexit talks are a better drain on the British government’s battery pack than patching up the NHS, tackling the housing crisis or overcrowded prisons. Fine if you believe they are a more fruitful use of the EU 27’s emotional energy than the Union’s fast-unfolding Spanish crisis or Angela Merkel’s struggle to put together a viable new coalition in Germany. They don’t. Their priority is stability and cohesion within the 27.



Did the Prime Minister’s latest elaboration work? Not that you’d notice though she was surely right to say that private exchanges between the two sides are often “more positive and constructive” than those made for public consumption and negotiating leverage. Let’s hope so.

In varying ways the EU 27 are publicly pointing out that the Brexit ball is still entangled on the other side of the net. Beneath the sugary platitudes, the Commons was barely more upbeat. Far from being thrilled at the End Times prospect of going over Beachy Head (“There is no cliff”) without a deal on March 27 2019, Brexit fundamentalists – led by the Ayatollah Rees-Mogg – protested that May still envisages a vestigial role for the European Court of Justice (ECJ) during her two-year transition. That’s not leaving! Even Bent Bananas Boris and “No Experts” Gove have embraced reality on that one, but not visitors from Planet Jake.

As for Remainers and Reluctant Leavers (those who have visited Beachy Head confirm there is a cliff), a succession of questioners noted that the PM ducked a potentially vital detail. Time and again she avoided confirming the oft-asserted claim that legal advice given to her confirms what Lord (John) Kerr has been saying about Article 50 (“I wrote it”), namely that Britain’s “intention to leave” the EU can be reversed. May hid behind the Supreme Court’s ruling in Gina Miller’s case, but that court did not address the question May was being asked because it suited the lawyers on both sides not to pursue it through the courts. SNP MPs, their conference under way in Glasgow, remained unappeased over perceived slights to Scotland.

Theresa May walks on to make her speech at the Conservative Party conference Photo: PA

So another Groundhog Day, another sterile joust leading to what US servicemen used to call in the Second World War, a snafu – meaning Situation Normal: All Fucked Up.

What do watching voters, those who have not gone back to sleep, make of it? Bewilderment? Anger? Resignation? Alarm? All of the above.

Yet the most wholesome reason for supporting Brexit, the one which does not spring from fantasy economics or resentment towards foreigners, rests on the belief that the habits of democratic self-government and accountability must enjoy regular exercise if they are not to decay. “Use it or lose it,” as the doctors warn elderly patients as bits start dropping off them.

What a pity then that Britain’s romantic leap into the post-EU unknown is taking place when our ability to run our own show, keep our children safe and fed with the lights still on, is – how shall we put this gently? – not at its best. The intellectual poverty of May’s Tory conference speech was saved from forensic ridicule by that well-documented series of avoidable gaffes, including Johnson’s latest leadership bid. As for the lamentable, threadbare complacency of Jeremy Corbyn’s rival performance in Brighton, it was overwhelmed by adoring roars of applause. But the Labour leader’s “back to the 70s” prescriptions will not be forgotten in the money markets which chancellor-in-waiting John McDonnell is keen to take on.

Sullen Tory despair or Labour enthusiasm, much of it was sincere. If Conservative activists are deeply uncomfortable with their party leadership’s apparent lurch left on energy prices or student fees, Labour activists are delighted with their Islington comfort blanket: “We’re winning the argument.” What argument? Neither conference tried seriously to address Brexit challenges. What on earth do foreign ambassadors, those who dutifully troop to these occasions – more than most Tory MPs do – make of it all? Not much. Far from negotiating with Team Barnier, the Brits are still negotiating with themselves. May is too weak, her team can’t be trusted to stick to any deal, adds former Irish PM, John Bruton.

“Wrong diagnosis,” I hear doughty Brexiteers proclaim. This unhappy state of affairs exists precisely because 44 years subjugation to what Margaret Thatcher occasionally called the Belgian Empire has undermined our institutions and the electorate’s faith in them, driven good men and women from public life too. It has nothing to do with Daily Mail’s rolling jihad or the tempting squillions to be made in financial speculation. The unmistakable scratch of Rees-Mogg’s favourite quill pen on parchment serves to remind us of sovereign triumphs at Agincourt, Bouvines (look it up) and Dunkirk, of Charles I’s timely parliamentary reforms and Lord North’s enlightened policy of decolonisation in North America.

It is deluding and nostalgic stuff. The EU did not prevent successive British governments building a new Heathrow runway. Jean-Claude Juncker did not veto a coherent UK strategy to address Britain’s deepening housing crisis, perhaps along the lines suggested by 84-year-old Michael Heseltine. No Brussels directive forced Thatcher to demand EU enlargement to the impoverished east – quite the reverse – or Tony Blair to grant unimpeded UK entry to their citizens after 2004. Ditto the cross-party occupation of Iraq and countless other domestic blunders of varying magnitude.



But we are where we are and Michel Barnier’s Brexit clock is ticking. The good news – actually, it is very bad news for us all – is that many of our EU friends and allies face as great a leadership vacuum as we do. The gaping holes range from Chancellor Merkel’s fractured coalition to Emmanuel Macron’s battle with organised labour (don’t hold your breath), above all to the fast-moving showdown between Madrid and Barcelona in the EU’s poster boy state, post-Franco Spain. It poses a greater existential threat to Europe than Brexit.

So the eurozone may be enjoying a belated economic upcycle of sorts. But a persistent sense of economic failure and unfairness leads it towards bad politics too, sometimes in places with little excuse: unlike former East Germany or Grimsby, rich Catalonia’s grouse is not its poverty. Nor is rich Bavaria’s footsie with AfD. One way or another, this could end badly unless mainstream politics raises its game. Those of us who jeered at Francis Fukuyama’s glib “end of history” thesis 20 years ago – victory everywhere for the liberal global order – did not expect it to unravel quite like this, let alone in favour of deglobalising and authoritarian nationalism – even in the United States.

What is so striking in so many of our concurrent crises is the reluctance of political leadership – cowed by “post-elite” populism in leading states – to grasp the most urgent issues and, instead, to generate distractions which divert popular attention from failure. Vladimir Putin has been playing Tsarist Russia’s “encircled victim” card for nearly 20 years. Donald Trump revives the tropes of Cold War confrontation even more dangerously over North Korea. He uploads a “dead cat” Tweet to rally the base whenever embarrassment threatens a White House which ex-ally, Senator Bob Corker, calls an “adult day care centre”. The President’s response? To lie about Corker too. Meanwhile North Korea hacks the South’s defence plans.

Our own distractions are painful. As this week’s events have demonstrated yet again Britain needs a coherent, disciplined Brexit strategy that will fully engage Barnier while commanding the active support of the cabinet – you too, Fat Boy – and most Tory MPs. Monday’s latest position papers, on future trade and customs arrangements, are full of talk of paperwork being done “as inland as possible” and of rapid trade deals with non-EU partners if “no deal” is done with Barnier. Brexit’s Owen Paterson reports “widespread enthusiasm across the American political firmament” for a free trade deal. I bet. We have already seen their approach to Bombardier’s challenge to Boeing. But US agribusiness is also signalling trouble over food quotas if Britain opts for stand-alone WTO status.

It still smacks of wishful thinking that makes light of the difficulties. City and business leaders – even the hawkish Institute of Directors – are frantic. They need “substantial progress” before Christmas or they must make other plans. But it is not yet clear whether ex-DExEU permanent secretary, Oliver Robbins’s transfer to No 10 represents a serious shift of negotiating focus to May’s Downing St team or a sensible means of sustaining informed dialogue with – and ultimate control over – David Davis. I hope it is the latter, but that is not how it is being represented and reported in Westminster corridors where Robbins is portrayed as “poaching” Davis’s expert staff.

Seen from Paris, Brussels or Berlin, recent turmoil just adds to the sense of chaos surrounding the British government, an impression reinforced by May’s tragic vulnerability and the foreign secretary’s shameless manoeuvres, articles and utterances, alternatively loyal/disloyal in turn, coherent only in their self-promotion. Does his latest outburst against disloyal “nutters” constitute an act of self-harm?

As for that vocal minority of ministers and disaffected backbenchers, who really cares what Grant Shapps or Nadine Dorries, the mysterious Michael Green or nice Bernard Jenkin, think about strategy? Why should we care when they fail to offer detailed solutions to the Three Brexit Questions needing “substantial progress” by the end of October? It is so much more fun to demand that May “reassert her authority” by sacking someone they don’t like.

This is a clichéd response to a bump in the road, not always the right one. The rumour mill feeds fragile egos and generates easy copy for Fleet St news editors whose political reporters know they are suckers for it. “Source inflation” is the key. When did you last see a quote attributed to “a junior backbencher first elected in June 2017” or “ a disgruntled ex-minister who never was in the loop”? No, plotters are always “senior backbenchers” or “a senior cabinet minister” – as if Priti Patel or whoever took over as Welsh Secretary (OK, it’s Alan Cairns) is much of a senior anything. Genuine “secret plots” are the ones we first hear about only when they have succeeded, not on the front pages every Sunday.

I do not share The New European’s enthusiasm for sacking Boris Johnson merely because he is dishonest and disloyal, an incompetent disgrace to his ancient office and the lovely room in which it entitles him to snooze – the finest in Whitehall. Such failings set too low a bar for dismissal when alternative talent seems to be in woefully short supply. May should leave the Fat Fibber exactly where he is, free to do as much harm to himself as he can manage – surely quite a lot – while being safely kept away from the grown-up stuff, dispatched instead on trade missions to Reykjavik or Poetry Seminars in Mandalay.

Don’t make Johnson party chairman, it’s a job which requires organisational skills and commitment, hard work and a willingness to be nice to party activists who didn’t go to Balliol or even to Eton and don’t have much Latin. Not Boris at all. Don’t insult him by making him Transport Secretary, we don’t want a lane of the M1 dedicated to bicycles or other costly gimmicks (anyone for a zip wire to Birmingham?) which his mayoralty bequeathed to London. Besides it might give him an excuse to resign and snatch the party’s Brexit Martyr crown from IDS. Better to insult Johnson by making him do the day job. Let the Lion roar until he coughs his head off!

As for Philip Hammond, whose head is demanded by the Brexit diehards for disloyalty to Brexit, he is unlikely to prove a great chancellor, few do unless, as Gordon Brown said, they get out in time. But he turns up for work and grapples with serious problems. His great “crime” of trying to better tax the questionable status of “self employment” in the new economy. The move was right – but unpopular, the real crime.

Nor does Spreadsheet Phil share the growing disregard in Tory ranks – echoes of Tea Party Trumpism and Corbynite populism – for fiscal deficits and the debt mountain. The chancellor is sufficiently political to bend with the wind if money is needed to buy DUP acquiescence or indulge May’s latest personal crusade – housing last week, racial equality this week – though not very generously. The Office of Budget Responsibility’s (OBR) latest downward revision of flagging UK productivity looks set to curb promised largesse on budget day, November 22. Inflationary pressures on the Bank of England’s flat-lining interest rates will do the same. It suits his glum political personality.

But Hammond is solidly trustworthy in the same way that Alistair Darling was rightly perceived in the eye of the bankers storm of 2007-09, a more reassuring presence to industry and the City than Strictly’s Ed Balls or Indiscreetly’s Michael Gove. By all means, Theresa, sack a few cabinet ministers no one’s heard of – naming names is counter-productive, so I won’t – to encourage the others to behave. That’s what Thatcher did in her crisis of 1981. Bring in new talent too if you can find it. Who knows, there may be future stars in the undergrowth.

I am not persuaded by Matthew D’Ancona’s wheeze in the Guardian: make Ruth Davidson UK party chairman so she can remain a leading MSP at home, helping save Scotland from itself. Surely the rest of the UK can find a cheerful Tory of its own to cheer up the party? But leave your top team, Amber Rudd included, in place. Leave Ruth to get on with her day job now that this week’s SNP conference has confirmed its ascendancy is at last over. You don’t need the aggro and you don’t need to prove you’re in charge. Being in charge and sounding like it will do. Be yourself. It seems to work for Jeremy Corbyn, at least in opposition.

And that’s the point really. Someone has to make clear they’re in charge or might be, given the opportunity. Nigel Farage always runs away from responsibility, as Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson, Vince Cable, all current political leaders, routinely show they do not. Nor at the end of the day – I am very surprised to be writing this – did that odd couple, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness and the DUP’s Dr Paisley. Corbyn shows little aptitude or interest, which is why he defers to John McDonnell (who does) and the faceless men (and women).

But last week Corbyn missed a simple opportunity to strike a blow for the kinder, gentler politics he purports to espouse (“some of my associates have fewer scruples”). When Wiltshire’s police chief and the county’s crime commissioner unveiled their tatty allegations of paedophile crimes against a former prime minister, one unable to defend himself, who was better placed to step up and speak out? The Labour leader could have said: “I knew Ted Heath, he was an opponent, but a decent man. I do not believe it is either likely or practically possible that Heath could have done these things. Those of us in public life have all made mistakes – and worse – over paedophile offences, but it is my belief that this is not one of them.”

I know, I know, only Heath’s old friends stood up for him. The less substantial politicians of this generation did not. Every time I hear May say – as she repeatedly did in the Commons on Monday – that she is determined to implement the declared will of the British people to “control their borders, their laws and their money” I flinch at what we all know was a serious failure of leadership both before and after the Brexit referendum.

It was a slim 52:48% majority and 37% of British voters backed the momentous decision to withdraw which looks as ominous today as it did on June 24 2016. Read the business pages, not the political reporting, if you don’t believe me. The economic news is mixed, good as well as bad, but the dominant trend is unmistakable and not good. Laws, borders and budgets are no better. May apologised in Manchester for her botched general election – she should never have called it – but fluffed her opportunity for a more measured response to June 23, just as Cameron did when he ran away. We are where we are.

But the failure is not ours alone. Brussels and Berlin failed to throw Cameron a half-decent referendum lifeline, convinced that the insular Brits are outliers in the EU’s Awkward Squad whose bluff could be called. They are not. Hungary, Poland, Marine Le Pen and Gert Wilders, Italy’s Five Star Movement, its Northern League, should have alerted them to the danger. Rigidity is not a sign of strength.

All this is much more painfully apparent in the crisis over Spain. European leaders have sheltered behind the formal position that Catalonia is an internal problem and that Spain’s constitution – clearly breached by the Catalan separatists’ behaviour in recent months – must be upheld. May is taking that line too. President Macron of France has been praised for his “boldness” in saying the declaration of Catalan independence from Spain – not viable in the real world without lengthy preparation – would not be recognised. But the preponderant silence from Brussels, Berlin and Paris has been shocking. What price leadership!

Not a word on the crisis in Juncker’s “state of the union” speech. No EU mediators dispatched (as they once were to Zagreb and Belgrade at midnight) to Madrid and Barcelona to prevent Catalan folly – a lethal coalition of Trots and UKIP – or a brutal show of Castilian arrogance and police brutality live on televisions around the world. For that matter, where was Trump, ostensibly leader of the free world? On second thoughts, his contribution to peace was to hush his mouth. Should we assume that Putin’s social media provocateurs were in the woodwork? Why not? The bad guys are not passive.

One of the more positive reactions to the Spanish crisis has been “civic mobilisation,” thousands on the streets in major cities protesting against extremism on both sides.

It is a fragile force, but the Spaniards have done better than most of us did – not you, Gina – after Brexit. Many contributors to this newspaper write on an assumption that Brexit can and will be reversed. I do not share that optimism unless and until many who voted Leave are persuaded to own their mistake. It will take an earth-shaking economic crisis in Britain or Europe or a wider global crisis to bring that about.

None of those options are very hard to imagine.

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