Brexit's Agent Orange: The lessons for Boris Johnson from the master of mayhem

PUBLISHED: 15:09 09 June 2019

Michael White says Boris Johnson is learning from Brexit's Agent Orange. Image: Martin Rowson/@MartinRowson

Michael White says Boris Johnson is learning from Brexit's Agent Orange. Image: Martin Rowson/@MartinRowson

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MICHAEL WHITE on the arrival of America's tweeter-in-chief and the lessons Boris Johnson can learn from the master of mayhem.

The arrival of America's Tweeter-in-Chief at Stansted airport, complete with family and heavily-armed entourage, unexpectedly prompted me to consult my books. Professor Google too, he never gets lost on a high shelf or takes a day off. Why? I wanted to rediscover the almost-forgotten League of Empire Loyalists (LEL), the Monday Club and long-dead right-wing politicians like Sir Patrick Wall and Julian Amery. Enoch too, of course. They were a colourful crew, veterans of war and empire. I think Wall wore a toupee.

The striking thing about them, so different from the current crop of mostly craven Conservative wannabes, is that they were willing, sometimes eager, to stand up to the Americans. They did so notwithstanding the 'special relationship', war-time allies, band of brothers and other sentimental stuff which we are all being fed this week in honour of the D-Day fallen and their hard-won Normandy bridgehead. Enoch Powell occasionally said he preferred Soviet-but-ancient Russia to the brash, callow materialism of Washington.

At critical junctures, even Margaret Thatcher, an ardent pro-American, took issue with Ronnie Reagan, a genuine friend, as Trump and BoJo are not. By my calculations the pair of "great friends" have spent very little time together, possibly even less than those Murdoch reporters got for their pot-stirring Oval Office interviews in the Sun and Sunday Times, Trump spraying ill-considered advice around like an aerosol. Heading into UK airspace, the president even stuck one back on London mayor, "Stone Cold Loser" Sadiq Khan, as if the pair of them aren't up to the same game: pandering to their base to get re-elected next year.

Topically enough, Thatcher once expressed incredulity during PMQs at the Trump-like laxity of Ronnie's budget policies. She also chastised him for invading Grenada without her permission. We'll know in due course whether Whitehall's willingness - loudly briefed in advance - to resist US pressure to freeze out Huawei from Britain's 5G network is more spin than reality. Is that pressure more about protecting key American industries from serious competition than defending its national security? It's probably both. We should protect the NHS from Trump's surprisingly explicit threat, later half-withdrawn. His promises to help America's poor on soaring drug costs have proved bogus.

Of course, anti-Americanism on the left has been a constant theme for decades in Britain, political, cultural, economic, snobbishly ignorant much of it, usually less pronounced than in France or Germany, where they also have tougher riot police during state visits. Let's not quibble. For all but hardcore leftists Barack Obama's graceful intelligence, combined with his isolationist reaction to George W Bush's wars, briefly turned down the dial. By startling contrast, Trump outrages thoughtful Tories and mainstream liberals as well as the left. His antics even give some breathing space to Jeremy Corbyn's foreign policy idiocies, shaped by the Cold War and not revisited. As someone said "Trump makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W sound intelligent." Jeremy the Brexit fence-sitter does too. In London this week the populist pair boycotted each other.

That ambivalent combination of anti-Trumpism and wider disdain for US power - Netflix as well as Nato - been very visible again this week, the Baby Trump balloon, hostile crowds on the streets. No amount of soothing Buck House flummery, tails and tiaras, or those helicopter detours can wholly camouflage. The Labour leader couldn't resist lapsing into the protest politician he half-heartedly pretends not to be. So after ducking Monday night's free banquet he joined Tuesday's demo with other shadow cabinet luminaries. As with the Corbyn 'familial clique's' cack-handed expulsion of Alastair 'I am Spartacus' Campbell for backing the Liberal Democrats and a second referendum, they really don't get it, do they? Corbyn's target audience is far wider than Sadiq Khan's.

But what about the right? For decades after the Second World War, old war horses fumed about the Yanks helping dismember our empire while keeping the good bits themselves. Their stab-in-the-back at Suez in 1956 (they undermined sterling) rubbed salt into the wound. The new PM, Harold Macmillan, had US backing and shamelessly milked his wartime friendship with president Eisenhower. Ahead of the Tories' 1959 election comeback, he invited Ike to No.10, chatting for the television cameras in a more subtle version of a Trump-Johnson knee-trembler. We Brits were the clever Greeks who would educate those more powerful Romans, SuperMac would explain.

Lots of Tories, Monday Clubbers and Empire Loyalists, Mosleyites and Powellites, didn't like such talk. Their distaste was dressed up as cultural, about hierarchy, and forms of conservatism that did not make vulgar consumerism their God. Even Ted Heath, who chose Europe and sacked Powell, cared less for America than mainstream Labour contemporaries who liked its informal openness and declared egalitarianism - qualities it fostered after breaking away from Britain's 18th century oligarchy. Hardly a byword for equality now, is it?

So what happened? Britain has become more Americanised in ways that impact on our lives more obviously than our 45-year integration with Europe, not just in terms of the way we dress and talk ("REsearch", not "reSEARCH"), but the free market economic re-orientation which Thatcher and Reagan engineered when post-war social democracy spluttered under the impact of higher oil prices, Japan's export model and (in Britain) the trades union militancy those shocks provoked. My hunch has long been that this rival Anglophone path to 'modernisation' is what stalled our integration into Europe's gentler but less adaptable Rhineland model.

Globalisation and the new tech monopolists complicated the choice by gouging Rust Belt manufacturing and accelerating the rich/poor divide.

Brexit and the Tory leadership contest highlights the fork in the road that Britain must take in terms stark enough to startle even Thatcher. Tony Blair decided it was more important to join Bush Jnr in a questionable invasion of Iraq than push Nato's most important member further into neo-isolationism and unilateralism. It was a costly strategic gamble that has failed. Blair ruined his reputation and American voters got 'America First' Trump, who stands for all those Yank deformities old-fashioned Tories and kneejerk lefties despise. It has led to this week's cringe-making carnival, not up there with the Ceausescu or Mugabe visits (insert Xi too if so-minded), but pretty high. And the poor woman is 93. No wonder Her Maj's team slipped a cheeky defence of the post-war settlement into an otherwise platitudinous speech.

Experience and self-interest point free trade Britain away from Trump's many trade wars - with India as well as China, with both Canada and Mexico, with Iran and Russia, the EU too. The junior partner in shaping the UN, IMF, World Bank, Nato (etc) similarly recoils from his shoot-from-the-hip diplomacy in the Middle East and Asia, where local organisers of the president's impulsive, failed rapprochement with North Korea's former Little Rocket Man are reported to have been executed, or at least 'taken into custody'.

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Between them, the sombre Mueller report and - more flamboyantly - Michael Wolff's Siege, his latest volume on chaos in the White House, reinforce the scary message.

The dilemma calls for subtlety and tact. Theresa May - remember her? - has done her best to keep the balls in the air, on climate change too. But what do we get from most of those aspiring to fill her kitten heels? A Trump echo chamber. Cut income tax, slash corporation tax (to Irish levels) while simultaneously increasingly spending on assorted causes, good and bad, consumption as well as infrastructure projects that might boost efficiency and help ease regional inequalities.

It is left to the despised Philip Hammond, awaiting execution by the next regime as surely as any Tudor prisoner in the Tower, to remind them that our finances and our currency remain fragile - dependent on the willingness of foreigners to lend us money. The pound and the markets have had a bad few days. Bad calls by Brexit-backing fund manager Neil Woodford have collapsed confidence in his judgement. Brexit-backing Hargreaves Lansdown backed Woodford. Small investor clients can't get their money out. In fairness pro-Remain rascal, Phil Green, got hammered too.

It is the same chancellor Hammond who has undertaken the lonely task of reminding the wannabes that a no-deal Brexit will do us all serious economic harm. What the country doesn't need is a "Theresa May Mark II" facing a familiar impasse, he says. But they don't want to know, do they? 'No-deal doesn't really mean no-deal, it means a series of mini-deals to keep trade flowing,' they say. Oh really? Operating under World Trade Organisation terms is what most countries do, they add. No, they don't, not if they can help it.

The Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors and assorted business interests scream with anxiety about falling export orders and investment plans, the sheer disruptive cost of stockpiling against the risk of disruption. They are met with blithe insouciance by the party of "F*** Business". What an opportunity this would present to a half-competent Labour front bench. Even ailing John McDonnell is doing quite well with his City charm offensive, though party policymakers work tirelessly to undermine his efforts.

In all this the chief culprit is, of course, Boris Johnson - Doris as I am calling him for the duration. Letter writers to our more expensive newspapers do not rule out the
possibility that the great betrayer's historic mission is to betray Brexit as he has colleagues, friends and family. Nor do I. But there is little sign of it yet, any more than there is that party activists will abandon their favourite in favour of Jeremy Hunt or Michael (always the Rascal to Watch) Gove, whose feet are more firmly on the ground and less trusted for it. Despite keeping a hard Brexit option under - if not on - the negotiating table, Hunt this week picked up Liam Fox's endorsement, an interesting move and certainly better than Liz Truss' which went to Doris, her "British freedom fighter" whose bombastic pep talk to MPs on Tuesday night missed an opportunity to say he'd fight for the NHS.

Oxford muscle man and Ten-Minute Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, still seems to be strongly in contention. He is the most scarily shallow and right-wing candidate now that Priti Patel has dropped out, according to some MPs, though Esther 'No Deal' McVey's claims to the Duncan Smith Prize for Vacuity should not be overlooked. With ex-universities minister, clever Sam Gyimah's hat in the ring - a serious but symbolic pro-deal gesture - the candidates list stood at an embarrassing 13. That's enough mediocrity, folk. You've made your points (most of you actually haven't made any), now fade away before rule changes do it for you. Well done, James Cleverly and Kit 'Malthouse Plan'. Down to 11.

When the Brexit vote and reality television star Trump's election happened within six months of each other in 2016, New York-born Doris denied any connection between the parallel populist insurgencies. Ever 
the opportunist, he no longer does, but I still believe that if Trump's scary economic nationalism had triumphed first it might have swung the referendum result to Remain. That result would have suited Doris's cynical strategy so much better. Did you notice, he's become a One Nation liberal again this week?

Let's assume for now - as I don't - that cynicism pays off, boosted by that 20-minute phone call with Trump on Tuesday. By early July he will be PM, heading to a Brussels where older officials still shudder at his duplicity as the Telegraph's 'bent bananas' correspondent. The EU high command never quite says 'never', but I share the assumption that they will easily call his bluff on a major renegotiation. In which case, will he make a dash for the no-deal door? Such is Doris's fundamental frivolity, I fear he may. No Churchill, he.

In last week's New European James Ball set out the case - outlined in an Institute for Government think tank paper - that it would be hard for parliament to stop him as the Halloween deadline looms on October 31. Some scholars speculate that the Queen - who will still be 93, poor woman - may be able to shut down his options. She would need the discreet help of upholders of the constitution, Britain's Robert Muellers who would have to include country-before-party Tory MPs, not to mention Labour ones.

This is landmine territory, not least because we can expect president Trump to hold out the kind of blandishments ("big trade deal") we have seen in his Twitter feed offers to Little Rocket Man and other frenemies around the world. Last week's brutal assault on Mexico's sovereignty over trade and migration (are you taking notes, candidates?) shook world markets. Don't pay the EU its £39 billion divorce bill, send in "very smart" Farage to sort them out. 'Walk away' if necessary... he deploys the tactics he used to further his bankruptcy-strewn career in Manhattan real estate. A US-UK free trade deal will more than make up the loss, he told Team Murdoch. It won't.

But Europe is not a property venture, China is even less of one. It plays a very long game. Playing a shorter one, no UK negotiator can pay the price the US would demand in terms of access to our farm and health care sectors. Even Trump cheerleaders are getting nervous about the economic damage of sanctions deployed in all directions and the debt-encrusted US recovery which even Jeremy Hunt has to pretend to admire. Trump claims victory and moves on. But his supporters are starting to notice.

So one irony of this week's pageantry and polished insincerity, our self-congratulatory admiration for Britain's ability to put on a good show, is that our painful neediness for reassurance about the 'special relationship' is - for once - matched by our VIP guest's. His neediness is personal, like the spoiled baby depicted on that balloon and spelled out in Wolff's Siege. In reporting this visit, the BBC's White House man, Jon Sopel, has often sounded more like a psychotherapist. Trump doesn't use the levers of power, he breaks them off and wields them like a stick, a fastidiously conservative US intellectual explained this week.

The other irony is that we and our visitors both berate the parlous weakness of the British government which has sat down to negotiate with Trump. But the president's bombast fails to cover up his own, the chaotic improvisation which characterises his administration, its basic dishonesty. In his only public utterance on his own painstaking inquiry, Mueller's televised insistence that he did not exonerate the president is a slow-burning fuse which no bluster can extinguish.

Trump does not respond, he reacts, usually on Twitter, and his enemies are closing in. The great fear must be that he does something reckless to shore up his position. The idea that a Johnson government, equally desperate for its own reasons, might hitch Britain's wagon to such a wanton project is too awful to contemplate. But we must. The D-Day commemorations reminds us we are not the stoically disciplined and united people we once were. The NHS was our reward to ourselves. Keep Trump out.

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