MICHAEL WHITE: Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson are the twin embarrassments of the week

PUBLISHED: 08:00 14 September 2018

Boris Johnson. Photo: PA / Simon Dawson

Boris Johnson. Photo: PA / Simon Dawson

PA Archive/PA Images

Michael White explains why the collapse of the ERG blueprint joins Boris as twin embarrassments of the week.

Let’s try to maintain this column’s dignity by keeping its trousers on and seeing how far we can get with the serious stuff this week before having to mention the tawdry B-Word. No, on this occasion I do not mean Brexit.

The serious stuff starts with that flurry of ‘Brexit deal possible in two months, says Barnier’ headlines which have been building since the weekend. Is it just another clumsy briefing of correspondents in Brussels and Berlin, eagerly amplified in beleaguered Whitehall, but soon to be squashed by the Élysée spokesman or from the glossy modernist, German chancellery?

Or has the political breakout from Michel Barnier’s Brexit negotiating brief, a tightly-drawn trench rigidly defended, finally begun – like the Battle of Amiens whose 100th anniversary we recently celebrated? No, let’s not do battle analogy, they are the curse of the Brexit mindset. Or rather, battles won are the curse. Corporal Mogg is not so keen on those we lost, except (of course) Dunkirk.

But if there really is a general realisation among the EU27 that a no-deal Brexit on March 29 is possible – 50/50 or even 60/40 – and that this would be very bad for everyone, then the suddenly-important Salzburg summit next Thursday might yield hope for Theresa May.

No wonder she has been offering self-deprecating dancing tips on Twitter! The embarrassing collapse of grandiose plans by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Not-Much-Research Group (ERG) to publish an alternative Brexit blueprint – this amid comic policy disputes and ego-driven clashes of personal ambition – must also have put a spring in May’s kitten heels.

There again, the softer mood music for the coming season of Strictly Come Negotiating might be a tactical feint, another tease by the judging panel. Mogg and Steve Baker will also bounce back, unabashed by their failure or by Liam (no “irrational positivity” please) Fox’s defection to Planet Reality. Fox may re-defect when he reads his own interview with a previously obscure magazine called The Truth Trade.

Similar uncertainty hangs over Sweden’s weekend election result. Has the challenge from the far-right Sweden Democrats been stemmed by the centre left alliance (144 seats) and its centre right (142) equivalent? Or does the rebranded neo-Nazis’ 63-seat bloc – despite being below polling predictions – change consensual Swedish politics for ever, as the populist surge has done elsewhere in the prosperous Nordic social democracies?

A little of both, I suspect, as the poison is doing everywhere, most conspicuously in the Trumpified US, but even in pious, Protestant Germany. Good governance can hold the line, but it is having to raise its game. It must respond effectively to voter dismay, much of it legitimate, about economic stagnation and the impact of large-scale immigration, creative but often disorderly, on their most vulnerable communities.

The tone of public discourse will remain harsher until these concerns have been addressed. And in such fluidity the daily rush of events point both ways. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s de facto prime minister, this week backed off his election pledge to expel 500,000 illegal immigrants after colliding with reality in office. There will be no wall across the Mediterranean.

But Salvini’s new EU ally on the populist right, Viktor Orban, has been ramping up his confrontational rhetoric at the European parliament in Strasbourg where MEPs had finally been screwing up their courage to sanction the Hungarian prime minister – or not, if the Merkel bloc (helped by departing UK Tories) can head them off.

At stake is the familiar litany of populist abuses, Orban’s calculated assaults on the press and judges, his nepotism and fraud. With minor modifications – delete university freedom, insert Syrian instead of Mexicans – and it could be Warsaw, Washington, Rome or Vienna. Bunga Bunga London even, where tax cheats (so HMRC now admits) avoid a trial if they’re rich enough. A bit like the thriving market for Russian plutocrats to buy Maltese passports now that post-Skripal London is tightening up.

Let’s be positive where we can, so that means ignoring renewed migrant clashes in Germany this week. In cautiously upbeat mood the former Swedish prime and foreign minister, veteran Carl Bildt (69), admitted on BBC Radio 4 the other day that the optimistic and hopeful Europe in which he worked for so long – in the boom years – has since given way to the politics of identity and fear.

The Europe of Dreams may have faded, but it is being replaced by the “Europe of Necessity”, he insists. Unlike so many, Bildt did not blame the EU for current upheavals, but the member states whose leaders had too often failed to explain EU policies and ambitions to their voters. Does he mean you, Tony Blair? By default this omission has allowed Brussels to be scapegoated by insurgent nationalistic populists, he explains.

The ‘Europe of Necessity’ is a good phrase, it’s been knocking around among EU elites for some time. For Emmanuel Macron and the likes of that dogged Belgian federalist, Guy Verhofstadt, the answer is always ‘more Europe’. The Belgian said this week that Brexit will prove such a cautionary tale that it will cure euroscepticism across the remaining 27.

Well, he would, wouldn’t he? Belgium has always been one of the most vulnerable and fragile states in Europe, as viewers of ITV’s Vanity Fair will be reminded again in an episode or two. But Bildt’s self-righteous allocation of blame is generous to Brussels, in my opinion. The Commission has tried to do too much too badly and the Council of Ministers has kicked too many core problems down the road. The Martin Selmayr affair, sharp practice to propel the German insider into the Commission’s top job, confirmed last week by the Irish ombudsman, will end up in the long grass too. Who cares about British protests now?

All the same, we’ll miss lots about ‘Brussels’ when it’s gone, especially if the Moggster’s ERG blueprint – slashed taxes and regulations – ever comes to pass, not to mention the draft’s fantasy ‘Star Wars’ anti-missile defence shield. That’s is why, warts and all, such an unheroic phrase as ‘Europe of Necessity’ may be one whose hour has come in Brexit-torn Britain.

The latest polling data confirm growing fears about the economic consequences of a bad Brexit are finally breaking through. Was that a 59% to 41% finding in favour of Remain, I saw somewhere? Meeting in Manchester, this week’s TUC has backed a second referendum – a People’s Vote – if May brings back a deal that doesn’t protect its members’ rights and interests.

These are starting to look like substantial bales of straw in the wind. The Unite union chief Len McCluskey, Jeremy Corbyn’s banker, wriggled in Manchester because neither he nor the Labour leadership, whose inner core his own team dominates, want to be pinned down by the People’s Vote option.

Instead they want a general election. Of course, they do. Unveiling his own plans for greater economic fairness and workers’ rights in Manchester – echoes of what left-wing activists rejected in the 1970s – the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, explained that “we are going to keep all the options on the table”. He prefers May’s government to collapse and let Corbyn win the ensuing election.

Wishful thinking on both counts.

We are edging closer here to the B-word. No, not B for Blair either. The former PM came as near as he wisely could at this stage to saying last week that Labour moderates have lost the intra-party battle with the left and that he will not vote for a Corbyn premiership in 2022. That is another significant brick pulled out of the tottering wall.

The Momentum left responded by stepping up its deselection campaign – in ultra-marginal Canterbury, which Labour took by a fluke in 2017, for heaven’s sake – while ‘leader’ Corbyn averted his gaze in the name of “party democracy”, as usual. He really doesn’t get it, does he?

So the Labour leadership will try to vote down any half-credible deal May may bring home from the EU’s pre-Christmas summit or post-Christmas cliff-hanger and put party before country in doing so.

That will put mainstream Labour MPs on the spot. But chief whip Nick Brown, loyal instrument of Gordon Brown’s endless manoeuvres against Blair, is not best-placed to demand loyalty from MPs, especially on behalf of serial rebel, Corbyn.

The parliamentary numbers are impossible accurately to predict when so many tectonic plates (copyright John Prescott) are moving. A politician more experienced that Steve ‘Resigner’ Baker – who claims an 80-vote Tory veto on the Chequers model – would know that. Has he never heard of dangled knighthoods? What else are they for?

The crucial votes this autumn will be Tory votes of MPs faced with a menu of lesser evils. Compromise on Chequers or dying in the no-deal ditch? A Mogg-backed Boris in Number 10? Or Jeremy Corbyn?

A messy ‘Half-Blind Brexit’ deal may include only vague outlines of a future trade deal, to be finalised during the two-year transition.

It would enrage the purists but may satisfy weary voters, especially if it stabilises a shaky economy or the kind of problem which Philip Hammond warned against on Tuesday – for which he has persuaded Mark Carney to stay on at the Bank of England.

And this decision would be taken against austerity-driven crises in the police (“civil disorder” anyone?) and the NHS, about whose stresses we hear every day.

It would take courage and conviction, reckless or romantic, to vote to pile on further disorder if May, Merkel and Macron – the Three M’s – compromise and kick the can forward. The dangled K may be a better course for a wavering MP.

Tuesday’s Economists for Free Trade session (actually it was only Patrick Minford) further highlighted the content-lite Moggsters’ divisions: A public shambles. Over-excited BBC bulletins next morning on a “secret” meeing of 50 Brexit MPs, amateur plotters to unseat May (but not yet, of course), served the same purpose – wake us up when you’ve got a candidate, boys!

With a heavy heart this brings us unavoidably to the B-word. Who is that all-too-familiar figure writing demented columns about Chequers “suicide vests” for the Mail on Sunday, the paper which has just sacked his sister as a columnist? Who is that mooning the prime minister from the safety of a bush in St James’s Park? It is, it’s him, the self-styled World King.

Who then writes another incontinent, tax-slashing column for the Telegraph against the advice of wiser supporters who want their embarrassing hero to shut up for a bit? Yes, it’s Bonking Boris, the married father of four (and counting), who is reported to be wooing yet another young woman barely half his age.

Was he, as reported, encouraging his protégée to abuse her position as head of the party’s press operation for partisan advantage (his)? Was Johnson really thinking about putting Carrie Symonds on the FCO payroll as an adviser? Did Michael ‘Trust Me’ Gove also support her activist campaign to force a government U-turn on the proposed release/parole for the black cab rapist? The unravelling story rolls on, fed by a crop of photos from Facebook and elsewhere.

As for the uproar triggered by the Sun’s exclusive about the break-up of the 25-year Johnson marriage, the widely-touted suggestion that it was orchestrated either by Boris himself (“clearing the decks for a leadership contest”) or by Number 10 strikes me as far-fetched too.

Symonds was flashing indiscreet texts from her Sir Galahad at a wedding three months ago. The then-foreign secretary was hardly discreet himself, no wonder he made such a poor fist of the day job. Half the Westminster press corps seems to have known what was going on, even some clued-up MPs did. In the post-Leveson era all they needed was an excuse.

So Boris-gate was an accident waiting to happen and happen it did. With customary tabloid clarity the Mirror front page duly asked its readers to consider what the egotist champion had just done (again) to his own family, then ask what they thought Johnson might do to their own, if given half a chance?

Fair question, but the brutal truth is personal morality is not always an effective guide to an effective political leader.

David Lloyd George provides the prime text in modern British politics. Saved from ruin by the loyalty of his wife in the pre-war Mirror libel suit and saved again by a partisan select committee verdict on the Marconi insider-trading scandal, it meant he was still available to re-energise a flagging war effort in 1916.

Throughout the inter-war years many of the clever politicians – Oswald Mosley, Churchill, Nye Bevan, LG too – were (rightly) deemed mad, bad or dangerous to know by what Stanley Baldwin called his “cabinet of faithful husbands”. In 1940 it was a different story. It always is when the chips are down.

Lloyd George’s wartime partner, Georges Clemenceau, the ‘Tiger of France’, was no domestic angel either. Lord Palmerston, the mid-Victorian Whig, was a popular populist PM, a notorious ladies’ man of whose paternity suit Disraeli said the Tories should keep it a secret – “or he will sweep the country”. Pam was nearly 80.

Despite his own Churchillian daydreams, reinforced by an autobiographical account of the great man’s life, Boris Johnson fails the ‘Flawed Great Man’ test.

In his ‘wilderness’ decade, Churchill the journalist and backbench rebel, often used inflammatory language and showed poor judgement. He had views on everything: often wrong.

But he was on the green leather benches, week in week out, challenging the Chamberlain government with evidence of inadequate defence preparation, often provided by the kind of government officials now doing the same to Donald Trump.

A cabinet minister at 33, a progressive home secretary at 35, by 54 – Johnson’s age – Churchill was in his ninth cabinet office and his fourth (flawed) year as chancellor of the exchequer.

At every level the comparison is absurd, worth making only because the portly plotter makes it, if only by implication.

Neither as a journalist and author, let alone as a politician, has he achieved one tenth.

Mayor of London? Oh please. It is not quite being first lord of the Admiralty in 1914, or even environment and defence secretary as Michael Heseltine had been when he challenged Margaret Thatcher. Boris presided over some costly vanity projects, some very tall buildings and (‘where was he?’) the London riots, but not much else.

Yet here he is being talked up yet again as the man to challenge (the necessary votes for a trigger ballot are always not quite enough) and replace Theresa May, but not quite yet.

As he demonstrated on live television, Johnson wasn’t ready in 2016 why should we think better of him two failed years later?

Here is a man, solitary by temperament, much in need of attention, preferably distant but adoring, highly educated, in the Classics too (they understood populism), yet strangely empty. What makes Boris tick, people ask? Vanity and fear of what Churchill called his “black dog” of depression, perhaps. Boris the sad clown?

Might that explain the compulsive risk-taking? What’s Lloyd George like on his own, someone wondered. “When he’s on his own, he doesn’t exist,” came the reply.

It was someone else who remarked that LG didn’t care where the train was going as long as he was the engine driver. Like Gordon Brown, Johnson is a man with an ambition for power, but not a coherent vision of what to do with it, far less so even than his partner-in-vanity-and-misrule Donald Trump. How Boris must hate the obvious comparison! But Trump and Brown are both much more substantial figures.

Have we misjudged Boris? Among friends and foes some think so, that it is all calculation with a purpose, not a lackadaisical stumble. What if his tasteless Mail on Sunday distraction was not simply a ‘dead cat’ gambit from Lynton ‘Dog Whistle’ Crosby’s grubby bag of tricks to deflect the headlines from his dalliance with Symonds and divorce from Marina Wheeler QC?

What if the dead cat served a second diversionary purpose, to distract attention from the ERG’s strategic failure to produce a coherent Brexit plan after all this time? It certainly should have been a greater priority.

The ERG will huff and puff, saying it is not their job, but their divisions over policy and personnel have been exposed, leaving May more scope for manoeuvre.

So the collapse of Plan B is another milestone moment on the road to reality and compromises with the Europe of Necessity. Truth Talks, as Dr Fox might put it – and certainly did in that interview. “We have got to be rational and say that everything will not be wonderful just because we are leaving the EU… there are some great opportunities that come from Brexit… but that is not a guarantee that everything is going to be rosy on the other side. That will be dependent on our own actions and the actions of others.”

It’s tempting to say ‘now he tells us’, but more constructive to say ‘Welcome back to the Europe of Necessity’.

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