Sidelining the buffoons

PUBLISHED: 07:00 22 September 2017

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson

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MICHAEL WHITE on the painfully slow realisation dawning on the Tories that Brexit is complicated and requires compromise

How deeply irritating it must have been for travelling Theresa May constantly to be distracted all week from the draft of Friday’s “vision thing” speech in Florence by the sight of her priapic Foreign Secretary wildly waving his willie at a dwindling band of elderly or eccentric fans. “What is it this time, Boris?” you can imagine a harassed prime minister asking wearily on her scrambled iPhone before reminding us all that “Boris is Boris” – and out on licence.

Indeed he is, Boris is still last year’s Jacob Rees-Mogg. So was it insecurity or attention-seeking? Yet another botched (yawn) leadership foray or an insurance policy against dismissal?

A preliminary manoeuvre to justify resignation from a job whose disciplined nuances he finds too taxing? Heaven forbid, perhaps, as he claimed, Boris had loyally been trying to help.

That way his Daily Telegraph essay was filling a vacuum at the heart of a weak and divided government’s Brexit strategy – topping up the public optimism index after the Parsons Green Tube bombing too.

It was bits of most of those things, according to some of those who know Boris the Political Sleepwalker well. But many also take it as a given that for Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson the overriding issue of our time remains what it has always been: a loner’s naïvely egotistical “what’s in it for ME?”

So let us not rush to indulge his need to be the centre of attention, at least not exclusively. After all, Boris’s 4,300 word column for his old paper – long by his ADHD standards, but it started life as a speech – was not September’s only prolix bid for a statesman’s crown.

Who can already have forgotten that a rival vision of Europe’s future was mapped out a few days earlier by Jean-Claude Juncker? What’s more, at 6,200 words, it was longer, though lighter on jokes and shamelessly dud statistics about the NHS.

This duo could be seen as pantomime – unless you are trying to polish a Brexit speech for delivery in the city of Dante, as May has been doing on her flying trade trip to Canada and her anti-slavery appeal to the UN.

Margaret Thatcher struggled with last-minute speech changes too. For the rest of us there is a pleasing symmetry to the sight of Boris and J-C slugging it out for the attention of the foreign ministries of Europe. Neither the President of the European Commission nor the British Foreign Secretary is a popular figure in such buildings. Much of their recent thinking was derided by supposed allies, Johnson’s as “Borisian tosh,” Juncker’s as “great nonsense”. Awkward facts just keep getting in the way.

As the wider world now knows Johnson (53) first made his mark – first stain? – as Bent Bananas Boris, mendacious Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. After wobbling his way towards a fixed opinion on Brexit (“what’s in it for ME?”) the aspiring statesman’s cynically careerist attachment to Leave outraged the eurocrats, as it did David Cameron.

Despite his spectacular leadership flop his subsequent reprieve to become May’s Foreign Secretary astonished them (and him). It still does after watching him stumble through all but the most basic – “Bonjour, mon cher colleague” – of diplomatic duties.

But Juncker, now 62, is widely mistrusted too. The long-serving prime minister (1995-2013) and finance minister (1989-2009) of the mini-bite state of Luxembourg was co-architect of its controversial tax haven status, tainted by the “Lux Leaks” scandal in this last outpost of the medieval Burgundian Middle Kingdom. Squeezed for centuries on the anvil of Franco-German rivalries, no wonder such people are European federalists. They have heard the clatter of foreign armies in their streets too often.

The Duchy’s heir to Jacques Santer (also an EU Commission President) Juncker followed him up the road to Belgium, achieving the EU’s top post in 2014 as a result of parliamentary manoeuvres and political stitch-ups in Burgundian Strasbourg and Brussels – despite widespread doubts among national leaders. Britain’s David Cameron and Viktor Orban of Hungary forced a symbolic 26-2 vote in the council of ministers. But the Swedes and Dutch weren’t keen on this volatile arch-federalist either. Nor (pause for Brexit hisses) was the pro-European FT or the lady whose wishes usually command agreement: Angela Merkel of Germany.

But the rules had been changing to wrest exclusive power to appoint the EU’s senior official away from elected national leaders. As the man running the EuroGroup of finance ministers during the banking crisis – bailing out Greece, Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus on austerity’s terms – Juncker had built up his network. His chief rival for the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) nomination, its spitzenkandidat, for the presidency was – guess who? – Michel Barnier of France, then EU markets commissioner and another Middle Kingdom man from the French Alps.

Had the Social Democrats managed to overhaul the EPP in the 2014 euro-elections, the new rules would have made its candidate frontrunner for the job instead. Guess who again?

Yes, Martin Schulz, the bearded ex-bookseller from the western Rhineland – good Middle Kingdom territory too – and president of the parliament, was the socialist candidate. In a backstairs deal Juncker offered him the No 2 spot at the Commission. Small world, eh? Mother Merkel – “Mutti” – vetoed that one.

Merkel didn’t want Juncker in charge, but she’d had her busy eye off the Strasbourg ball and wanted Schulz even less. Back then he seemed more of a threat to EU austerity policy than timid Martin does in Germany’s current election campaign where – barring an unlikely Corbyn Moment – he is going down to defeat on Sunday as the SPD’s candidate for chancellor.

If anti-establishment and eurosceptic parties like Die Linke on the left and AfD (importing American negative TV advertising techniques) on the right do well at the SPD’s expense, Merkel will struggle to form a new coalition, as Tony Paterson noted in last week’s The New European. David Davis hopes the return of the liberal pro-market FDP to government will help him with Brexit. Dream on, Brexit Bulldog.

Optimism is always attractive and there was much in Juncker’s State of the Union speech to please his MEP audience – most of it, though Nigel Farage had also turned up for work.

With overall 2.0% annual growth (2.2% in the eurozone, he proudly pointed out), Europe had “bounced back”, “turned the corner”, “fixed the roof” – despite having “wind in its sails” – after the bankers’ long recession.

Eight million new jobs had been created, trade talks with New Zealand and Australia are imminent, the Commission has put forward proposals on 80% of the projects it committed to in 2014, though they are “not yet law”. Controversy persists on asylum and posted workers, he conceded. But on climate change and consumer protection in the digital era, the EU is a pioneer.

Splendid, splendid, as Willie Whitelaw used to say: a progress report which is optimistic, if vague on specifics. But President Juncker went much further, further than weary, wary politicians and editorial writers in loyal eurozone countries liked. Europe is not just about the single market, about money or the euro – “for me….. it is always about values” by which he identifies a union of freedom, equality and the rule of law. “Our union is not a state, but it is a community of law.”

Not a state? Fine, it will be news to MEP Farage and those who recall that Juncker once responded to Candidate Trump’s talk of breaking up the EU by threatening to start a campaign for Ohio to secede from the US. But Juncker of the Middle Kingdom went on to delight Britain’s Leave campaign team by looking to a future where the EU’s external borders are strengthened by admitting Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia to the passport-free Schengen area; by strengthening the single market via a greater use of majority voting; by making the EU’s finance commissioner the EU’s finance minister and further harmonising taxes.

The vision advances by creating an EU intelligence unit and public prosecutor to better tackle terrorism and crime; by enlarging the EU to include the West Balkans (but not, “for the foreseeable future”, Turkey whose eligibility has stalled under Erdogan); even by creating the long-sought European Defence Union because, he claims, “NATO wants it”. There was even a bit of devolution and definitely a promise to do less but better: there are now 20 commission initiatives instead of 100.

You won’t have read much of this in the largely scornful UK media coverage where J-C J’s chief crime was to propose merging the presidencies of the commission and the council of ministers – “one captain steering the ship,” as he put it, a belated answer to Henry Kissinger’s famous question: ”when I want to talk to Europe, whom do I ring?”

Such a self-interested power grab won’t happen. That much was made pretty clear by the big inter-governmentalist players in Paris, Berlin and smaller capitals. So Michel Barnier’s hopes of succeeding Juncker (he will be a fashionable 68 by then) live on. Perhaps J-C’s idea was intended to squash him again?

Personally, I find some of this wish list either laudable or unavoidable, other parts risibly self-deluded and worse – “a speech full of great nonsense,” as the German business weekly, Wirtschaftswoche, put it. But it has the merit of offering a road map to the Europe of 2025 and beyond – something which May and her ministers, Boris Johnson included, are yet persuasively to do.

Even making allowances for the attractions of optimism – the Foreign Secretary’s great virtue, according to his apologists – what is striking is the Juncker speech’s wilful failure to acknowledge the challenges bearing down on his sunlit uplands from almost all directions.

Brexit warranted just two lines. “We will always regret it, but we have to respect the will of the British people.” OK. Fair enough. We’ll soon be gone and the EU27 will survive and – hopefully – prosper to our shared benefit. But surely such a speech requires some acknowledgment of the challenges ahead, beyond bland and opaque references.

So there was nothing about assorted Russian threats, little about Turkey – which is actively interfering in the German elections by telling Turkish-Germans not to vote – and reassurances about stemming the refugee tide across the Med’, which sounded complacent. Ditto terrorist attacks which have disfigured cities across Europe and loom large in voters’ minds. Rising authoritarianism in Poland and Hungary? Don’t ask.

Yet Juncker’s thrust was unmistakably federalising. Is that wise J-C when Greece is doing badly – slightly less so at present – inside the eurozone and Poland much better outside? Can you ignore the fast-accelerating crisis in Spain where Catalan provocations are goading the government in Madrid into aggressive retaliation in a country where civil war is a vivid memory? Or Italy where the anti-EU Five Star Movement is looking pretty cocky ahead of next year’s elections, despite a record in office that makes Boris Johnson’s £1 billion worth of vanity projects as London mayor look competent? France is watching itself and waiting to discover if it really wants King Emmanuel to impose reform. Germany is preoccupied with its introverted election (of all people we can hardly criticise it) and may surprise itself this weekend amid general consternation.

The list is long. It could include the persistent economic distress of the eurozone’s southern flank, its appallingly high rates of youth unemployment which finds expression in the bilingual, well-motivated hotel and restaurant staff all over Britain. The EU still has too many suspect zombie banks that fail stress tests, the gap widening between the strong and weak.

With its near-zero interest rates, the ECB is still buying up private bonds – “whatever it takes” – with public money, a possible infringement of EU treaty law. The political will to sustain the project remains – it can only be as strong as its champions are strong – but the economic options are restrictive and voter disaffection with the status quo, even in quietly rich Germany, is very tangible. Deluded they may be, but they cannot be ignored.

How does the Johnson essay in the Telegraph measure up to Britain’s own challenge, fast-diverging but still recognisably similar? No better, in fact decidedly worse, given its disruptive timing and its familiar, content-lite format. A mixture of “Churchillian guff, random specifics (Brexit Britain can cut VAT on tampons) and casual lying,” was how former Cameron speech writer, Clare Foges, put it in the Times.

Like Jane Merrick in her Boris profile, others were not so kind. The likes of Charles Moore and Dominic Lawson – both better editors of the Spectator than Boris, who both went on to scale greater journalistic heights – condemned his dollops of ‘tosh’ and slapdash egotism (Moore once called him ‘a lazy workaholic’), yet managed to insist that he was right to challenge Mrs Gloomy and Eeyore Hammond by offering elderly Tory activists a glorious vision of Brexit, albeit possibly after they are dead.

The trouble is that the lazy workaholic is too lazy not to contradict himself as well as the May-Hammond-Davis consensus. Inconsistency is the journalist’s abiding vice which mattered less before Professor Google offered a 24/7 rebuttal service. But Johnson saves the reader the trouble. Contradictions are there on the same page, to be read over the breakfast toast in Tunbridge Wells or Harrogate and digested during the sensible 20 minute mid-morning walk.

Is Brexit Britain going to adhere ‘absolutely flush’ to the EU’s regulatory regime to facilitate market access – or to strike out boldly in an orgy of red tape cutting?

According to Boris it’s going to do both. He never was a man for detail which is another reason why the Foreign Office’s mandarins quickly got fed up with their clever, silver-tongued chief and probably why Brexit cabinet colleagues – their names conspicuously absent from his essay – decided they could safely exclude him from their important discussions.

The Foreign Secretary has often acknowledged that most of Britain’s core problems – education, poor infrastructure, skills, the housing shortage and much else – are our own fault and won’t disappear on Brexit Day. But he displays a cheerful ignorance of economics when he proclaims that “unemployment is at record lows (sic) and manufacturing is booming.” The “boom” rests on unsustainable credit, rather than on solid achievement, much like Boris’s own career.

Not that the detail matters. Johnson was committing journalism, not statesmanship. His real offence was to upstage May’s speech in Florence and do so on purpose. It seems his justification is that he was left out of a Brexit policy cabinet while travelling abroad, as Foreign Secretaries do, a lonely but important task.

He had planned to make a speech, putting down what amounts to a Hard Brexit (“whistle for the money”) marker on both the Brexit Bill and transition period. With only the briefest of advance notice to the boss, he now tossed it across to the Telegraph, worrying only that the Parsons Green trainee bomber (obviously a Remain voter) might upstage him last Friday night. No chance of that at Telegraph Towers: “BORIS; YES, WE WILL TAKE BACK £350M FROM EU FOR NHS,” it shouted across eight columns. The Guardian has never done that for Seumas Milne.

Michael ”Expert” Gove and Priti Patel, neither an ideal colleague for a tiger shoot, were duly reported to be backing him. Gove quickly backed off, then backed on again over the “£350 million a week for NHS” claim which Johnson had revived, apparently stung that so many friends had called him a liar. Well, he is a liar, as City-and-Whitehall veteran, the mild-mannered Sir David Norgrove (scourge of Sir Philip Green, now chair of the UK Statistics Authority), was quick to point out.

Let’s not waste more space explaining why – even without the fear that lost post-Brexit, economic growth might swallow all the “take back control” cash – it is around £150 million net.

Listen to Band of England governor, Mark Carney, on Brexit’s “deglobalisation” effect, not Boris or Nigel (“there is no cliff”) Lawson. We face a bumpy ride with fingers crossed.

In any case, the “350 million” has already been much-promised to good causes in the best Jeremy Corbyn fashion. The cruel, crude fact is that it was always a cynical “dead cat” tactic (take a bow, Matthew Elliott) by Leave EU: the figure may not be true, but it stops people talking about more important things. And it’s simple. Voters remember it. Tough luck on Boris

that the Telegraph over-egged the headline, the rascal knew what he was doing.

So he may be naïve and lazy, but he’s cunning too. That’s why he refuses to back down. It gives the Daily Dacre another day of “Gove Backs Johnson in NHS Storm” and less fastidious columnists a fresh chance to perjure themselves. Ken Clarke’s contempt for the “irrelevant nuisance” of Boris’s personal publicity drive was obvious, William Hague’s more polite.

On Marr’s TV sofa Amber Rudd just laughed: excellent. As for media critics accusing Norgrove of misrepresenting Boris’s misrepresentation, it is they who are being naïve. We saw Boris shaking hands with Donald Trump at the UN this week. Remember that image of two instinctive, populist crowd pleasers with a craving to be liked.

If Johnson’s selfie article has again exposed divisions over Brexit within the heart of government, for the EU27 to note with grim satisfaction, the same must be said of May’s decision to move DExEU’s permanent secretary, clever Oliver Robbins (42), from No 9 to No 10 Downing St after persistent reports than he clashes with the Brexit Bulldog. Cocky David Davis (68) has a habit of losing ministerial colleagues and officials he cannot afford to lose. It looks bad, perhaps it was done now because Whitehall rightly calculated that the Boris row would still hog the headlines. Let’s hope the switch works better.

It all piles pressure on May in Florence, first to restore cabinet unity but also to offer Brussels some details on what Britain might pay to ensure a benign disengagement from the EU as the Barnier clocks ticks on.

But it also means giving voters at home a better sense of what Brexit Britain might be like. She’s tried, but must try harder. The price of failure could be Jeremy Corbyn or Jake Mogg.

Surely not Boris, the discredited Aung San Suu Kyi of Tory politics? Sack him? No. Best to leave BoJo in misery at the FCO, quietly talking himself down a while longer. He doesn’t deliver. Activists have been slower than MPs to spot his flaws. They usually are.

One short speech, ignored between Juncker’s and Johnson’s intervention, might be usefully be studied by May’s speech writers. Just 1,123 words long it was made in the Lords by cerebral George Bridges, his first public statement since leaving the DExEU ministerial team last summer. It set out his own road map for the negotiations – something conspicuously absent from you-know-who’s hot air balloon.

Firstly the need for honesty about the “scale and complexity” of the challenge, in order not to lose public trust; in the likely failure to reach a Brexit deal by December 2018, that means reaching a “heads of terms” framework agreement (as provided for in Clause 2 of Article 50) that will allow the new partnership between Brexit UK and the EU to start on, say, January 1 2021. That would necessitate a transition period between 2019 and the end of 2020, a bridge (“I am obviously keen on bridges,” said Lord Bridges), but not an endless transition, not a “gangplank to thin air”.

That will also require Britain to keep making payments into the EU budget, not just until Brexit Day, as John Redwood and others now concede, but to the far end of the bridge: almost two more years. Compromise, not dogma on either side, will be needed to see us through. Even Jean-Claude Juncker can spell “compromise”. Can Boris? Is such thoughtful detail too much for him. Is it too much for May? Slowly and painfully, we are finding out.

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