04 September 2019, The Tablet

Is Boris leading the British public up the garden path?

'Johnson appears convinced that the refusal of the House of Commons to back him explains why the EU has not made a sensible response'

Is Boris leading the British public up the garden path?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson pictured in the House of Commons, 3 September
unreguser/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The Tory Party's Faustian compact with Boris Johnson goes like this: You deliver us Brexit, by hook or by crook, thereby saving the Party from decimation by Nigel Farage; and we will hold our noses despite deep misgivings about your personality, your honesty and your private life. In other words there is not much warmth in it, not much personal commitment to the man himself. He has been hired to do a job.

Tuesday afternoon, however, it began to look like a bit of a botch. Boris has no patience with the long game and is always looking for the cunning plan, the quick fix, the dashing move that will bring his opponents to their knees. But Brexit is a long game, and he is ill suited to it.

Some of his critics on his own side are starting to think that his main policy, to renegotiate Theresa May's deal with the European Union to eliminate the Irish backstop, is a confidence trick, a sham. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared - according to Boris anyway - to agree to a 30-day dash for the finish during which a solution to the Irish backstop problem would be found. In fact the EU officials concerned say, half way through the 30 days, no such talks have even started nor have any written proposals for an alternative to the backstop been submitted.

Johnson says again and again that the talks are going well. We can imagine him as an Eton schoolboy with an essay deadline ahead, fending off questions about how he is doing with "fine, fine, going well, passed half way." In fact he hasn't actually written a single word, and is wondering about setting fire to the school as an almighty distraction and excuse. Perhaps arranging a burglary would be safer - "Sorry sir, the essay was stolen." It would be a sophisticated version of the classic line "the dog ate my homework."

Surely the sham will eventually be discovered, you might think. EU officials will swear they have been sitting at their desks in Brussels with the door open, waiting for the British proposals, and all they have seen is Theresa May's deal with chunks crossed out. How to avoid discovery, and the shame it will bring? Well, proroguing Parliament would be a good wheeze, so nobody can ask awkward questions; a general election would be even better. Meanwhile, the story is this - the EU is stubbornly refusing to look at perfectly reasonable British proposals, because Brussels believes the UK Parliament will undermine the British Government's position by "taking no-deal off the table."

Johnson appears convinced that the refusal of the House of Commons to back him explains why the EU has not made a sensible response. So blame the House of Commons, rebel Tory MPs in particular; blame the EU, the Irish especially; blame the Opposition, for opposing him. But is he just saying that to cover up the emptiness of his own cupboard? Does he believe it? The point about the "dog ate my homework" excuse is that the homework wasn't done, and the dog was manifestly innocent.

It was the Daily Telegraph which first reported that Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson's chief of staff, had repeatedly used the word "sham" about the supposed Brussels negotiations on several occasions. Brussels has not been taken in. “We know perfectly well we’re being played,” said one official. Downing Street has denied it, but Downing Street would. A sham, almost by definition, is something you have to deny.

This is the same Boris Johnson who waved a packet of kippers in the air during the Tory leadership campaign, saying EU regulations had driven the manufacturers of this British delicacy up the wall. "Vote for me and I will free British kipper smokers from this shameful vassalage" was the message. In fact the kipper factory was on the Isle of Man, which is outside the EU, and the loathsome regulations - in the interest of food hygiene - were a purely British concoction and nothing to do with Brussels. This is the same Boris who as Brussels-based correspondent used to report stories about absurd - and often implicitly anti-British - regulations that the EU was about to impose. It is how he made his name. They were all nonsense, but they fed the Eurosceptic prejudices of his readers.

So are the British public being led up the garden path, as Boris Johnson looks for the one flashy move - never mind whether it is honest or not - which will deliver him the victory he was hired for? It does begin to look that way.

What do you think?


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