Johnson’s Brexit journalism and Brexit politics are of a piece: in both he thrives by infuriating the Establishment

16 Dec

If one wishes to understand Boris Johnson’s performance in the Brexit negotiations, it is worth studying his performance as a journalist.

Nobody, so far as I know, has yet done this. HIs critics have trawled his articles in search of proof that he is a racist and a liar, but were already determined to condemn him, so were in no condition to learn anything they did not already believe.

Johnson has been writing about the European Union since 1989, when Max Hastings, in a stroke of genius, sent him as The Daily Telegraph‘s correspondent to Brussels.

Soon Johnson’s office was adorned with herograms from Hastings, in recognition of the wonderfully readable and widely noticed copy supplied by his protégé.

While other correspondents still treated the EU with a degree of respect, Johnson set out to ridicule the Brussels bureaucracy, and to dramatise the mortal threat which the Commission’s expansionist zeal posed to the British way of life, symbolised by changes in the rules governing crisps and sausages.

His readers enjoyed these reports enormously, but some of his rival correspondents did not. They accused him of making things up.

He reported (as I noted in my biography of him, Boris: The Making of the Prime Minister) that the Berlaymont building was going to be blown up, in order to get rid of the asbestos with which it was infected. The editor of The European saw this story and wished to arrange for one of its readers to push the plunger on the detonator, but this proved impossible, for there was to be no detonation.

The Berlaymont is standing to this day, its asbestos-ridden cladding replaced by what looks like an entirely new building, in which Ursula von der Leyen last week entertained Johnson to dinner.

Stories like this continue to annoy The New York Times, and other journals which attach the highest importance to checking the facts.

They are not mollified, if anything are made still angrier, by the observation that Johnson approached Brussels in the manner of a dramatist, not a literalist, the urge to entertain taking precedence over mere facts.

When a brilliant caricaturist tells the truth by exaggerating somebody’s features, nobody objects, but the same latitude is not extended to reporters, even though the presentation of their work – the decision about which story to put on the front page, with a dramatic headline – can seldom be said to be free from hyperbole.

The row about Johnson’s cavalier attitude to facts obscured several other aspects of his work. One was that he was onto something: the Commission really was trying to expand its powers at the expense of the member states.

A second feature was his respect for the ruthlessness with which Jacques Delors, the President of the Commission, and his henchman, Pascal Lamy, were driving forward the process of European integration, which they believed to be in the French national interest, for it was a way of controlling Germany:

“With his virtually shaven head and parade-ground manner, Lamy runs the upper echelons of the Commission like a Saharan camp of the French Foreign Legion.”

British officials, with “their shy grins and corrugated-soled shoes”, were, Johnson lamented, “no match for the intellectual brutality of Lamy and his stooges”.

Another aspect of his coverage was harder to spot, for it was something he did not do. When objecting to the Commission’s plans, he did not generally protest that these were contrary to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.

Johnson is no disciple of Enoch Powell. In his voluminous journalism he pretty much ignores him.

In an interview which I conducted with Johnson for the Christmas 2012 issue of Weltwoche, published in Zurich, he admitted that he has always been seen by hard-line eurosceptics as “incorrigibly wet” on the issue of British membership of the EU.

He is not a dogmatist: something seen also in his attitude to the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Some of the greatest Telegraph journalists – one thinks of T.E.Utley, who died in 1988 – articulated an eloquent and principled Unionism.

No attempt was made by Johnson to follow in Utley’s footsteps, and last autumn he did a deal with Leo Varadkar, Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, which Unionists regarded with deep disquiet.

It would, however, be wrong to regard Johnson’s European journalism as inconsistent. His Telegraph colleague Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who has known him since 1991 and served as the paper’s correspondent in Brussels from 1999-2004, was occasionally commissioned by Johnson, by now editor of The Spectator, to contribute pieces, and has recalled:

“At no time during those years did I ever detect any deviation from his core view that the EU was amassing unhealthy powers…

“He shared my view entirely that the EU was creating an upper layer of executive government beyond accountability, with a Caesaropapist structure at odds with British democratic self-rule.”

During the long Greek agony over the euro, Johnson’s sympathies were overwhelmingly with the Greeks. Here he is, writing in The Telegraph in May 2012, defying the conventional wisdom that the answer to the eurozone’s problems is to go for fiscal union:

” it is frankly unbelievable that we should now be urging our neighbours to go for fiscal union. It is like seeing a driver heading full-tilt for a brick wall, and then telling them to hit the accelerator rather than the brake.

“Europe now has the lowest growth of any region in the world. We have already wasted years in trying to control this sickness in the euro, and we are saving the cancer and killing the patient. We have blighted countless lives and lost countless jobs by kidding ourselves that the answer to the crisis might be ‘more Europe’. And all for what? To salvage the prestige of the European Project, and to spare the egos of those who were wrong and muddle-headed enough to campaign for the euro.

“Surely it is now time to accept that the short-term pain of a managed euro rupture – a wholesale realignment, possibly a north/south bisection – would be better than continuing to immiserate so many people around the continent.”

The emperor has no clothes: this refrain echoes through Johnson’s journalism, and distresses Europe’s imperial class.

Johnson yearns to attract and amuse the largest possible audience, and does so partly by demonstrating his determination to do things his own way.

Michael Binyon of The Times has recalled how in Brussels Johnson would invariably arrive late for the daily press conference at noon, a fixed point around which the journalists’ day revolved.

Johnson would shamble in at about 12.10 looking as if he had just been pulled through a haystack, and a French journalist once asked Binyon: “Qui est ce monstre?”

If you want to make an impact in Brussels, you have to put on a performance. Johnson realised this, and by 1994, when he left, everyone knew who he was.

The short clip of him meeting von der Leyen last Wednesday evening was somehow tremendously watchable. Johnson as he took his mask off for the benefit of the cameras, then followed his host’s bidding and immediately put it back on again, communicated a subversive geniality, a sense of the ridiculous.

The message was that he had not gone native; that he was still the man who made his name as a journalist by refusing to take the Brussels Establishment as seriously as it took itself.

Whatever the outcome of the present negotiations, Johnson will be determined to preserve his reputation as a man who does not bow to the Establishment, and does not hasten to conform to its timetable or its manners.

By keeping everyone in suspense, uncertain of the outcome, he has maintained the theatrical nature of the proceedings, with himself as the lead actor.

Solemn people have often found his journalism irresponsible, and now they find his politics irresponsible. But that is part of the point. Whether writing, speaking or negotiating, Johnson puts on a performance which the spectators enjoy all the more because it horrifies the guardians of convention.

The biggest decision has already been taken. We have left the EU. So let’s treat whatever comes next as an opportunity.

14 Dec

The EU is right.  If in future it changes its social laws and we don’t change ours; and if then it slaps tariffs on our exports, and raises non-tariff barriers too, this in no way lessens our sovereignty.  We do what we like.  The EU does what it likes.  Brexit is uncompromised.

Having cleared that up, on to present obscurities.  The texts of a possible treaty, which some claim is “95 per cent done”, haven’t been made public.

So few outside the negotiating room, and certainly neither this site nor its readers, are able to pronounce authoritatively on exactly who or what is preventing agreement – assuming that disagreement is real, a supposition we’re inclined to make – or why.  Or whether a deal will have been agreed by December 31, the real deadline.

Nonetheless, the general contours of the difference between the two sides of the table in this negotiation seem clear enough.

As far as can be seen, both accept a level playing field based on “non-regression” – in other words, that neither party should lower the social standard, as it were, that existed within both the UK and the EU on the day that Brexit took place.

But what happens if either side in future wish to raise that standard?  The EU wants “dynamic alignment”.  The UK does not.  And they disagree on whether the non-binding Political Declaration includes commitments to it.

The EU reportedly wanted arbitration in the event of either the UK or the EU raising its social standard in future.  It seems that the UK resisted this particular arbitration proposal, though other reports suggest that the Government is not opposed to arbitration per se – and indeed that a potential solution may now be taking shape.

At any rate, it is agreed that the EU then went further – proposing that it be entitled to respond unilaterally if it raised its own standard and the UK didn’t follow.  It is this change in approach that plunged the talks into their recent crisis, which has not been resolved as we write.

Did Emmanuel Macron raise the stakes, mindful of his own domestic elections – and convinced that the UK would crack under pressure?  Was Angela Merkel actually the key mover?

Was it the Government’s declared intention to break international law that made the difference, inflaming EU fears of the unpredictability and waywardness of Boris Johnson?  (And if so, why – given that the EU itself is, as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has pointed out, a “serial abuser of international law”?)

Such are the most convincing explanations we have of how we got where we are on the crucial issue of a level playing field – leaving the other main ones: state aid and fishing policy.

Fear on both sides is clearly a key factor.  The EU sees itself as offering the UK unique quota-free, tariff free access to its Single Market, and worries that we will get the best of both worlds – privileged access and lower standards.

As Catherine Barnard pointed out on this site last week, this reflects a curious lack of confidence in the coherence and power of the Single Market.

Meanwhile, the UK would say in response that such an arrangement suits the EU just fine, since it runs a trade surplus with us, and is offering nothing on services.  And that the EU seems set on using its economic muscle to pressure us into becoming an imperial outpost rather than Global Britain.

This, by the way, suggests a point that runs in the opposite direction to Barnard’s.  If the UK is confident in its own trading future, why not simply take the hit from any EU reprisal measures, and use our new freedoms as we think fit?

Our answer is that the Government should not, repeat not, settle for accepting a proposal that is manifestly unfair – in other words, one that would give the EU the right first to change its social laws and then, were we not to follow suit, to decide for itself both the width, speed and depth of retaliatory measures.

Such would be the classic bad deal – and, as Theresa May’s original formulation rightly has it, No Deal is better than a bad deal. But we don’t suggest for a moment that the consequences would be an easy ride.

In the long-term, what shapes a country’s economic future is its tax system, its spending control, its regulatory framework, the quality of its workforce, its education system, its capacity for innovation, its openness to investment, its relationship between labour and capital – and so on.  Not tariff and non-tariff barriers.

In the short-term, we are not so sanguine about the consequences of disentangling the UK, in the event of No Deal, from an EU with which it has been merged for the best part of 50 years.

In other words, No Deal would present the likelihood of short-term pain (the interplay with Covid; shortages; lower investment; scraps over fishing; damaged co-operation on crime and terrorism) against that of long-term gain, if we get our economic framework right.

Nonetheless, No Deal also has the potential to cut both ways, as John Redwood suggests on this site this morning.  For example, a fall in the pound could more than make up for the effect of tariffs.

Much will depend, if it happens, on how agile Rishi Sunak and Alok Sharma are response.  Meanwhile, No Deal would hit our EU neighbours hard, too.  In particular, it would be a political and diplomatic defeat for Ireland, in the wake of its win in the Withdrawal Agreement over the land border.

In the first few days after No Deal, the Cabinet would rally round the Prime Minister; so would Conservative MPs; so, beyond a doubt, would ConHome’s panel of Party members.

The EU and, in particular, France would be blamed by the Tory press and many voters.  The effects wouldn’t simply spill over into fishing and the North Sea.  Potentially, they would menace the security co-operation of the only two substantial military powers in western Europe.

We are less sure of what would happen in week eleven than week one.  We would put money on the response of Tory members hardening, together with that of some Conservative MPs.

However, we wouldn’t slap down a bet on all the Cabinet behaving in the same way.  The institutional interests of the Treasury and BEIS are against No Deal.  Michael Gove will be exposed if it happens, as the Cabinet Minister responsible for the UK’s response.

Our sense it that there would soon be stories of splits between Cabinet “hawks” and “doves”.  And Tory MPs, many of unfamiliar with normal Parliamentary proceedings and unprepared for unpopular decisions – how would they respond?

That would ultimately depend on their constituents, the British people – and the clash between what David Goodhart has called the Anywheres, gainers from globalisation who identify with similar gainers abroad, and the Somewheres, who are less mobile, more rooted and have a stronger sense of national identity.

One point is certain. We have decided to quit the EU twice over.  First in the 2016 referendum.  Then in the election of almost a year ago.

So in the event of No Deal, there will be no going back.  No political party or movement of any significance is suggesting rejoining the EU (which would now take place on less favourable terms than before.)  Which means that the best way of dealing with No Deal, if it has to happen, is to treat it less as a problem than as an opportunity.