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.

Stephen Booth: Brexit-related concerns about a Biden presidency are overblown. The reality is more nuanced.

12 Nov

Stephen Booth is a policy analyst and political commentator.

Much of the media commentary in recent days has suggested a potential Biden Presidency will create short-term diplomatic problems for the UK. From this viewpoint, the prospect of a Biden White House in January 2021 – pending the resolution of the US election process and President Trump’s legal battles – heralds a diminishing of London’s standing in Washington and therefore increases the pressure on the UK to accept the EU’s terms for a trade deal.

The reality is likely to be more nuanced and a Biden Presidency would also present opportunities for Britain to work closely with the US post-Brexit.

In certain EU capitals, a Biden win is seen as strengthening the EU’s leverage in the end game Brexit negotiations over the coming days. Asked whether Biden’s projected win would impact the Brexit talks, Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister, replied: “I think perhaps it does.” EU diplomats have been quoted as saying a Biden win would “put a squeeze” on the UK, as the prospect of a UK-US trade deal could slip down the agenda.

The risk is that Brussels overplays its hand. Past evidence would suggest that the current UK negotiating team is more likely to judge a potential UK-EU deal on its merits rather than on what the occupant of the White House might think. An independent trade policy was viewed by many Leave voters as a benefit of Brexit, but this is not the same as believing Brexit was contingent on a trade deal with the US, much as it might be nice to have.

From what little has emerged from the UK-EU talks in recent days, it appears that the EU remains unwilling to bend on fishing, confident that the prize of market access for other more economically significant sectors is more important to the UK. This still assumes the UK is not prepared to walk away on the point of principle – that Brexit means regaining sovereignty over UK waters – which this government appears willing to do, however reluctantly.

The EU is also confident it has Biden on its side in the row over the Internal Market Bill, which would enable ministers to override aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the absence of a UK-EU settlement. Biden’s comments during the election campaign about a US trade deal being contingent on respect for the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) were significant, but ultimately, it’s not clear how much has changed on this score.

Indeed, the Government’s very argument is that the powers it is seeking are a necessary “safety net” in order to uphold the UK’s commitments under the GFA. And that it is the EU’s maximalist interpretation of the Protocol which threatens to undermine the GFA.

As I have written previously, a workable compromise on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol is in both sides’ interests. This has been underlined this week with Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers jointly writing to the EU describing the “unacceptable” and “real threat” to food supplies being shipped to Northern Irish supermarkets from Great Britain.

The cross-community plea from the DUP and Sinn Féin leaders for greater EU flexibility on the need for checks should illustrate to Dublin and Brussels that they cannot take consent for the Protocol for granted if it cannot be made to work for individuals and businesses in Northern Ireland.

Therefore, despite a large defeat in the House of Lords on the Bill, in the absence of a satisfactory UK-EU deal, there is every sign that the government plans to proceed with its current approach with the Internal Market Bill and forthcoming Finance Bill.

However, if there is UK-EU agreement on the implementation of the Protocol – eased by a wider UK-EU trade deal – the issue could be easily defused as there would be no need for the powers. If a solution is good enough for Dublin and Brussels, it will be good enough for Washington. If there is no deal, everyone will be in uncharted territory, including the US.

Meanwhile, Biden’s historical opposition to Brexit should not be discounted but does not mean it will determine his attitude to Britain now that Brexit is a reality. Following his congratulatory call with the Prime Minister, reportedly the first European leader he spoke to, Biden’s team stressed its desire to work with the UK on global issues such as security cooperation via NATO.

We also know that Biden shares the UK’s view that urgent global action on climate change is required. This presents an obvious opportunity, since the UK will host the 2021 United Nations climate summit, COP26.

Biden is certainly more pro-EU than Trump has been but it should be noted that President Obama arguably did as much as anyone to pivot the US’ focus and attention from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific. This reflected long-term global trends, which individual leaders can amplify or camouflage, but they cannot reverse.

Equally, international alliances are not zero-sum. A rejuvenation of US-EU relations does not have to come at the expense of the UK. Trump’s often combative relationship with the EU has risked forcing the UK to choose between Washington and Brussels when, ideally, it should have workable relations with both.

A US-UK trade deal may well slip down the short-term agenda under Biden but would remain doable. Bilateral trade agreements would not necessarily be his immediate priority, since domestic matters are more pressing. However, post-Brexit, a close UK-US relationship, including deepening the trade relationship, still makes strategic and geopolitical sense, whoever the occupant of the White House.

The UK is a major European power and a top-ranking middle power globally. Nevertheless, the UK might need to be prepared to think more creatively about strengthening US-UK ties. A Biden administration might prioritise large multilateral agreements, such as the Common and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which the UK also hopes to join.

Equally, some of the biggest domestic obstacles to a US-UK trade deal, or indeed UK accession to CPTPP, have not gone away. Improved access to the UK’s agricultural markets is a bipartisan interest in the US. The UK will need to be prepared to liberalise in this area if it wants to further its trade ambitions with US and other trade partners, including Australia and New Zealand.

The UK and the US continue to have many shared interests. And, ultimately, while personalities matter in international relations, interests matter more.

This hatchet man in a hurry casts no new light on Johnson, except to show him as a vulnerable child

17 Oct

Boris Johnson: The Gambler by Tom Bower

In his Acknowledgements, buried on page 527 of his book, Tom Bower remarks, in the manner of an author broaching a humorous topic: “Readers should be aware that Boris Johnson is not a stranger in my home.”

He adds that “Veronica Wadley, my wife, has known him as a journalist since he joined The Daily Telegraph in 1988.”

Readers are not, however, made aware that during Johnson’s second term as Mayor of London, from 2012-16, Wadley worked for him as a well-paid adviser at City Hall, and now that Johnson is Prime Minister, he has made her a Conservative peer.

These interests really ought to be declared, if only in order for Bower to declare that he has not allowed himself to be swayed by so much as a syllable from what he would have written anyhow.

The peerage is recent news, but not so recent that it could not have been mentioned here. A few pages earlier, Bower has referred to “the government’s mismanagement of the A level and GCSE examinations in mid-August”. His wife’s elevation was announced on 31st July.

Bower is billed on the cover of this book as “Britain’s top investigative author”, yet says of Wadley: “She played no part in researching or writing this book.”

For a top investigative author, that seems a strange omission. Only a third-rate investigative author would have failed to ask the woman he lives with for help in explaining Johnson, whom she has known for 32 years.

And she has in fact given some rather unrevealing help with the question of why Johnson ran for mayor: “At a summer party in Carlton Gardens, she cornered Boris and suggested that he run for mayor. Although surprised, he agreed to consider it.”

Wadley was at this point editor of The Evening Standard, which threw its full support behind Johnson in his closely contested battle with the incumbent mayor, Ken Livingstone.

The chief power possessed by any Prime Minister is the power of patronage. He or she has hundreds of jobs and honours with which to reward his or her followers. Johnson understands this as well as any previous holder of the post.

The chief power possessed by a writer is the power to tell the truth, or at least to try to tell it. But in order for readers to trust a writer, they have to feel he or she is taking them into his or her confidence.

James Boswell possessed that quality in superabundance. He really wanted to tell us what he thought about Samuel Johnson, and about those round Johnson.

Bower doesn’t have that quality. He doesn’t want to take us into his confidence, and gives us no real sense of what the people round his Johnson are like. For most of the time, he doesn’t sound in the slightest bit interested in them himself.

Anyone can make mistakes, but Bower’s mistakes have the curious effect of rendering vivid material less vivid, funny stories less funny.

So he has James Landale, then of The Times, saying of Johnson as a correspondent in Brussels: “Boris told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp.”

No mention that Landale was adapting “Matilda”, by Hilaire Belloc, for use at a farewell party.

Sonia Purnell, who wrote a generally unfavourable biography of Johnson, has taken to Twitter to dismiss what Bower says about her as “so inaccurate it’s risible”.

My own regret is that while Bower has paid me the compliment of borrowing extensively from my own life of Johnson, the comic element is almost always lost, and with it an essential part of the explanation for Johnson’s ability to reach the wider public.

One can, of course, say that Johnson is beyond a joke. Over the years, many eminent commentators have come round to that view. Bower quotes Max Hastings in The Daily Mail in October 2012:

“If the day ever comes that Boris Johnson becomes tenant of Downing Street, I shall be among those packing my bags for a new life in Buenos Aires or suchlike because it means that Britain has abandoned its last pretensions to be a serious country.”

So far as one knows, Hastings still lives near Hungerford.

Bower’s book serves as a reminder that more journalists have said Johnson could not, and should not, become Prime Minister than has been written of any other figure in recent times.

These denunciations now read like so many predictions of future success. For one does not bother to contend that someone with no hope of getting to the top will not do so.

Johnson’s critics were trying to suppress the awful realisation that he might actually make it. Matthew Parris has been trying to persuade himself.

Bower casts no light on this curious phenomenon. He made his name writing hatchet jobs about various well-known figures: his last book was an account of Jeremy Corbyn which was so unrelievedly hostile – so disinclined to give credit even where credit might be due – that it rendered Corbyn’s ability to win the support of large numbers of voters incomprehensible.

In this new book, Bower still swings his hatchet, every so often settling scores with various extraneous figures without indicating how in the first place they incurred his displeasure.

He has no understanding of the history, workings and mentality of the Conservative Party, which Johnson saved last year from destruction at the hands of Nigel Farage.

About Johnson himself, Bower is quite often positive, not by appreciating his good qualities, but by sinking the hatchet into others. For example, after relating the unhappy tale of Johnson’s evidence, as Foreign Secretary, about Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, Bower declares:

“The real culprit was the Foreign Office, a failing department.”

Why does he say this? Through his clotted prose, it is impossible to discern his real motives. We are not taken into his confidence. It sounds like pure Johnsonian propaganda.

One wishes Bower would tell us what he is trying to achieve, but the answer may be that even he, a hatchet man in a hurry, does not really know what he is doing, apart from getting the book finished. At the end, he deviates into a appallingly prolonged account of the pandemic which tells us virtually nothing about Johnson.

The one person who speaks truth in this book is Johnson’s mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, who says of his father, Stanley Johnson:

“He was always hitting me, and Boris saw it.”

According to Bower, Stanley “feigned ignorance” about the causes of Charlotte’s nervous breakdown in 1974, for which she was treated for eight months at the Maudsley Hospital in south London:

“Charlotte corrects Stanley’s recollection: ‘The doctors at the Maudsley spoke to Stanley about his abuse of me. He had hit me. He hit me many times, over many years.’ On one occasion, Stanley had hit Charlotte especially hard. ‘He beat me up and broke my nose,’ she recalls. After that attack, Charlotte was treated in the St John & St Elizabeth Hospital in north-west London. The children were told that a car door had hit their mother’s face. Boris, however, knew the truth.”

This old, unhappy and not very far-off story is related in the first chapter of the book. Here we see a loving mother’s defence of her son against his enemies. Bower, it may be said, has served her purpose.

An excellent book about Johnson has just been published. Unfortunately it is in German. One hopes it will appear in an English translation, but meanwhile anyone who can read the language of Goethe is urged to get hold of Boris Johnson: Porträt eines Störenfrieds by Jan Ross of Die Zeit.

Ross in his Portrait of a Contentious Man – more literally of a disturber of the peace – recognises that Johnson’s fallibility awakens sympathy and a feeling of togetherness, and that by refraining from idealism, Johnson protects himself against the charge of hypocrisy.

Some of Johnson’s own writings sound better in German. The jokes distract one less from the seriousness, and the debt to classical antiquity is more apparent.

Johnson is serious! A provocative thesis, with which few members of the German political establishment will agree, but argued here with perfect lucidity.

This hatchet man in a hurry casts no new light on Johnson, except to show him as a vulnerable child

17 Oct

Boris Johnson: The Gambler by Tom Bower

In his Acknowledgements, buried on page 527 of his book, Tom Bower remarks, in the manner of an author broaching a humorous topic: “Readers should be aware that Boris Johnson is not a stranger in my home.”

He adds that “Veronica Wadley, my wife, has known him as a journalist since he joined The Daily Telegraph in 1988.”

Readers are not, however, made aware that during Johnson’s second term as Mayor of London, from 2012-16, Wadley worked for him as a well-paid adviser at City Hall, and now that Johnson is Prime Minister, he has made her a Conservative peer.

These interests really ought to be declared, if only in order for Bower to declare that he has not allowed himself to be swayed by so much as a syllable from what he would have written anyhow.

The peerage is recent news, but not so recent that it could not have been mentioned here. A few pages earlier, Bower has referred to “the government’s mismanagement of the A level and GCSE examinations in mid-August”. His wife’s elevation was announced on 31st July.

Bower is billed on the cover of this book as “Britain’s top investigative author”, yet says of Wadley: “She played no part in researching or writing this book.”

For a top investigative author, that seems a strange omission. Only a third-rate investigative author would have failed to ask the woman he lives with for help in explaining Johnson, whom she has known for 32 years.

And she has in fact given some rather unrevealing help with the question of why Johnson ran for mayor: “At a summer party in Carlton Gardens, she cornered Boris and suggested that he run for mayor. Although surprised, he agreed to consider it.”

Wadley was at this point editor of The Evening Standard, which threw its full support behind Johnson in his closely contested battle with the incumbent mayor, Ken Livingstone.

The chief power possessed by any Prime Minister is the power of patronage. He or she has hundreds of jobs and honours with which to reward his or her followers. Johnson understands this as well as any previous holder of the post.

The chief power possessed by a writer is the power to tell the truth, or at least to try to tell it. But in order for readers to trust a writer, they have to feel he or she is taking them into his or her confidence.

James Boswell possessed that quality in superabundance. He really wanted to tell us what he thought about Samuel Johnson, and about those round Johnson.

Bower doesn’t have that quality. He doesn’t want to take us into his confidence, and gives us no real sense of what the people round his Johnson are like. For most of the time, he doesn’t sound in the slightest bit interested in them himself.

Anyone can make mistakes, but Bower’s mistakes have the curious effect of rendering vivid material less vivid, funny stories less funny.

So he has James Landale, then of The Times, saying of Johnson as a correspondent in Brussels: “Boris told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp.”

No mention that Landale was adapting “Matilda”, by Hilaire Belloc, for use at a farewell party.

Sonia Purnell, who wrote a generally unfavourable biography of Johnson, has taken to Twitter to dismiss what Bower says about her as “so inaccurate it’s risible”.

My own regret is that while Bower has paid me the compliment of borrowing extensively from my own life of Johnson, the comic element is almost always lost, and with it an essential part of the explanation for Johnson’s ability to reach the wider public.

One can, of course, say that Johnson is beyond a joke. Over the years, many eminent commentators have come round to that view. Bower quotes Max Hastings in The Daily Mail in October 2012:

“If the day ever comes that Boris Johnson becomes tenant of Downing Street, I shall be among those packing my bags for a new life in Buenos Aires or suchlike because it means that Britain has abandoned its last pretensions to be a serious country.”

So far as one knows, Hastings still lives near Hungerford.

Bower’s book serves as a reminder that more journalists have said Johnson could not, and should not, become Prime Minister than has been written of any other figure in recent times.

These denunciations now read like so many predictions of future success. For one does not bother to contend that someone with no hope of getting to the top will not do so.

Johnson’s critics were trying to suppress the awful realisation that he might actually make it. Matthew Parris has been trying to persuade himself.

Bower casts no light on this curious phenomenon. He made his name writing hatchet jobs about various well-known figures: his last book was an account of Jeremy Corbyn which was so unrelievedly hostile – so disinclined to give credit even where credit might be due – that it rendered Corbyn’s ability to win the support of large numbers of voters incomprehensible.

In this new book, Bower still swings his hatchet, every so often settling scores with various extraneous figures without indicating how in the first place they incurred his displeasure.

He has no understanding of the history, workings and mentality of the Conservative Party, which Johnson saved last year from destruction at the hands of Nigel Farage.

About Johnson himself, Bower is quite often positive, not by appreciating his good qualities, but by sinking the hatchet into others. For example, after relating the unhappy tale of Johnson’s evidence, as Foreign Secretary, about Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, Bower declares:

“The real culprit was the Foreign Office, a failing department.”

Why does he say this? Through his clotted prose, it is impossible to discern his real motives. We are not taken into his confidence. It sounds like pure Johnsonian propaganda.

One wishes Bower would tell us what he is trying to achieve, but the answer may be that even he, a hatchet man in a hurry, does not really know what he is doing, apart from getting the book finished. At the end, he deviates into a appallingly prolonged account of the pandemic which tells us virtually nothing about Johnson.

The one person who speaks truth in this book is Johnson’s mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, who says of his father, Stanley Johnson:

“He was always hitting me, and Boris saw it.”

According to Bower, Stanley “feigned ignorance” about the causes of Charlotte’s nervous breakdown in 1974, for which she was treated for eight months at the Maudsley Hospital in south London:

“Charlotte corrects Stanley’s recollection: ‘The doctors at the Maudsley spoke to Stanley about his abuse of me. He had hit me. He hit me many times, over many years.’ On one occasion, Stanley had hit Charlotte especially hard. ‘He beat me up and broke my nose,’ she recalls. After that attack, Charlotte was treated in the St John & St Elizabeth Hospital in north-west London. The children were told that a car door had hit their mother’s face. Boris, however, knew the truth.”

This old, unhappy and not very far-off story is related in the first chapter of the book. Here we see a loving mother’s defence of her son against his enemies. Bower, it may be said, has served her purpose.

An excellent book about Johnson has just been published. Unfortunately it is in German. One hopes it will appear in an English translation, but meanwhile anyone who can read the language of Goethe is urged to get hold of Boris Johnson: Porträt eines Störenfrieds by Jan Ross of Die Zeit.

Ross in his Portrait of a Contentious Man – more literally of a disturber of the peace – recognises that Johnson’s fallibility awakens sympathy and a feeling of togetherness, and that by refraining from idealism, Johnson protects himself against the charge of hypocrisy.

Some of Johnson’s own writings sound better in German. The jokes distract one less from the seriousness, and the debt to classical antiquity is more apparent.

Johnson is serious! A provocative thesis, with which few members of the German political establishment will agree, but argued here with perfect lucidity.

Stephen Booth: As the Brexit deadline nears, the UK is strong on fishing rights – but Frost indicates movement on state aid.

15 Oct

Garvan Walshe: Breaking the Withdrawal Agreement risks the No Deal Brexit this Government was elected to avoid

10 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

The trouble with international agreements is that they are, well, international. By this I mean that sovereignty can’t be used as a trump card in the way that parliamentary sovereignty can in most domestic law.

This strongly suggests that the Government’s course of action in seeking, in the disarmingly frank words of Brandon Lewis, “to break international law in a specific and limited way” has not been properly thought through.

The domestic problems with this approach are well known. Any legislation to break international law will run into trouble in the Lords, which will feel entitled to block it, as it was not only absent from the election manifesto, but in fact directly contradicts its promise to implement the Brexit deal sealed in November 2019.

There is also the matter of the ministerial and civil service codes, which forbid the breaking of the law (the removal of the word “international” from the code makes no difference in practice), and are likely also forbid actions openly directed towards that aim.

It is therefore an open question of constitutional law whether legislation to this end, introduced improperly by ministers, and drafted by civil servants would be valid. It is rather clearer that ministers or officials participating in the production of such legislation risk falling within the ambit of the common law offence of misconduct in public office.

But my concern here is international. The foundation of international law has long been that states are sovereign. As well as meaning that they begin with full powers to arrange their internal affairs, it also means they have the power to make agreements with each other. An agreement means that the states accept obligations to each other, which is what makes a treaty different from a state making a unilateral declaration to itself. While a state retains the practical power to break an international agreement, it cannot change the meaning of the agreement on its own.

It is also a consequence of this sovereign power that states are able to revise treaties they make, by mutual agreement, and it is of course often the case that this revision is dictated by power politics, but even that is different from mere reneging on a treaty. Nevertheless, the power of revision is usually held collectively by the states that signed the agreement, not by individual signatories. Some treaties, like indeed the Treaty of European Union provide an exit mechanism (Article 50), but others, like the Withdrawal Agreement, do not.

The Government might have been better placed to argue that it was trying to use its residual sovereign power to seek to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, which it had concluded under the duress of the two-year withdrawal period contained in Article 50.

While that would probably not have gone down well in Brussels, openly seeking to break these particular parts of the withdrawal agreement is rather more challenging, because Michel Barnier’s team built in three levels of safeguards against what it would consider to be “perfidious Albion.”

First, the relevant aspects of the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol are governed by EU law, interpretable by British courts and, ultimately, European Court of Justice. Because of the way the UK incorporates treaties (including treaties that give effect to legal systems like the EU’s) into its domestic law, sufficiently explicit legislation could probably escape disapplication by UK courts.

But this in itself would be a direct violation of the agreement, which the European Court could be expected punish with a fine. Though the UK could refuse to pay the fine, on the grounds that it was acting according to it own law, this would just trigger the second level of dispute resolution, which is the Joint Committee established to be established under the agreement.

If the Joint Committee cannot resolve the dispute to both sides’ satisfaction, and in this case it is hard to see how it could, the case would be submitted to an arbitration panel at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Lewis’s declaration that the UK intends to “break international law” is unlikely be helpful to the British case.

Now, the UK may as a sovereign state in practice refuse to abide by the arbitration panel, but in that case the agreement (Article 178, paragraph 1) provides for the panel to “impose a lump sum or penalty payment”.

If the UK refuses to pay that, the subsequent paragraph allows the EU to suspend either parts of the Withdrawal Agreement with the UK, or of other agreements it has. These include agreements on aviation freedoms, equivalence for financial services, “data adequacy” vital to the tech sector, and the right of truck drivers to travel to the EU. This would amount to the “no deal Brexit” that the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, endorsed in the 2019 general election, was supposed to avoid.

Now that the Government does not need the votes of the DUP, it should think carefully about whether it would rather spend the rest of its term engaging in an optional legal fight with the EU, or, having got Brexit done at the end of the year, stick to running the country it was elected to govern.

Garvan Walshe: Italian governments have failed to revive Naples for centuries. What are the lessons for Red Wall seats?

30 Jul

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. 

A mad weekend dash for sun has just taken me to Naples. The city, its old historical centre, continuously inhabited long before the Roman Empire, lived up to its long-standing reputation for liveliness and chaos.

From the tiny alleys on a Roman street plan overlooked by eight or nine storeys, the abbeys built by Angevin kings, decaying masterpieces of baroque architecture, to fishmonger-restaurants with live produce and massive loins of tuna selling for €10 a kilo, and traffic that makes Rome’s resemble a sedate town in Baden-Württenberg, forty-eight hours there subject you to constant sensory bombardment.

The energy offers the thinnest of disguises of poverty we think vanished from Western Europe. The better-preserved old districts look like East Berlin; the worst reminded my companion of her childhood in Communist Albania. Prices, as well as physical conditions, reflect people’s limited purchasing power.

Below the Port’Alba (a city gate named after the Spanish viceroy notorious for his brutal suppression of the Dutch revolt) hang two nets to prevent falling masonry killing pedestrians that pass through it. The second net has been hung to catch the rocks that pierce the first one. It’s a city heavy with the pall of lost greatness, unable to pay to maintain the memory of its glorious past.

This can’t merely be attributed to the destructive effects of organised crime. Palermo, for instance is in far better shape. Rubbish collection, once a disaster, now compares favourably with that of Brussels.

The city betrays evidence of attempts to revive it through physical and cultural infrastructure. A smart new subway station adjoins the main railway terminus, though the square above it resists attempts to gentrify it with a success only matched by Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens.

A whole new commercial neighbourhood, the Centro Direzionale, replaced former warehouses with Canary-Wharf style towers. The National Archeological Museum and the art gallery in the former Bourbon Palace of Capodimonte are superb and show signs of plentiful public investment.

Rather, they show the limitations of public-spending-led regeneration that concentrates on physical capital, and present a warning of how the Government’s attempts to revive the economy in the “red wall” seats could go wrong.

At its height under the Spanish and later the Bourbons, the Neapolitan economy thrived because of its position as a political centre. The aristocracy extracted wealth from the peasants on their estates and used it to commission palaces, paintings, and other luxury goods, and for political patronage.

This stimulated a strong service-based economy that fell into decline following Italian unification. Though, as Italy’s largest port it had docks, it never had much industry.

The financial and legal services that had served the Kingdom of Two Sicilies were displaced by Milan and Rome, leaving a void as big as the decline of industry in Manchester or Sheffield. Post-war Italian governments tried repeatedly, but without success to fill it. They could reallocate resources from the north, but never managed to get a southern economy to grow on its own.

Naples also stands out as being the largest European city never to have had a home-grown governing class. It has been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese, Spanish and finally Bourbons, before being reluctantly integrated into modern Italy.

The Bourbons stifled the enlightenment while post-unification Italy focused its energies on the interests of the industrialising north. Anyone who has spent time in the North of England will recognise its identification as unruly, authentically peripheral and ungovernable: the ironic rejection of central authority a badge of honour that covers up the fact their city doesn’t exercise it any more.

Here’s the first trap into which infrastructure-based redevelopment falls: it is liable to be seen as charity for which its recipients, already struggling with a chip on their shoulder, are supposed to feel grateful.

In this respect Naples has much in common with the de-industrialised communities that form the “red wall”. They lack infrastructure, of course, but it is control over the means to define their own purpose that matters more. They lack the political institutions to revive themselves, not only the money to pay for it.

But to receive money is also to give up power: to the ministries in Whitehall and Rome that control the funds, and want, on behalf of the taxpayers to which they are accountable, to ensure the money is well spent (the principle applies even more strongly to the EU’s Covid rescue package, in that the taxpayers and spenders are accountable to entirely different publics).

The second is that it mistakes the results of economic regeneration for its causes. Successful attempts at revival, like Dresden’s or Manchester’s for example, involved making the places attractive for ambitious and creative people to move to.

Now, as Richard Florida and Daniel Finkelstein have observed, that the age of capital-intensive mass manufacturing is over, people don’t move to jobs, but jobs move to where the people are. This means that expanded to include schools, childcare, decent housing, good entertainment and other things that make it easier to have a good life in a town or city, matter more than glitzy new stations. Get these things right and private capital will follow.

This is not to say that depressed areas cannot benefit from financial help, but that if public spending-based revival is to work, it has to be done in a way that enhances the power of the communities into which it is invested, rather than turning them into recipients of the end result of central government cheques paid to large infrastructure companies. If not we’ll end up with a load of melancholy mini-Napleses, but without Neapolitan food, sunshine, or views of Vesuvius.

Stephen Booth: While UK-EU talks gather momentum, Britain should continue to diversify its trading relationships.

25 Jun

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

There are signs that the UK-EU negotiations on the future relationship may be gathering some momentum.

Last week’s stock take meeting between the Prime Minister and Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the European Commission and European Council Presidents, respectively, confirmed there will be no UK request to extend the transition period beyond December 31 this year.

Both sides agreed to inject fresh impetus into the negotiating process, with talks set to intensify in July, August and September. This marks the make-or-break period to reach a trade agreement and new arrangements in other areas such as cooperation on policing and security.

In my previous column, I argued that the nature of the impasse – essentially whether the EU is prepared to cut a deal under which the UK would be free to leave Brussels’ regulatory orbit – means that it is incumbent upon the EU to move on the key sticking points.

These are fishing and the demand for ongoing UK alignment with EU law on the “level playing field”, particularly with regard to state aid. Important UK-EU differences remain but there are encouraging signs that this is now happening.

Following her meeting with Boris Johnson, von der Leyen signalled in a speech to the European Parliament that the EU was prepared to compromise without, of course, putting into question “our principles and the integrity of our Union”.

In her speech, von der Leyen made no mention of the EU’s initial demand to maintain EU boats’ access to UK waters on the basis of the status quo. “No one questions the UK’s sovereignty on its own waters,” she said. “We ask for predictability and guarantees for our fishermen and women, who have been sailing in those waters for decades.”

Neither did von der Leyen mention the demand for ongoing alignment with EU law on state aid or a role for the Court of Justice (ECJ) in overseeing the level playing field. “It should be a shared interest for the EU and the UK to never slide backwards, and always advance together towards higher standards,” she said.

Notably, she limited her remarks on the role of the ECJ to the part it should play “where it matters” in the area of police and judicial cooperation, rather than in the wider trade deal. If the UK wishes to retain access to EU crime and policing databases, these are underpinned by EU law and there is no escaping that the Court has the role of interpreting how law applies on the EU side.

Though, as the UK has pointed out, the EU has consistently agreed treaties with non-EU countries on policing and judicial matters without requiring the ECJ to settle disputes between the two parties. Equally, the Government has said it will not agree to the extraordinary EU demand for treaty provisions that would oblige the UK to maintain its existing implementation of the European Convention of Human Rights in domestic law.

Meanwhile, there is speculation that a compromise on the level playing field is being explored, under which Britain would assert the right to deviate from the EU rules that it will inherit after the transition period expires. And, in return, the EU would have the ability to apply tariffs on British exports if regulatory divergence amounts to unfair competition.

Neither side has formally adopted the idea yet, but there are reasons to suggest it might have legs. The UK would regain regulatory independence (and the consequences), while the EU would retain the ability to control access to its market in instances where it perceived the UK was lowering standards.

Brussels would need to give up on its desire to export its regulatory model to the UK indefinitely by treaty and the UK would need to compromise on its current position that any commitments on subsides, labour and environmental rights should be exempt from dispute resolution.

It is also an idea hiding in plain sight. The EU’s draft UK trade agreement text already proposes so-called “temporary remedies” and “interim measures” in the event of non-compliance with treaty commitments.

Such a model would not be without difficulties. The UK and EU would still need to agree on the relevant benchmark for identifying a breach of level playing field commitments. The UK could insist that evidence should be required to show that the effects of divergence are harmful to open and fair competition. The EU could continue to insist that the letter of EU law is the benchmark.

Equally, the prospect of the EU using tariffs or market restrictions as a political tool to secure leverage over the UK in other areas of the agreement cannot be discounted. This has been a feature of the EU-Swiss relationship in recent years. However, this needs to be weighed against the prospect of UK-EU trade facing the full panoply of tariffs on day one, if talks break down completely and trade reverts to World Trade Organisation terms.

Critics have noted that rather than providing for managed divergence, such a mechanism would create perpetual conflict. But, ultimately, while it would be nice to avoid it, the likely reality is that the UK and the EU will face disputes in the future, just as they have in the past. This is a feature, rather than a bug, of an independent UK. Some disputes may be easily resolvable through treaty dispute mechanisms, others will require political resolution.

One way for the UK to insure itself in the event of such disputes is to diversify its trading relationships outside of the EU. And negotiations with the UK’s priority non-EU markets, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, are also intensifying over the coming months.

This week, Hiroshi Matsuura, Japan’s chief trade negotiator, called for a UK-Japan deal to be secured in just six weeks to be ready for ratification in the Japanese parliament. The challenge is to replace the existing EU-Japan agreement, which is due to expire at the end of the Brexit transition period, and Japan is insisting on a bespoke UK deal rather than a simple rollover of the existing EU agreement.

This may mean that the deal is less ambitious than the UK would like on agricultural tariffs but Japan and the UK could go further than the EU was prepared to in areas of mutual interest such as services and digital.

Unlike the Japanese deal, the talks with the US, Australia and New Zealand are about fresh deals and the talks are expected to run into next year. UK accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is next on the agenda. India would be another potential candidate for the future.

With this week marking the fourth anniversary of the EU referendum, the contours of the UK’s international trade policy are beginning to take shape.