Saturday 10 June 2023

Boris Johnson's tragic flaw


Without Boris Johnson there would have been no Brexit twice. The referendum in 2016 was won by Leave only because Boris led the campaign. There is no question whatsoever that Remain would have won if he had campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU as he almost did. But that was the essence of the problem with Boris on this issue. He didn’t really have any conviction one way or the other. While he could convince others he could not convince himself, because he didn’t really believe anything or in anything.

It was crucial for Scotland that the UK voted to Leave the EU. While doing so gave the SNP a grievance, it also gave it nowhere to go. It was always going to be one thing to leave the UK while the UK was an EU member, because this would have given Scots the same rights and open borders as every other EU citizen. It was quite another to leave the UK while the UK was not an EU member. Then there would be no guarantees about anything, and Scotland would begin life as a new state with no trade agreements either with the former UK or the EU and with the potential of a border between Gretna and Berwick. This scenario was always going to be difficult to defend in an independence campaign when it came under full scrutiny.

If the UK had voted to Remain in the EU at some point the SNP would have got a second chance at independence and given the surge in support post 2014 it probably would have won. Independence with both the former UK and Scotland in the EU is intrinsically no worse than Austria and Germany. Therefore, Boris’s decision to back Leave is an historically vital part of the implosion of the SNP that we are at present witnessing.

But Boris’s lack of belief and lack of competence meant that he had no plan and no strategy at all when he surprised himself upon winning the referendum in 2016. It was this that led to Michael Gove abandoning him and to the disaster of Theresa May becoming Prime Minister. Boris should have made a deal with Gove. I will do the vision thing, you do the planning and strategy. If Johnson had become Prime Minister in 2016, we could have avoided the next three years of Remainer rearguard and absurd concessions to the EU.

The most crucial mistake or perhaps betrayal was Theresa May accepting that it was the UK’s responsibility to keep the border in Ireland open. Johnson/Gove could have told Ireland we will neither check your citizens coming over the border nor will we monitor your goods, but what you do on your side of the border is your problem not ours. The likely result would have been light monitoring on the Irish side of the border or checks between Ireland and the continent. But crucially there would have been no checks at all between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Once the backstop was conceded it became impossible for the UK to diverge from the EU in any significant way, which made Brexit less beneficial than it otherwise could have been. That I think was the point of Theresa May agreeing to the backstop and the EU making it such an issue. The one thing the EU feared was that the UK would become a light regulation, low tax competitor a few miles from the continent. We could have undercut them but chose not to.

We should have used two further bargaining chips. There were millions of EU citizens in the UK. We could have said we will make them apply for work visas and leave to remain as if they were from any other country in the world no better nor worse. Instead, we unilaterally made it as easy as possible for EU citizens and didn’t receive the same concession for our own citizens living in the EU. Nor did we receive any other concessions. We did not bargain. We collapsed.

We could have promised the EU that if it continued to treat us in an unfriendly way then it would find British armed forces unable to help Europe if it were attacked. In short, we should have argued as hard as Barnier did. Instead, we conceded on everything and gained nothing.

Johnson’s victory in 2019 was as crucial as the victory in 2016. Only he could have won that election and only he could have achieved something approaching a complete break with the EU exception that it left Northern Ireland stranded. But it is hard to imagine a Prime Minister making a worse job given the majority given to him.

Johnson had the correct instinct with regard to Covid but lacked the conviction to implement it. This is his tragic flaw. Whether it was realistic in the atmosphere of February/March 2020 to completely avoid lockdown, Johnson could have made most of the regulations voluntary. By all means work from home if you can but go to work if you want to.

We now know that lockdown saved few lives. It almost certainly killed more than it saved. If Johnson truly had a conviction, he would now be Prime Minister of one of the few countries that avoided full lockdown that left it to the discretion of his citizens and their good sense rather than the law. His reputation would be intact. Instead, he leaves Parliament with no reputation at all.

Johnson is a political visionary who doesn’t believe in anything other than his own advancement and his own pleasure. He is a libertine controlled too much by his continual desire for a new woman and for new power. But politically he could do what no one else in British politics could do. But rather like Joe Biden Boris should not have been left in charge of anything lest he fall over.

His fallout with Gove and Cummings was crucial. Boris is genuinely clever but only with regard to Latin and Greek and writing funny articles in the papers. He needed the brains of Gove and Cummings and he needed to be ruled and to an extent controlled by someone clever at running a country and cunning at dealing with opponents. Instead, Boris was ruled by a woman more than twenty years younger than him who controlled him like Anne Boleyn briefly controlled Henry VIII by means of her youth and his lust.

Without Boris Johnson there would have been no Brexit and it is this above all else that has kept the UK together. But in nearly every other respect Brexit has failed and been a dismal disappointment. Johnson’s fall out with Gove in 2016 is the crucial factor caused by Johnson’s lack of conviction and lack of competence.

But his mismanagement, the chaos in Downing Street and his failure to stand up for what he really believed about lockdown led to Johnson’s downfall and his replacement with Rishi Sunak. We are now left with a country that is in a much worse position than it was in 2019. Inflation is high, we have spent vastly more than we have earned, and we are importing up to a million people a year. Far from taking control of our borders we have merely substituted unlimited immigration from the EU for unlimited immigration from everywhere else.

If you continue doing that for long enough, you won’t have Britain anymore. You will have replaced all the planks of your ship and you will merely have the same island that barely resembles the ship that it once was. There will be no sceptred isle, because there will be nothing that Shakespeare would recognise.

Boris’s historical achievement was Britain’s Exit from the EU, but was it for this? For what?