49. Billy No-Mates

Time For A Reset, BJ

Peter Burke
Chair
Oxford For Europe

12 November 2020 (Updated 15 Nov)

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“In recent decades, we have consoled ourselves that we ‘punch above our weight’ in international affairs. I think that was true – but that was then and this is now. Our hefty international influence rested on our history and reputation, buttressed by our membership of the European Union and our close alliance with the United States  …. It now seems that on the 1st of January, only a few weeks away, Brexit will be more brutal than anyone expected”.

“This is statecraft by Clouseau”.

It looks as if the next 2 months will go down in history on both sides of the Atlantic.

Trump tramps out?

On one side we will be watching the craven political death throes of the least presidential president in history, during which we have to hope he fails to exercise his still considerable wrecking power to the full, and of course that his family and enablers – including Rupert Murdoch –  see the light and persuade him the game is up. One by one he is firing those of his team who challenge his fantasy of victory, and replacing them with others who are as dangerous as he is. At this point it is no exaggeration to talk of an “attempted coup”, complete with armed supporters on the streets and a propaganda machine in overdrive. He will fight doubly hard knowing that staying in the White House is for him the best route to avoiding prison. While we are waiting for what presumably will be his forcible extraction from the White House, he continues to drive a coach and horses through American democracy by pretending not to understand how it works.

This is how a real president behaves. George HW Bush’s letter to his successor, Bill Clinton

‘Britain Trump’

Meanwhile on the other side, in a piece of symmetry worthy of Greek tragedy, another wounded leader whose days in office are numbered.

Our Prime Minister, like Trump, is pretending ignorance. He wants us to believe he does not understand the most fundamental principle of international diplomacy, ie that you sign agreements with other countries in the expectation that both sides will abide by them. The Internal Market Bill flies in the face of this. It has been stripped of its most controversial (for that read illegal) sections by the Lords, and hardly anybody in authority outside the parliamentary conservative party believes it is justifiable. Yet, under pressure from the ERG, our Prime Minister is threatening to restore the offending sections. All at a time when the EU has already launched a legal action against him for it. And at a  time when negotiations with the EU are on a knife-edge and the clock is ticking deafeningly.

Brexit Armageddon?

A no-deal Brexit beckons. As John Major pointed out, even months ago, such an outcome was already looking way past the worst prognostications of ‘Project Fear’ of 2016. And yet it is even worse now.

  1. We are facing the second wave of a global pandemic, something which, despite the obvious warnings, this government failed to foresee. To cambat the pandemic we international collaboration.
  2.  Following events in Vienna, the UK terrorist threat has been raised to severe, and we are about to lose access to the European Arrest Warrant and the SIS II  database, with the possibility of nothing being put in their place. Purely because of an inability to negotiate. ISIS are loving this.
  3. There is even more bad news for business. Not because, as the government may tell you, businesses is unprepared, but because of the government’s own ineptitude. Unlike the most affected EU states, the UK has made minimal and belated preparation at its ports, and finds itself obliged, if it trades on WTO terms, to waive import tariffs from outside Europe at least until June. By then the effect of cheap imports on manufacturing and agriculture will have been catastrophic at best. Add to that the effect on exports and supply chains of tariff and non-tariff barriers which the EU will be obliged to impose on the UK.
An insight into the thinking, if it can be called that, of a Tory backbencher. Lucy Allen’s take on John Major’s serious worries about the future

‘Oh no! The new president is a Paddy! Who knew?’

But now on top of all this we have the US election. If the situation for Johnson could possibly get even more toxic, it just has.

This is the Prime Minister who, up until a week ago, was telling us how wonderful the new  transatlantic partnership would be. Yet suddenly there is a president-elect who genuinely is an internationalist, who values firm links with Europe, and who recognises that the EU is a market of half a billion people containing three members of the G7, and the UK is the country which has just, against his and Obama’s advice, cut itself off. Biden’s first calls were to the three Ms, Martin, Macron and Merkel. They are all people he respects, and Micheál Martin is a personal friend. In the UK parliament, Biden’s closest links are with Colum Eastwood, of the SDLP. When he called BJ, he made a point of reminding him about the Good Friday Agreement.

For Biden anything that undermines the Good Friday agreement crosses a red line. There will of course be those, like Iain Duncan Smith and John Redwood, who assert that the USA has no business meddling in British internal affairs. They are mistaken. Firstly, Biden, who calls himself Irish, is deeply invested in the Irish peace process, which would have been impossible without American help. And the Irish-American lobby is strong. Secondly the breach of an international treaty is not an internal UK matter. Thirdly, like any third country the US wants to know whether or not it is dealing with a government which believes in honouring its international obligations. This is a no-brainer.

Diplomats are not optimistic. In a newly strengthened US/EU alliance, the UK’s options are to work towards being included as a junior partner or to be left out in the cold. The days when this country could claim to be some sort of intermediary between Europe and the US ended when it chose to leave the EU. Who is left to turn to as an ally? Putin, Xi, or the other autocrats, from Erdoğan to Mohammed bin Salman, to whom the Biden win is unwelcome news?

A man with a political future? I think not

Does BJ not understand that in the past week the tectonic plates have shifted? He has lost, in Donald Trump, a soul mate who lies habitually, and regards international relations as a game based on expediency. Not for nothing did Biden call BJ the “physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump”. Just in case things  were not already bad enough, Johnson sent a congratulatory tweet which was discernibly nothing more than a re-edit of the message he was going to send to Trump on his expected victory. Ineptitude on a ‘Four Seasons Landscaping’ scale. He really must try harder.

Boris No-Mates

So at a time of unprecedented crisis we have a Prime Minister with few friends in the world. By chance, he has precious little support at home. The opposition and the devolved nations view him with contempt. In Northern Ireland he betrayed the Unionists by signing the Northern Ireland Protocol and then he betrayed the Nationalists by undermining it.

Within his party he has antagonised many MPs, who happen to be the strongest Brexit loyalists (after all aversion to evidence is their hallmark) by imposing a second lockdown having sworn he would not. So now we have the 50-strong ‘Covid recovery group’ which is calling – irony of ironies!!! – for impact assessments to be published, and who have seriously fallen out of love with him.

And then there are many middle-of-the-road Tories who were made to vote against feeding children, at huge political cost to themselves in their own constituencies, only to watch the PM negate their sacrifice by doing a Rashford-inspired U-turn.

The rift with Cummings – if indeed it ever genuinely was one – just introduces another complication into the Tory psychodrama. Optimists would like to believe it is an opportunity for the BJ we saw in London’s liberal mayor to come to the surface. But we are not all optimists.

Exit Johnson?

So Johnson’s days are numbered. The only thing saving him is that his opponents will struggle to agree on a successor and indeed the choice is sadly limited. Within the parliamentary party the person who seems to come nearest to having experience and competence is Jeremy Hunt (I say this reluctantly, speaking as a doctor), but, as the last leadership election showed, many loyal Tories would rather take poison.

And yet, soon a lot of them may wake up to the realisation that they already have…

In short, our Prime Minister has just told us he is walking away from negotiations which might have mitigated the disaster of Brexit, he is by common consent throwing British industry and agriculture under the bus, all for the dream of creating a “global Britain” which is based nothing but fantasy. We must speak out and do all we can to make sure this never happens.  

The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

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