Sunday 18 August 2019

Colette Browne: 'Gambler Johnson can't be trusted as he plays poker with EU over Brexit, the Border and the backstop'

Newly elected British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Getty
Newly elected British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Getty
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Former French president Georges Pompidou once said: "There are three roads to ruin: women, gambling and technicians. The most pleasant is with women, the quickest is with gambling but the surest is with technicians."

That quote becomes even more apposite for new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with one minor tweak - his three roads to ruin are women, gambling and technical solutions to the Irish backstop.

Johnson's colourful love life has been headline tabloid news for decades now but, ultimately, doesn't impinge on his ability to do his job, unless his tiffs with girlfriend Carrie Symonds require a police response while he is resident at Number 10.

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His personal life is his own business. But his political life has been one big gamble and he has gone all in on his latest, and biggest ever, bet - that he can find some way to deliver the fairytale Brexit that misty-eyed zealots in his own party have demanded, whatever the cost.

Throughout the leadership campaign, Johnson has ratcheted up the rhetoric to such an extent there can be no climbing down now.

He has promised the party faithful a "do or die" Brexit - the only problem being, it is not just his own political life that is at stake.

Professional failure for Johnson will equate to disaster for his country, and ours, if he follows through on his vow to crash out of the EU on October 31 with no deal.

In using such incendiary language, and making such consequential assurances, Johnson is akin to the inveterate gambler who persists with his addiction even if it risks his family becoming destitute.

For compulsive gamblers, the next big win is always around the corner. The reality of perennial losses and failure cannot compete with the delusion that success is hovering on the horizon, almost within reach.

For a prime minister of a country that has been torn asunder by Brexit to blithely risk so much for so many would ordinarily require an election. But Johnson intends to plough ahead having only definitively secured the support of fewer than 100,000 Conservative Party members.

In fact, Johnson has been vocal on this topic before himself, when the social, political and economic stakes for the country were much lower.

When Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as prime minister in 2007 without putting himself before the people in a general election, Johnson called it a "scandal".

"It's the arrogance. It's the contempt. That's what gets me. It's Gordon Brown's apparent belief that he can just trample on the democratic will of the British people. It's at moments like this that I believe the political world has gone mad and I am alone in detecting the gigantic fraud…

"Why are we all conniving in this stitch-up? This is nothing less than a palace coup with North Korean servility," he wrote in one of his polemical columns.

Consistency has never been a word that has been associated with Johnson, but even he would blush if that quote were read back to him today. Suddenly, the democratic imperative of holding an election when power changes hands doesn't seem so compelling.

If Ireland's fate were not tied to Johnson's great gamble, it would be possible to sit back and relish the prospect of his inevitable contortions for the next three months as he tries to do a deal with EU.

As one of the main architects of Brexit, whose support for the Leave campaign proved decisive, it could be argued that it is only right he now be tasked with managing the monster he created.

Johnson, when Theresa May proved unable to secure a deal that satisfied the right wing of her party, opted to resign from her government and snipe from the backbenches. That won't be an option now that he is the one in charge.

For better or worse, Johnson's political legacy is now inextricably linked to Brexit and it is unlikely his audience in Brussels will be receptive to bluster like comparisons between Brexit and the Moon landings.

This week, to mark its 50th anniversary, Johnson claimed that if the Moon landing was possible then finding a solution t0o the problem of the Border should not be beyond the realms of possibility.

However, he forgot one salient fact. When the rocket blasted off in 1969, they had some idea of the direction they were heading and how they were going to get there.

Regrettably, the Irish will not be able to enjoy any of the forthcoming schadenfreude. Brexit has always been a diplomatic nightmare, but the insertion of Johnson into the equation means it has become a problem that will be almost impossible to resolve.

Mendacious, unreliable, mercurial and unprincipled, Johnson's career is synonymous with backstabbing, betrayal and white elephants. Nobody in Dublin will be able to take anything he utters at face value when - up to now, at least - his primary concern has been playing to the gallery back home.

Before the referendum, and throughout his tenure in May's government, Johnson ridiculed any suggestion that Britain's red-lines were illogical and contradictory. It is unlikely that he is going to, very publicly and dramatically, change his tune now.

For Ireland, the hope must be Johnson is engaged in an elaborate bluff, making deliberately provocative promises to rile up members of parliament so that his plans for no deal are killed stone dead.

There was a sign last week that this rebellion is already under way. Team Johnson lost a vote which could have resulted in the unprecedented step of parliament being suspended if it tried to vote against no deal.

If this were to happen in October, and parliament obstructed Johnson in the same way it stymied May, then it would allow Johnson to cast MPs as the stumbling block in his path to Brexit glory.

This could then be used as a pretext for holding either a second referendum or a general election - buying Johnson some time and providing an excuse to prevent him carrying through on his threats to crash out, no matter what.

For Johnson, it would mean that he saved face.

He would not have to renege on his promises to Brexiteers and he would be spared the ignominy of being the man who plunged Britain into chaos and recession.

It's a game of high-stakes poker. But what else would you expect from an inveterate gambler?

Irish Independent

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