Friday 23 August 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Boris will finally have to face up to reality when he takes the throne - and then anything is possible as he does everything to cling to the power he so craves'

British prime minister hopeful Boris Johnson. Photo: PA
British prime minister hopeful Boris Johnson. Photo: PA
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Imagine Boris Johnson as a paper doll - the kind which little girls have played with for centuries. Now, cut out a selection of outfits for him so that various scenes can be enacted. First, we should dress him up in toga and laurel wreath because winning the leadership non-contest is a foregone conclusion. Next, we might scissor out a smart suit for a visit to Buckingham Palace, to pay his prime ministerial respects to Queen Elizabeth - perhaps with Churchill-style cigar and bulldog as accessories.

A chef's hat and apron for his word salad about renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement would also be useful. And let's not forget a magician's wand for the miracle he promises to work, delivering Brexit by October 31.

But if we want to show the true Boris Johnson, we need to kit him out in the starched ruff, doublet and hose of a Tudor England courtier.

Of all historical periods, the Brexit machinations are closest to the dog-eat-dog savagery and turbulence of Hilary Mantel's 'Wolf Hall'.

Michael Gove belongs in Wolf Hall, too. His elimination is unfortunate because it would have been fascinating to watch two hard Brexiteers slug it out during the hustings events and head-to-head televised debate next month. Not to worry. There's always a job in Wolf Hall for someone as conniving and ruthless as Mr Gove.

Mr Johnson can't trust him - but he won't dispose of him, either. Perhaps he'll make him Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a poisoned chalice to test his loyalty. What's certain is that Karen Bradley won't be left in place.

It's not much of a leadership battle with Jeremy Hunt, a former Remainer who says he's seen the light and is now a Leaver. Moderates never thrive in Wolf Hall and 'Theresa in Trousers' will be no exception.

Mr Hunt really is a cardboard cut-out. Contradictory and untrustworthy though Mr Johnson is, no one can deny he is larger than life.

So, Mr Johnson is fated to become chief executioner of the Brexit plan. What can we expect? Blustery political weather - with even more squalls in the months ahead. And Ireland will be buffeted by those storms.

Delivering Brexit will require exceptional political skills and there is no evidence that Mr Johnson possesses such abilities. But as a Wolf Hall natural, he does understand U-turns, treachery and above all self-interest, and will have no hesitation in sacrificing former colleagues - for example, the DUP. Yes, some bloodletting there is on the cards and no mistake.

It's not a coincidence that Queen's University historian Paul Bew is now criticising the EU for "weaponising" the Good Friday Agreement - singularly unhelpful terminology, never mind that it's an inaccurate and partisan interpretation of the Irish stance - but it won't make a difference in the final analysis.

Disparaging the Irish for resisting a time-limited backstop won't change those objections and it's an odd way to press for accommodation. Perhaps unionism believes that attacking the Irish position will win favour at Wolf Hall. If so, it's in for a nasty surprise. No reciprocal loyalty there, my friends.

Mr Johnson's competence may be questionable, but he can read a poll. According to a YouGov survey of party members this week, the majority of Tories would prefer Brexit to happen even if it means Northern Ireland and Scotland leaving the union. And even if it causes significant damage to the UK economy. They want it now at all costs - it's a mania with some. Warning voices are interpreted as an attempt to thwart them of their heart's desire.

So, if the red line of no regulatory divergence between the North and Britain prevents a deal, then the red line will be watered down and moved to the Irish Sea. The DUP is expendable.

When Mr Johnson reaches Wolf Hall, he will be met by a welcoming party of Sir Humphreys who will impress some realities upon the new premier. Namely, that no-deal isn't the way to remain in residence. Will he be devastated? Not him - he will have no compunction about doing whatever it takes to retain office because he isn't overburdened by either conscience or principles.

Currently, he is promising to be all things to all men and women. Once the keys to the kingdom are his, he will have to drop one of his Janus faces and interact with reality.

Awaiting him behind the glossy black door of Number 10 is the identical scenario to the one Mrs May grappled with - the EU's refusal to revisit the Withdrawal Agreement. So Mr Johnson will have to start rowing back on previous commitments to supporters - no better man.

He's not at that stage yet, still insisting he will deliver Brexit by Halloween and in advance of a general election. But the parliamentary numbers are an obstacle. Same problem, different prime minister doesn't bring about a different result.

So how exactly is Brexit going to be served up?

First, he'll try out his 'let's see who blinks first' negotiating tactic with the EU. When his poker face fails to wrest concessions, he'll test another gambit. The backstop issue can be sorted amicably with a few cosy, bilateral chats with the Taoiseach, he'll suggest. This will waste more time, already in short supply.

Finally, he'll recognise reality and proceed to talk up a deal rejected three times by the House of Commons and which he helped to torpedo previously. By which stage it will be a matter of weeks before the deadline.

So? Britain will get another extension is the Wolf Hall view. Except Europe has lost patience and wants it gone as much as any hard Brexiteer longs to leave. Leo Varadkar says there is enormous hostility across the EU to further Brextensions, with only a general election or another referendum regarded as reasons for delay.

One of the ironies of this topsy-turvy situation is that Brexiteers are champing at the bit to uncouple from the EU so they can make their own decisions without it - but can't even decide on which kind of Brexit to opt for.

An orderly Brexit won't happen by renegotiating the backstop with the EU, nor by badgering Ireland to drop objections to a temporary backstop. There is only one way: persuading the House of Commons to vote for Mrs May's Withdrawal Agreement. The alternative is a no-deal Brexit, Britain tumbling out face first - right now, the most likely scenario.

But perhaps Mr Johnson, a politician with Wolf Hall in his sights for many years, has a Plan B involving Labour's support. If a deal with Labour is the way to deliver Brexit, then a deal with Labour is what he'll do.

To that wardrobe of cut-outs, we might add another costume: a t-shirt for our Boris Johnson doll with 'Jeremy Corbyn Is My New Bestie' on the front. Rule nothing out.

••

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss