Wednesday 18 September 2019

Michael Kelly: 'The British people deserve better than to have their future gambled away by nostalgic Tory millionaires'

Jacob Rees-Mogg won’t really be affected by Brexit, however it goes
Jacob Rees-Mogg won’t really be affected by Brexit, however it goes
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

Long before Netflix and Kevin Spacey, the BBC thrilled audiences in the early 1990s with the television adaptation of Michael Dobbs's novel 'House of Cards'. Mr Dobbs, a one-time adviser to Margaret Thatcher, introduced the world to the Machiavellian Francis Urquhart. The 'FU' initials were no accident and epitomised Mr Urquhart's attitude to foe and one-time friend alike.

In the BBC finale, 'The Final Cut', there is a masterful scene in which the erstwhile foreign secretary Tom Makepeace delivers a thundering takedown of Mr Urquhart's hard-line policies before dramatically crossing the House and sitting on the opposition benches.

It is rousing stuff, but perhaps a bit over the top? Not for a minute.

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'House of Cards' can barely hold a candle to the drama playing out in Britain's House of Commons at the moment.

Boris Johnson even had the indignity of looking up from the despatch box on Tuesday to see Conservative MP Phillip Lee ostentatiously led to the opposition benches by his new pals in the Liberal Democrats.

The prime minister tried not to look ruffled, but he clearly was. Dr Lee's defection marked the end of the Tories' working majority in parliament and, in the days that followed, all of Mr Johnson's plans have been going up in smoke as he has lost vote after vote.

It is a precarious time to be writing newspaper columns. Every late-night sitting of both the House of Commons and House of Lords brings fresh drama. Presenters on BBC Radio 4's late-night 'Today in Parliament' programme must surely be anxiously thumbing through a thesaurus in search of alternative words for unprecedented.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Mr Johnson was, we were assured by his cheerleaders, a man of action and not mere words. When he triumphantly romped home in the Conservative leadership race, he was supposed to be a new Wellington leading Britain to victory against the pesky continentals - a new Elizabethan age even.

No longer would London face the indignity of the weak Theresa May trotting off to Brussels cap in hand, we were told. To the Brexiteers, compromise was a dirty word and the only thing the EU would understand would be a smack of firm leadership from Mr Johnson. Britain would, the story went, stand up and be victorious.

Trump-like, Mr Johnson drew a line in the sand and said he would not negotiate with EU leaders. He changed his mind, of course, and within days was off to Berlin and Paris to see Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.

They would budge, the Boris-supporting press announced - they didn't. Against many predictions, particularly from the same Tory newspapers, EU leaders have remained impressively steadfast in their defence of the backstop to prevent a hard border in Ireland. Mr Johnson said he detected a softening. He was the only one - but, then again, the former journalist has a loose enough relationship with the truth.

But, in the mind of the hard Brexiteers, Mr Johnson is fighting a noble battle, prepared to stand alone if need be in the face of unrelenting aggression from Europe.

We've been here before. It is a well-worn British script and part of the founding myth of modern English identity as an island nation set apart. It is rooted in England's defeat of the Spanish Armada and the lionisation of Queen Elizabeth I as 'Gloriana'.

To the teary-eyed Brexiteers, Britain remains this small country battling gallantly against foes from the continent. Conflict with Napoleon and Nazi Germany only served to copper-fasten Britain's self-conscious identity as plucky and buccaneering.

More than a few Brexit hard-liners have invoked the so-called 'spirit of the Blitz', and the vital role of the US in liberating Europe from Nazi tyranny is lost in the nostalgia. The British people deserve more than sentimental longing or wistful affection for past glories which, mostly, weren't really that glorious when viewed in the cold light of day.

They also deserve more than the spectacle of their parliament being turned into a schoolboy debating society with over-privileged toffs like Mr Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg competing for cheap laughs from the back benches.

Mr Rees-Mogg faced a barrage of criticism this week for lounging on the front bench while MPs made impassioned speeches both for and against Brexit. Many saw in his posture contempt, and there was surely that.

More worryingly, to some at any rate, he betrayed a deeper sense that, for him, this is little more than a game - a diversion to pass the time.

Mr Rees-Mogg, a multi-millionaire, won't really be affected by Brexit, however it goes. And if his political career goes up in smoke, he can follow the lead of David Cameron and land himself lucrative seats on the boards of multi-nationals. People in vulnerable employment in both Britain and Ireland, whose livelihoods will be affected by an economic downturn, have no such luxury.

For them, Brexit is very real and the stakes could hardly be higher. Britons have a right to honesty from their leaders rather than incessant lies and the pious "it'll be all right on the night" cant that have become part of the daily digest. Asking questions about Brexit is not treason, and Brexiteers need to do more than dismiss anyone with worries about the future as part of what they dismiss as 'project fear'.

People are right to be frightened - if Mr Johnson and his reckless chums with their 'FU' attitude get their way, we'll all be a lot worse off, and not just in our pockets.

Irish Independent

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