Saturday 21 September 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Boris Johnson's 'reign of error' will be more like Dunkirk than the Moon landings he evoked'

'Like Trump, Johnson is a man of few principles, which means he is more likely to modify his position than many of the true-believing zealots.' Photo: Reuters/Henry Nicholls
'Like Trump, Johnson is a man of few principles, which means he is more likely to modify his position than many of the true-believing zealots.' Photo: Reuters/Henry Nicholls
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

WITH Boris Johnson expected to win today's Tory leadership by a margin of anything up to 73pc-27pc, and then to be installed as the new British prime minister tomorrow, a casual observer would be forgiven for assuming that such a commanding victory is the sign of a party united behind its new leader.

Of course, in the upside-down world of current politics in general, and UK politics in particular, the opposite is actually the case.

Because assuming that everything goes according to the script in today's final ballot, Johnson won't be so much a minister without portfolio as a prime minister without a cabinet.

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Yesterday saw yet another flurry of ministers dropping out of any Johnson-led cabinet, and it provided another example of how the blue-on-blue violence of this Tory civil war has occurred at precisely the wrong time for them - and, far more importantly, for us as well.

Alan Duncan became the latest senior minister to turn his back on Johnson when he stepped down as No 2 at the British foreign office yesterday morning.

He is joined in the departure lounge by Chancellor Philip Hammond and Justice Secretary David Gauke, who have announced that the last act of Theresa May's government will be to accept their resignations.

On top of that, Health Minister Stephen Hammond and Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood are also believed to be tabling their own resignations.

In football terms, Johnson is a new manager who now faces a dressing room revolt before he has even started the job. Under normal circumstances, such openly chaotic behaviour would not be countenanced.

Sadly, as has been pointed out many times in these pages, we waved goodbye to "normal" a long time ago - about three years ago, in fact, when the Brexit verdict was passed.

Regardless of one's political party affiliations, it is hard not to feel a large degree of sympathy for Simon Coveney.

After all, he has been involved in the thankless task of banging the Irish drum in the UK as he tries to explain to a recalcitrant or simply baffled audience just how bad the now-likely "no-deal" scenario will be come October 31.

Unfortunately, most of those who voted for Brexit remain entirely unmoved by Ireland's inevitable calamity - and a calamity it will surely be.

The facts and numbers are grisly, but bear repeating - we're looking at a €6.5bn hit to the Exchequer, an estimated 55,000 job losses and a 3pc drop in economic growth at a time when we need a robust economy more than ever.

But while Coveney didn't make any startling revelations to those of us who have been following his frequently lonely path, his words found a willing audience with the likes of the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, who hailed his comments on the BBC's 'Andrew Marr Show'.

Their Brexit spokesman Tom Brake added that: "There will be no changes to the backstop. The Conservatives must not be allowed to waste any more time to push the country ever closer to no-deal Brexit."

They will be comforting words to Irish ears, but little more than that. More reassuring were the remarks by German ambassador to Ireland Deike Potzel, who promised Germany's full support for the predicament in which we now find ourselves.

Of course, it's the job of any ambassador to smooth ruffled feathers whenever they can, and Irish feathers were certainly ruffled by repeated rumours that Angela Merkel could pressure us to dilute the terms of the backstop.

The news that Berlin stands behind us will come as a relief, if only because it is so much better than the alternative of them leaving us high and dry.

But ultimately, words are just words, even when they offer some degree of comfort.

Also, the Germans, like most of the EU negotiators on this vexed issue, realise they are entering a darkened room when it comes to dealing with Johnson.

He plans to visit some of the European leaders when he takes office - a trip already dubbed the "Blond Ambition Tour" by some UK wags - but short of him turning up just so he can insult his continental contemporaries to their faces, it is difficult to see what else he hopes to achieve.

One of the main problems with the debate for the past 18 months is "Brexit fatigue" and simple boredom.

So in an effort to make the whole process more digestible for an electorate he seems to despise, Johnson hopped on the Moon landing bandwagon (or should that be Moon buggy?) when he boasted yesterday that: "If they could... make a frictionless re-entry to Earth's atmosphere in 1969, we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish Border."

It's certainly true that we have come up with no earthly solution to this intractable problem, but all this Moon-talk is just pie in the sky.

For starters, the Moon landing involved 400,000 people working together towards the same goal. In this instance, Johnson can't even get a few of his own ministers to agree with each other.

In many ways, the incoming PM's dismissive contempt for those who say he is embarking on the path to ruination, and his blithe swipe that they are just "gloomy and defeatist", is reminiscent of Bertie Ahern's scorn for those who warned that the economy was dangerously overheated.

We all know how that ended up, and we're facing into an immediate future just as alarming as the crash of 2008.

Is there any hope at all?

Perhaps. The smart money seems to think that Johnson is playing a Trump.

In other words, there is hope in the European corridors of power that he has adopted the Trumpian tactic of talking loud, then carving some sort of compromise and claiming it as a great victory. There may be some merit to this.

Like Trump, Johnson is a man of few principles, which means he is more likely to modify his position than many of the true-believing zealots in the Brexit movement, who have adopted a full no deal as their most important article of faith.

We'll know more by the end of the week - assuming Johnson even has a working cabinet and hasn't been forced into an election which, when you consider that he only has a majority of three - including the backing of the DUP 10 - is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Other than that, we can merely gird our loins at the prospect of a Halloween nightmare under a Boris Johnson "reign of error".

He may like to evoke the Moon landings, but this is more akin to Dunkirk - another British defeat which they like to pretend was a victory.

Irish Independent

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