Calm before the storm

“As the Conservative Party’s fortunes have waned, Johnson’s standing has waxed. After all, if the party is heading for electoral disaster, taking a punt on Boris becomes much less of a risk.”

Westminster
(Cover illustration by Miriam Elia)

Too often political events on either side of the Atlantic are portrayed as being analogous. Too much is made of the superficial similarities between unrelated events. The Leave vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum did not represent the same phenomenon as the election of Donald Trump later that year—the two votes had few similarities. Both can be portrayed as a revolt against out of touch elites and jaded experts, but otherwise they have little or nothing in common.

Boris Johnson is not the British Donald Trump. They may both be prone to making outlandish, and perhaps not well thought out, statements—although Boris is a rank amateur in this regard compared to Trump—but the commonalities do not go very much further. A successful and fluent journalist is not the same as a billionaire property developer.

Where there is a similarity, however, is how the Conservative and Republican parties have reacted to Johnson and Trump. Up to 2016 there was a powerful NeverTrump movement not only in the American conservative press but also in Congress. With Trump’s nomination as Republican candidate and then election as president this has withered away. Mitt Romney may remain a Trump critic, and a lone Republican congressman, Justin Amash, is calling for the president’s impeachment, but otherwise NeverTrumpers are most notable by their absence.

Likewise, although it never had the moniker of NeverBoris, many Conservative MPs were never reconciled to a Johnson premiership even after the referendum in 2016. The man who at the time of writing is running the whipping operation for Boris’s leadership campaign, Gavin Williamson, performed the same function for Theresa May in 2016. Then Williamson employed his skills on behalf of May because he correctly perceived her as the best person to stop Boris; she was the Stop Boris candidate even before the Johnson campaign imploded through Michael Gove’s shenanigans. Cabinet ministers who privately expressed the view then that if Johnson was Prime Minister this would finish off the Conservative Party and that he was simply not up to the job are now reconciled to what they perceive as the inevitable—some have even become his cheerleaders.

Much has changed since 2016, not least because of the manifest mess that has been made of the Brexit process. As the Conservative Party’s fortunes have waned, Johnson’s standing has waxed. After all, if the party is heading for electoral disaster, taking a punt on Boris becomes much less of a risk.

Among the parliamentary Conservative party there remain those who are irreconciled to Boris—and are very likely to remain so. MPs such as Justine Greening and Dominic Grieve may well resign the Tory whip if Boris becomes Prime Minister. This will not be because of a view that the new PM is unfit for such high office, but rather to their opposition to Brexit and how they believe it will be pursued. Public anti-Boris sentiment on grounds other than opposition to his likely European policy has withered on the
Conservative benches. The question of Boris’s character and his appetite for hard work and getting to grips with issues has—rightly or wrongly—become a non-issue.

Different factions of the Conservative Party—other than that small group who support the outright overturning of the Brexit referendum, whether by holding a second referendum or by simply revoking Article 50—are now projecting their own desires in their expectations of what a Boris government will do. “The Spartans” led by Steve Baker are expecting Johnson to deliver the kind of clean, no-deal Brexit they favour, or at the very least believe he is their best hope of achieving it.

Other MPs are much closer in thinking to the views expressed below by Richard Cockett: only a Prime Minister with impeccable Brexiteering credentials can deliver a soft Brexit, ideally from their point of view the softest of soft Brexits. But who is right?

Johnson’s time in Brussels is the key to understanding his approach to Europe. He was the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent from 1989 to 1994.

Two speeches in September 1988 transformed the debate on European integration in the UK. In the early and mid-1980s Labour had been the Eurosceptic party while the Conservatives backed European integration. Mrs Thatcher’s struggles with Europe at the start of the 1980s about Britain’s contribution to the EEC budget, resulting in the rebate, were matters of housekeeping, not principle.

The 1983 Labour manifesto stated: “The next Labour government, committed to radical, socialist policies for reviving the British economy, is bound to find continued membership a most serious obstacle . . . British withdrawal from the community is the right policy for Britain, to be completed well within the lifetime of the parliament. That is our commitment.” Jeremy Corbyn and his cadres seem to have held on to these views—but they are clearly shared by few others in the party now.

The Thatcher government, on the other hand, pushed through the Single European Act, a major step towards tighter European integration, in 1986. There always were Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party,  but they were a small band. Only seven Tory MPs—including Jonathan Aitken, Nick Budgen, Neil Hamilton, Harvey Proctor and Teddy Taylor—voted against the act in its entirety.

In September 1988 the then European Commission President Jacques Delors gave a speech to the Trades Union Congress which made the case that the Labour movement, battered in British general elections and by the Thatcher reforms, could after all achieve its aims, albeit through Brussels. In response to this, Margaret Thatcher gave her famous Bruges speech, declaring: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level.”

The current fight over European political integration was ignited on that day, and the Conservative Party has been fighting itself over Europe ever since. The contours of that fight have changed—until a few years into the current decade actual withdrawal from the EU was a distinctly minority view on the Tory benches—but the battle continues.

Boris came to Brussels as the fight over Europe was igniting, and he did his very best to inflame it. He had a terrific nose for stories which made Brussels and its diktats look foolish; he is the father of this type of reporting.

As Andrew Gimson recounts in his 2012 biography, Boris: The Adventures of Boris Johnson, the newly-arrived troublemaker did not always go down well with the Brussels press corps. There was a widespread feeling that Johnson had a, shall we say, rather relaxed approach to the facts. To give one example, the EU Commission’s Berlaymont building was found to be riddled with asbestos and thus unsafe. Boris wrote this story up by saying that the building would need to be blown up and the preparations for this detonation were under way. In fact, dynamiting buildings is not a safe way to remove asbestos, and no such explosive plans existed.

Perhaps echoes can be seen here in Vote Leave’s 2016 claims of the UK sending £350 million a year to the EU. As Tim Congdon shows (page 16) the claim can be justified, but rather stretches the facts. Boris’s approach is broad-brush rather than a concern with details.

Johnson reacted strongly against Delors and his chef de cabinet Pascal Lamy, later European Trade Commissioner and Director General of the World Trade Organisation. Gimson quotes Johnson as writing, “With his virtually shaven head and parade-ground manner, Lamy runs the upper echelons of the Commission like a Saharan camp of the French Foreign Legion.” British officials, wrote Johnson, were “limp-wristed” and “impotent”. Our officials, when entering into negotiations with Europe, always failed: “With their shy grins and corrugated-soled shoes, they are no match for the intellectual brutality of Lamy and his stooges.”

One could substitute current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for Delors and his Bavarian former Chief of Staff, now Commission Secretary General, Martin Selmayr, for Lamy. One can imagine today’s negotiators in the place of their predecessors. Little seems to have changed, one might think. Perhaps they give a clue to how a Johnson government might pursue European negotiations.

There is much debate as to how committed Boris is to his Euroscepticism, but what is clear is how important his Brussels reporting was to shaping the modern Eurosceptic movement. It helped to invent a genre of Brussels-bashing which played an important part in shaping attitudes to the European project. His reporting, while somewhat cavalier at the edges, brought home important truths about the nature of the European project to a wider British audience.

In those years Johnson became an almost permanent feature of the nascent Eurosceptic movement. If one went to meetings of the Bruges Group (set up to support the sentiments expressed by Mrs Thatcher in her eponymous speech), Johnson seemed like a permanent turn, regaling willing audiences with Brussels horror stories. If Boris’s actions as Prime Minister prove to be a disappointment to his Leaver supporters, he will also be turning against the movement that made him.

At the time of writing, Boris still has to win the Conservative leadership election. But no one is expecting that the Tory membership will reject him. This is the only thing that can be known with a fair degree of certainty. His Brexiteer supporters have reason to believe that he shares their outlook—but betting on what Boris does next is a fool’s game.