Britain is caught in a Tory Brexit melodrama
Theresa May told us that politics was not a game, yet the Conservatives are approaching Brexit like some riotous version of the Victorian party parlour game Squeak Piggy Squeak, with the PM spinning around trying to guess what the grunts mean and who’s making them.
Prize piggy Boris Johnson, whose harmless interventions are never actually designed to be just that, has in his latest astonishing act of national self-harm, conducted through the pages of the Daily Telegraph, graphically illustrated in a 4,200-word essay why the EU negotiators should be confident in their hand.
On the eve of another major speech by his boss on her latest stab at a vision for Brexit, Johnson lets off a stink bomb and knows fine well that whatever Theresa May does to try and fan the consequences of his actions away, the stench will linger.
Everything she says will be measured against his words and so the ongoing critique about the lack of cohesion, the absence of leadership and the sense of chaos will go on.
We are at a pivotal point in Britain’s history and Johnson epitomises the depth of dysfunction at the heart of government and in doing so, he might as well strip naked and parade in front of President Junker, for there is nothing else to hide.
The UK doesn’t have a negotiating position, it is a sitting duck, and Johnson, just in case the Eurocrats can’t spot an easy target, is up there waving his catapult, shouting, ‘come and get us’. His actions are demeaning, pointless and only underline the fact that 18 months on, we are being steered in a dangerous direction by the same self-serving, self-important, former public schoolboys that led an EU referendum campaign that Vince Cable described as them ‘reliving their dormitory pillow fights’.
Johnson isn’t some harmless eccentric that in a past life would have been married off to some unwitting foreigner who confused his ill-judged loquaciousness for the prized foibles of upper-class breeding, he’s our foreign secretary, he was the chief cheerleader that led us into this Brexit dystopia.
Johnson represents us on a world stage and frankly, he’s not fit for the job. He’s come out tilting at windmills at a sensitive time in a process that has the Prime Minister attempting to bridge a gulf between what Britain wants and where the EU expects us to be. His crassness is only compounded by her stark inability to deal with him effectively when she dismisses it all as ‘Boris, being Boris’.
This is not a game but we are caught in a Tory party melodrama and it is our European partners that are looking on with bemusement. They want to get on with a job that we started and they see a fractured UK government, floundering around for an end game, manufacturing a grievance about a negotiation that they instigated, can’t control and now must pretend they can win. Europe isn’t angry with us, it’s disappointed.
There is no desire to punish us but with Johnson and others approaching an exit like it was Dunkirk, no wonder those Eurocrats, with their fingers poised on the Brexit stopwatch, are beginning to get impatient with our antics.
Last week I took part in discussions with a group of political editors and a former adviser to Tony Blair about Europe and was surprised that there was almost near unanimity that a second referendum would be back on the table.
And while this is a concept championed by the Lib Dems and that seemed, at best, quixotic, it is now one that Nicola Sturgeon, despite the Lib Dems’ refusal to support a second EU referendum, appears to favour. But would it really lance the boil? Opinion polls repeatedly show that while the UK public may not agree with the Tory government’s approach to Brexit, when asked how they would vote in a second referendum, it is still largely to leave.
And undoubtedly, whatever the deal, Brexit won’t salve all the reasons behind why people voted to leave. The immigration question alone still dare not speak its name, and is largely nothing to do with Europe. But there was a vote and it was to leave. And that’s democracy.
Which brings me to Catalonia. It was just weeks ago that citizens of Barcelona joined hands to march along Las Ramblas in defiance of the murderous terrorism that had killed 13 and injured 100, a terrorism that is surely the very antithesis of a modern democracy. Yet now, shockingly, those same people are being huckled by their own armed police because of a desire to see their democracy run through.
The scenes in Spain are shameful. More than 70 per cent of Catalonians want to hold a referendum but Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, argues that the unilateral referendum set for 1 October is a clear breach of the country’s constitution and that “no democratic state in the world” would tolerate such a violation. But surely it is the sight of Guardia Civil officers patrolling streets, controlling the crowds and entering Catalan government buildings and arresting officials for preparing for a referendum, that is the violation?
And while it is not difficult to draw parallels with Scotland’s journey of self-determination with the Catalonians, it is also hard not to reach the conclusion that our own opposition parties are so paralysed by partisan politics, wrapped up in the Scottish constitutional debate, that they have been unable to make early comment on the clear democratic outrage that is engulfing Catalonia. And for me, that is playing at politics.