Richard North, 15/02/2018  
 


Although the odious Mr Johnson was on the stage yesterday, the person who put him there was his boss, prime minister Theresa May. And that she thought Mr Johnson to be the appropriate person to "reach out" to remainers can hardly improve our view of her political skills.

As for that speech, the best thing that can be said of it is that it has not attracted the same level of unrestrained adulation from the media as previous efforts – apart, of course, from the clueless Telegraph. The Johnson "brand" is not what it was.

Indicative of the monumental lack of judgement, doubtless shared in equal measure by the foreign secretary and his mistress, was the assumption that the remainers should be the target of this love bombing – fortuitously (or otherwise) delivered on Valentine's day.

According to this dismal assumption, it would appear that, in addition to whatever it is that government is doing to carry Brexit through to national success, it is also necessary to reach out to those remainers "who still have anxieties" about the momentous choice the nation has made.

These, Mr Johnson would have us believe, can be neatly categorised into three elements, three bouncy, healthy straw men to keep us entertained.

The first is that leaving was "simply a strategic or geo-strategic mistake". Britain needs to be bound up in the EU for protection – partly for our protection, and partly so that Britain can fulfil its historic role of providing protection for the other countries of the European continent.

The second anxiety is essentially spiritual and aesthetic. Simply, by voting to leave the EU we have sundered ourselves from the glories of European civilisation.

Thirdly – an objection Johnson says occupies most of the debate – there is the economic fear that we have voted to make ourselves less prosperous; that membership of the EU is vital for UK business and investment, and that the panoply of EU legislation has helped to make life easier for companies and for citizens.

People, says Johnson, fear the disruption they associate with change, and that our friends and partners in the EU may make life difficult for us. Sometimes these economic anxieties are intensified by the other fears – about identity or security – so that hitherto recondite concepts like the single market or the customs union acquire unexpected emotive power.

However, if that really does reflect the government "take" on what ails the Brexit process, then we are in bigger trouble than even we imagined. Nowhere is there any suggestion that the real issue is the government's lamentable handling of the negotiations and its complete inability to come up with a credible (or any) exit plan.

Nevertheless, having indulged in this glorious misdiagnosis, Johnson offers what he evidently believes to be appropriate antidotes. The first comes in the form of the same vital reassurance that the prime minister has made so many times, an unconditional and immoveable commitment to the defence of Europe.

Secondly, he denies any suggestion that we are somehow going to become more "insular". And his answer to that is "not to submit forever to the EU legal order, but to think about how we can undo the physical separation that took place at the end of the Ice Age".

This is the man's bid for fame and glory - a second fixed link with France. Even if he accepts that the solution "is still a few years off", this is his "signal" about the attitudes that should inform Brexit. "It's not about shutting ourselves off; it's about going global", says Johnson. "Brexit is about re-engaging this country with its global identity, and all the energy that can flow from that".

In these terms, we are schooled to consider it "vital that we don't treat Brexit as a plague of boils or a murrain on our cattle, but as an opportunity, and above all as an economic opportunity". We would be mad to go through the process of extrication from the EU, and not to take advantage of the economic freedoms it will bring.

Then we get the Johnson sales pitch. We will stop paying huge sums to the EU every year, leaving us with more to spend on our domestic priorities, including the NHS. We will be able to take back control of our borders and we must take back control of our laws.

Remaining within the single market "would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all". The British people should not have new laws affecting their everyday lives imposed from abroad, when they have no power to elect or remove those who make those laws. And there is no need for us to find ourselves in any such position.

Of course, says Johnson, we will need to comply with EU regulation in so far as we are exporting to the EU, but in a global marketplace, where we are trading in products that hadn't been conceived even five years ago, serving markets that were poverty stricken 20 years ago, it seems extraordinary that the UK should remain lashed to the minute prescriptions of a regional trade bloc comprising only six percent of humanity wonderful as it may be – when it is not possible for us or any EU country to change those rules on our own.

In so far as we turn increasingly to the rest of the world, he says, then we will be able to do our own thing. We will be able, if we so choose, to fish our own fish, to ban the traffic in live animals, end payments to some of the richest landowners in Britain while supporting the rural economy; and we will be able to cut VAT on domestic fuel and other products.

We can, he adds, simplify planning, and speed up public procurement. We will decide on laws not according to whether they help to build a united states of Europe, but because we want to create the best platform for the economy to grow and to help people to live their lives.

And the crucial thing, he concludes, is that when we are running ourselves – when all these freedoms open before us - we will no longer be able to blame Brussels for our woes, because our problems will be our responsibility and no-one else's.

For me now to critique this dirge is like shooting fish in a barrel. I'm happy to let the Irish Times make the running.

It tells us that Wednesday's speech was, his admirers agreed, a return to form for Boris Johnson after months during which the foreign secretary appeared to have lost much of his sparkle.

All the old trademarks were there: references to ancient history (the Babylonian legal code of Hammurabi); a few words of Latin (post hoc ergo propter hoc); a descent into the demotic ("cheapo flights to stag dos"); and some dubious laugh lines (about sex tourism and "dogging").

But like a retired entertainer on a comeback tour, Johnson struggled to recapture the old magic as the gags fell flat and he stood sweating and his audience stayed silent. As with most flops, the problem lay in the material – Johnson had nothing to say about Brexit that anyone needed to hear.

Ain't that the truth. Johnson had nothing to say that anyone needed to hear. All he had on offer was a collection of tired old straw men.






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