The Brexit talks are stuck in the mud, the Cabinet are squabbling and Conference is coming up. Time to take control. Time, obviously, to hire a church in Florence and make a speech to Europe.
By all accounts, it was a very long speech (https://blogs.spectator.co.uk>Coffee House) and boring enough to send even Eurocrats to sleep. Not that there were many. Davis, Johnson and Hammond sat in the front row and the rest was mostly media. The Mayor of Florence was courteously present, and wore a sash, which was the most interesting event of the day. The cost to the taxpayer of this unnecessary jaunt has not been disclosed.
The Prime Minister said almost nothing she had not said before. The most important difference was that the combativeness had gone. (Well, it hadn’t worked very well, had it?) Europe was informed that we now wanted a two-year transition period after March 2019, during which we would remain in the single market and customs union and be subject to the ECJ.
Since the UK must have a transition period to avoid complete meltdown and this is the price the EU puts on it, that is only an admission of the obvious. However, it is the first time the Prime Minister has been able to accept the obvious, so it’s a step forward.
She also expressed herself willing to pay into the EU budget during those two years so that “our friends” would not be out of pocket because we’re leaving. The sum of £18 billion has been mentioned. So far, so sensible, but it doesn’t bite into the amount we owe from past commitments. May was ambiguous about this, saying we will honour them. Which of them? All of them? Small but vital words are missing. We might honour just a few past commitments that we feel like stepping up for.
And she made a concession on the rights of EU citizens. It is embarrassing that it had to be made at all. She undertook to write legal protections for them into the exit treaty; this is so that their rights could not subsequently be changed by a malign British government. But, crucially, she did not say what rights. The Government has laid out its proposals for EU citizens’ rights after Brexit and the EU considers them insufficient. So there isn’t much point offering to write them into law.
On the Irish border, the third of the three issues on which agreement has to be reached before the talks move on, the Prime Minister said nothing new. She cannot, because the government has no idea how to solve this problem now that the EU has dismissed its fairy border as a nonsense. She committed herself, again, to squaring the circle, and hoped the EU would help us out a bit.
The careful warmth with which the EU has welcomed Mrs May’s speech is reminiscent of the tone of doctors around a sickbed. The patient has moved a limb: ah! the patient is still alive! May has done the minimum that could have been done to prevent the talks from dying of inertia – but a week ago it wasn’t certain there would be even that much deliverance. A week ago, we were reeling from Boris.
His 4,200-word article in the Telegraph (16 September) came out of the blue; the Prime Minister had not been consulted about it. That in itself was a sackable offence, according to several senior Westminster figures. A seriously aggravating offence was that it was published six days before her speech in Florence. Also, of course, Boris’s ideas on Brexit are not the Prime Minister’s, and the article was entirely about Brexit, insofar as it was not about Boris.
Why did he do it? He’s been quiet for a long time, and one assumes it was not by his choice. He likes limelight, and got it. For days the story was Boris, Boris’s article, Boris and the £350 million, when it was supposed to be about Theresa’s forthcoming speech. She was in Canada by then, talking up a trade deal with Trudeau, after which she was at the UN. But then Boris had to go to New York too, at which point she collared him and made him fly home with her, to attend a Cabinet meeting whose agenda had suddenly expanded.
The initial consensus was that he had miscalculated, and had had to back down. But there was no agreement as to what he had wanted. To be noticed, naturally. To destabilise, almost certainly. But, to be Prime Minister? “He is behaving and speaking and acting strangely,” remarked Irish politician Phil Hogan, the EU’s agriculture commissioner, to the Standard, and ITV’s Robert Peston said, “I cannot shake off the notion that his recent behaviour is that of someone who just wants out – and perhaps even he does not quite know why.”
These commentators may be off the mark, but they nail a quality that is strange in the article, a sense of a man not fully certain where he is going, or what he wants, or even who he is. It is an extravagant and noisy piece, fizzing with ego, the authentic voice of Boris. It is chock-full of misleading and untrue statements. It is a fanfare for a fantasy, and the fantasy is the glorious future the country will have after Brexit. But it seems to be not quite under his control. It lurches. There is a hint of madness in it. Every now and then the fantasy breaks down and reality asserts itself. It can’t be acknowledged, of course, so it presents itself in disguise.
So in para 2 we get:
“They [the Brexit-sceptics] think that the Brexit bill will simply get lost in a House of Commons crevasse or buried in some interminable Jarndyce and Jarndyce legal proceedings. They think that we will simply despair of finding our way out of the EU and sit down on the floor and cry – like some toddler lost in the maze at Hampton Court.”
The image of the Cabinet sitting on the floor of the House in tears is wonderfully funny but also, I’d have thought, too close for comfort. For they are lost, and it is a maze, and often there doesn’t seem to be a grown up in sight. As for Jarndyce v Jarndyce (Bleak House), he would have been wiser to avoid it. It was a case in Chancery concerning the inheritance of a vast estate, went on for generations, was “so complicated that no man alive knows what it means,” and by the time it was settled the entire estate had been swallowed up in legal fees.
Moving to para 4, we find:
“Those 17.4 million people – they weren’t fools, you know. They weren’t stupid. They weren’t as bad as some would have you believe.”
What? Yes, he is saying it. Or the second person inside his head is.
The 17.4 million leads him to talk about the “mandate,” and this leaves a dangerous thread hanging. What exactly was that “mandate” for? It’s at this point that the first big lie is told. “Before the referendum, we all agreed on what leaving the EU logically must entail…”
No, Boris, we did not, and that is exactly what the fuss is about.
[It entailed] …“leaving the customs union and the single market, leaving the penumbra of the European Court of Justice; taking back control of our borders, cash, laws.”
There is so much that’s untrue here that one doesn’t know where to begin. So one reads on, with a mental shrug. And comes to:
“This country still has chronic problems, and at least some of them have been exacerbated by the rigidities of EU membership.” This statement is followed by: “Our infrastructure is too expensive”; “successive governments have failed to build enough homes”; “our vocational training is… not inspirational”; “we do not conduct enough basic research in science”.
These failings, he concludes, are the cause of our low productivity. But none of them is the fault of the EU.
The pervasive dishonesty of the article is laced with exultation at what Britain has done to impede Europe and with slurs on the loyalty of youthful Britons who paint stars on their faces. Sometimes he seems to have lost his bearings completely, as when he describes the UK diaspora as “a pulse in the eternal mind.” But in the middle of all it is the lie for which he became famous: the £350 million.
It never was £350 million, it is not even £250 million if you subtract from it the subsidies the EU pays for agriculture and other sectors in the UK economy, but still Boris pulls it back brazenly into the ring as the sum which “we will take back control of.” And “it would be a fine thing… if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”
This time it wasn’t just Farage who backed away. Most of the media shouted “Liar!” and the head of the UK Statistics Authority rebuked Boris for misuse of official statistics. Boris was unapologetic and there was a high-level spat.
So, again, what did he want? Murmurs before May’s speech became articulate later: he’d wanted to derail the version of Brexit that was in the speech, and he succeeded. She wanted the Norway option, keeping the UK in the single market; in the speech she rejected it. She wanted a transition period of up to five years: in the speech she asked for two. Downing Street denies all of this – naturally. The weakness of the Prime Minister cannot be admitted.
But on Sunday 24th the Telegraph reported that Boris was in open revolt over the compromise. He wants the UK not to accept rulings from the EU during the transition period, and to be able to sign trade deals. That means leaving the customs union.
There is war in the Cabinet.
The party conference starts in a week’s time.