Getty
Show Hide image

Why Boris Johnson is Theresa May's biggest Brexit liability

The Foreign secretary is loved by Eurosceptics and detested by EU negotiators. 

Boris Johnson is a joke in Brussels but not the funny kind. He is seen as the liar who tricked Britain into leaving the European Union.

Since his election as a MEP in 1999, Nigel Farage has sucked EU money into his campaign to get the UK out of the EU. But the contempt reserved for Boris is of a different order - because he should have known better.

Johnson has impeccable European pedigree. His father Stanley was an MEP and influential European Commission official. Unsurprisingly, Stanley is a Remainer as is Johnson’s brother Jo.  

The fury reserved for Johnson and his betrayal is of a particularly bitter vintage. Johnson was educated in the European School of Brussels in the leafy and well-heeled suburb of Uccle, where, years later, Nick Clegg lived when he was a MEP.

The contempt stems from his time as the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent. Fake news is now big news. Many in the self-styled “capital of Europe” believe Boris pioneered it.

Johnson was an imaginative reporter. Many still discuss his exclusive about the planned dynamiting of the European Commission. The Berlaymont headquarters stands untouched to this day.

Rival British hacks would receive regular bollockings from irate editors furious to have been beaten to another Boris scoop. They weren’t interested in whether this meant embroidering the truth. 

Johnson invented a uniquely British genre of journalism – the Brussels-basher. It follows a clear template.

Something everyday and faintly ridiculous, like condoms or bananas, fall victim to meddling Brussels bureaucrats. 

The European Commission eventually set up a “Euromyth”website to explode the pervasive belief that Brussels wanted you to eat straight bananas.  Unsurprisingly, it made no difference. Commission staff now insist on being called "European civil servants" rather than bureaucrats.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was so worried about negative headlines that he stalled energy efficiency legislation until after the referendum.

When he shelved sensible laws to restrict excessive energy consumption on toasters and hairdryers, he was rewarded with a Hero of the Week award by the German tabloid Bild, which had developed a taste for Boris-style hackery.  

Many in Brussels draw a direct line from Johnson’s stories to the growing Eurosceptism in the Conservatives, and from that to Ukip, and ultimately Brexit.

To make matters worse, Johnson was the star of the Brexit campaign. His performance confirmed the view of him as an opportunistic charlatan.

The infamous £350m a week bus caused outrage in Brussels, but not as much as what Boris did next.

He compared the EU to Adolf Hitler. Boris knows better than most how offensive that is to the many European politicians who believe that the EU has solidified peace on the continent. 

European Council President Donald Tusk was furious. “When I hear the EU being compared to the plans and projects of Adolf Hitler I cannot remain silent,” said Tusk, a Pole.

“Boris Johnson crossed the boundaries of a rational discourse, demonstrating political amnesia,” he declared, and added there was “no excuse for this dangerous blackout”. It was the first time a leading EU figure had intervened in the referendum campaign.

After the vote for Brexit and his failed tilt at the premiership, Johnson was appointed foreign secretary, to widespread disbelief.

When the news broke, I received a text message from my Italian editor. It read: “Your country has gone mad.” It was the first of many similar messages from the Brussels press pack. 

“You know he told a lot of lies to the British people and now it is him who has his back against the wall,” France’s foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said. Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier called Johnson “outrageous”.

Could Johnson jeopardise the Brexit negotiations?  He can damage them. In November, he was ridiculed by European ministers after telling Italy at a Brussels meeting that it would have to offer tariff-free trade to sell prosecco to the UK.

European Union chiefs moved earlier this week to quell fears they would punish Britain for Brexit. Prime Minister Theresa May had threatened to lure investment away from the EU by slashing corporation tax rates in her speech last week.

Juncker and Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, which will chair the first Brexit negotiations, both insisted they was no desire to impose a “punitive deal” on the UK. Donald Tusk compared May’s speech and its “warm words” to Churchill. 

An uneasy peace seemed to have been secured. Enter Boris. 

Asked about comments made by a French aide to President Francois Hollande, he said, "If Monsieur Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who chooses to escape, rather in the manner of some World War Two movie, then I don't think that is the way forward.”

The European Parliament will have a vote, and effective veto, on the final Brexit settlement. Its chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt lashed out at Johnson.

“Yet more abhorrent and deeply unhelpful comments from Boris Johnson which PM May should condemn,” he tweeted.

Downing Street wasn’t listening. A spokeswoman said, “There is not a government policy of not talking about the war.”

And just as quickly as it broke out, the new peace was left looking as shaky as ever. 

 

James Crisp is a Brussels-based journalist who is the news editor of EurActiv.com

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder