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23 January 2017

Why Boris Johnson is Theresa May’s biggest Brexit liability

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

By James crisp

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.

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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.

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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.