Making and adhering to international treaties is the mark of a serious nation state or collective of nations, and it can have extremely serious consequences. In early August 1914, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany because it had violated Belgian neutrality, in contravention of a treaty of 1839 of which it, Britain and France were co-signatories, and which guaranteed Belgian independence. Some MPs in the ruling Liberal party were bitterly opposed on principle to British involvement in foreign wars and wished to keep out of the conflict. However Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary at the time, argued passionately that if Britain did not honour this treaty, albeit 75 years old and unknown to most Britons, its word would never be taken seriously in the world again. Just over four years later, Belgian independence was restored, but partly at a cost of nearly 900,000 British and British Empire lives.
Now Boris Johnson wishes to ignore a treaty he asked parliament to approve just eight months ago, whose qualities he praised with his familiar vacuous bluster and whose existence the majority of the British people are all too clearly aware. And, although it is the treaty enabling us to withdraw from the European Union, even many Brexiteers are appalled when they consider the reputational consequences of simply breaking a solemn and binding treaty, not least one the present Prime Minister was himself so keen to conclude.
On Thursday one of Johnson’s predecessors as Tory leader, Michael Howard, a committed Brexiteer, attacked him for a move that, if followed through, would take Britain down to the moral level of the sort of rogue states whose own disrespect for the rule of law keeps some Tory MPs chuntering (quite rightly) from one Christmas to the next.
Given his famous inability to grasp detail, or the sheer laziness that prevents him from applying himself to do so, it is possible that Johnson had no idea of the implications of the treaty that, only last January, he was so keen to persuade his party and parliament to endorse. Either that, or in professing how “oven-ready” it was, Johnson was telling yet another of the serious lies that has marked his career as a journalist and politician and indeed his baroque private life. In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, of course, he has been telling them almost every time he opens his mouth – last week about the huge numbers returning to work (they weren’t), this about a “moon shot” solution to the pandemic for which the technology doesn’t yet exist.
Only now, as Prime Minister, when he engages in these degrading acts he brings down the perceptions of the country he leads and the reputations of his colleagues who choose, for reasons of ambition, to continue to be bound to him by collective responsibility. These include the law officers who appear simply to have shrugged their shoulders at this proposal flagrantly to breach international law, and other cabinet ministers (notably, in the last 24 hours, Michael Gove, who ought to know better) who have supported this outrage and thus blithely accepted this dereliction of their duty as public servants. It is specious to say that the ministerial code, which they are violating, does not apply to international law: the treaty is the law of the land too, passed by the House of Commons.
If there is a rebellion next week over the proposed legislation to violate the treaty, it looks at the moment that there are not the numbers to defeat the government. However, Michael Howard and others have indicated that the government is likely to be defeated in the Lords, unless Johnson tries to provoke a 1911-style constitutional crisis by having the Queen create more peerages to give him a majority there. Having already scraped the barrel with his last list of peerages, another list hardly bears thinking about.
But there is no doubting that the anger at his brazen disregard for a treaty that he himself advocated and concluded extends deep into his own party, and indeed into the Brexit faction. Johnson is, indeed, a notable exception among prominent Brexiteers in delighting in not playing it straight: whatever others may think of their politics, the Brexiteers usually told the truth and played a straight bat. But that is not Johnson’s way and nor, now, is it the way of his allies.
For more Tories – not just a growing number of backbenchers, but also most of the grandees in the House of Lords, again irrespective of their stance on Europe – Johnson’s style of government is becoming sufficiently repellent to stir them to anger. Even up to the moment when the proposed legislation was published, a number of them thought it wouldn’t happen, because they could not believe a Conservative government capable of such a thing. Sadly, it is more than capable, and it is causing some people who willingly supported Johnson to begin to question whether they might not, after all, have made a mistake in doing so. But they were warned about Johnson’s record as a liar: he will lie to anybody, about anything, if it serves his own purposes, and he simply doesn’t care about the consequences either to him or to the country or to the cause he purports to espouse. His only loyalty remains to himself.
If the government persists in taking this Bill through parliament, a lot of decent men and women will have to decide whether to taint themselves with his naked dishonesty by supporting it. He simply doesn’t care, and others are so worn down by his lying, and his refusal to stop lying, that they have given up protesting about it. I suspect, though, that his colleagues can only take so much of being treated with such contempt, and the time when they have had enough may be approaching.