By using "Remainer" as an insult, Boris Johnson shows he has no interest in reuniting the country

Unable to respond to the crises in public health and the economy, Johnson has reverted to the divisive rhetoric of the pre-Covid era.

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Twice last week, Boris Johnson used the same word to denigrate Keir Starmer.

At Prime Minister’s Questions he called the Labour leader an “Islingtonian Remainer”. The following day, at an end-of-term meeting of the Conservative backbench 1922 committee, he called the leader of the opposition a “yo-yoing Remainer lawyer”.

Leave aside that the first of those slurs was a way of diverting attention from Starmer’s questions on an issue of paramount importance to this country, and one that the Prime Minister fails to take seriously: Russia’s possible attempts to subvert our democracy.

Or the fact that Johnson was himself an Islingtonian, having owned a five-storey Georgian house in Islington from 2009 until he sold it last year for £3.75m.

Or that Starmer’s pre-parliamentary career as a human rights lawyer and Director of Public Prosecutions was vastly more distinguished and worthwhile than Johnson’s as a mendacious and provocative newspaper columnist.

Or that Johnson is the yo-yoer par excellence: his recent U-turns include decisions on Huawei, school meal vouchers, junk food, the NHS surcharge on foreign employees, test-and-trace, face masks and remote voting for MPs.

What was truly disgraceful was Johnson’s employment of the word “Remainer” as a term of abuse. In doing so he revealed his disdain not just for Starmer, but for the 48 per cent of British citizens who voted to stay in the European Union in 2016.

He revealed that he was lying when he said in his New Year’s Message that “we in this One Nation Conservative government will never ignore your good and positive feelings of warmth and sympathy towards the other nations of Europe”, and when he stood outside Downing Street after winning last December’s general election and told Remainers: “I want to reassure you that I will be a Prime Minister for everyone, not just those who voted for me [...] More than that, I want to work with you, as friends and equals, as we build the future this United Kingdom deserves.”

Any halfway decent Prime Minister with an 80-seat majority would strive to heal a nation as bitterly divided as Britain was by the Brexit referendum. By using the word “Remainer” as an insult, Johnson does the exact opposite.

Beyond empty rhetoric he has done nothing to reach out to the 16 million people who voted Remain in 2016. On the contrary, he has compounded their dismay. He has pursued the hardest possible Brexit, repeatedly threatened to abandon negotiations with the EU, and refused to seek an extension to the transition period. He has frequently and needlessly antagonised those on the Continent who have been our friends and allies for the past 40 years. He has purged Europhile MPs from the Conservative parliamentary party and stuffed his cabinet with fervent Eurosceptics.

See also: Martin Fletcher on the incompetence of Boris Johnson's first year as Prime Minister

Nor has he done anything that would persuade Remainers that they were wrong in 2016. His “Global Britain” is a joke. On climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, counter-terrorism, Syria and the Middle East, Britain has all but vanished from the world stage, consumed by its own navel-gazing. Our influence in Brussels, Washington and other world capitals, and at multinational institutions such as the United Nations, is manifestly diminished.

“Take Back Control” has become another bad joke. Donald Trump tells us to exclude Huawei and we obey, because we can no longer afford to fall out with the US's unspeakable president. Alone, we are powerless to prevent China from curtailing Hong Kong’s freedoms, or Russia from pursuing its cyberwarfare and democratic disruption. Once a leading and influential member of a rich, powerful block of 28 nations, we are now isolated and adrift in an increasingly dangerous and unstable world.

Far from the sunlit uplands we were promised in 2016, the United Kingdom now looks increasingly likely to fragment. We have yet to conclude a single meaningful trade deal to compensate for our voluntary departure from the world’s largest free trade zone. Our economy had stalled even before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Brexit has sundered friends, family, young from old, urban from rural, region from region. Racist thugs feel empowered. The government assails the judiciary, the civil service, the BBC and other venerable institutions. Promotion to senior public sector posts is now conditional on loyalty and subservience, while expertise counts for nothing.

I do not know a single Remain voter who has changed his or her mind since 2016. We officially left the EU on 31 January, and I struggle to think of a single obvious benefit that has ensued. Freed from the rule of “unelected bureaucrats in Brussels”, we instead find ourselves at the mercy of Dominic Cummings.

Johnson no longer attempts to paint a compelling vision of post-Brexit Britain. The best he could offer during last December’s general election was “Get Brexit Done”, which made leaving the EU sound like a necessary chore, such as homework or the washing up. Only a tiny band of rabid ideologues still genuinely exults at the idea of Britain severing its ties with the Continent. Most people regard it as something we must do because we voted for it four long years ago, when the world was a very different place.

Johnson slags off Remainers not because they have been proved wrong, but because by disparaging them, he shores up his new base of aggrieved blue-collar workers in the north and the Midlands.

Those converts to Johnsonianism should be wary. They should ask themselves this question. Do they seriously think this Eton- and Oxford-educated Islingtonian, this champion of immigration and the City when he was mayor of London, this product of the capital’s media elite, gave a damn about their plight before Cummings told him it was electorally expedient to do so?

See also: Stephen Bush on the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

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