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28 August 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:23pm

Boris Johnson, the great attention-seeker

By Martin Fletcher

Boris Johnson managed to complete his first prime ministerial foray on the international stage last weekend with none of the gaffes or gratuitous insults that characterised his two excruciating years as foreign secretary. He visited Berlin, Paris and the G7 summit in Biarritz, and his bonhomie played well after the social awkwardness of Theresa May. For those small achievements, let us be grateful.

What else Johnson accomplished at this moment of national crisis is debatable. He talks glibly of creating a “global Britain”, but all that matters right now is agreeing the terms of Britain’s imminent exit from the European Union – and on that there was minimal progress. We instead witnessed a cynical exercise in blame evasion should Britain crash out without a deal.

Johnson dropped his previous refusal to discuss Brexit with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron until the EU agreed to abandon the Irish backstop, but only because he had to be seen to be trying to avoid a potentially catastrophic no-deal Brexit. His idea of negotiating, however, was to demand an end to the backstop without offering any alternative arrangements, and to threaten to withhold most of the £39bn divorce payment agreed by his predecessor.

For their part Merkel and Macron offered Johnson 30 days to deliver fresh ideas for avoiding the backstop, but only so he could not accuse them of “obduracy”. They have little expectation that acceptable ideas will be forthcoming.

And so to Biarritz, where the growing divergence between the US and EU on a whole range of issues – Iran, Russia, trade wars, climate change – was underscored by Macron’s decision not even to attempt an agreed communiqué.

Trump encouraged Johnson. He offered him “a very big trade deal, bigger than we’ve ever had with the UK” once it lost “the anchor round its ankle” of EU membership. He lavished praise on his British counterpart, declaring: “I really believe that Boris Johnson will be a great prime minister. We really like each other… he is very smart, he is very strong and he is very enthusiastic.”

Johnson revelled in the attention. He joshed and bantered with his new chum “Donald” in a way he did not with his European counterparts. But – aware of Trump’s unpopularity in Britain – he did not entirely succumb to the president’s embrace. He backed the Europeans’ opposition to Trump’s trade war with China and his desire to readmit Russia to the G7, albeit in the mildest possible fashion – registering “a faint, sheeplike note of our view on the trade war”.

In the longer term, however, such equivocation is scarcely sustainable. Post-Brexit Britain cannot be the “Atlantic bridge” that it was as an EU member. In a world increasingly dominated by great and diverging power blocs, a medium-sized nation such as Britain must choose its allegiance. And as it leaves the biggest free trade area that has ever existed, the gravitational pull of Trump’s US will only grow. Indeed, Brexiteers want the closest possible alignment with the US, but it is a course fraught with danger.

Trump’s mother came from the Outer Hebrides, and he may feel some residual affection for the UK, but he is certainly not backing Brexit because he believes it to be in Britain’s best interests. He is doing so because it would weaken the EU, and he regards the EU as a threat to US hegemony.

Nor will this predatory “America First” president give Britain some fantastic trade deal by way of a reward. Knowing Britain would be a supplicant, he would strike the hardest possible bargain.

Johnson might conceivably secure access to the US market for Melton Mowbray pork pies, but the US would demand unfettered access to the UK market for its giant auto, pharmaceutical and agri-food industries. We would increasingly become a part-owned subsidiary of the US, and that would require a fair degree of political subservience as well. Far from “taking back control”, this would lead to what Macron rightly calls a “historic vassalisation”.

The tragedy of Brexit is that much of the British public has never been told the value of belonging to a single market of 500 million people; or that we were a big, powerful member of the EU with plenty of allies, and that our membership consequently amplified our global stature; or that our influence in Brussels made us more, not less, useful to the US, while our close ties to the US enhanced our influence within the EU.

As we prepare to throw those benefits away, and as we prepare to cast our lot with the US instead of Europe, we will also be choosing one set of values over another. We will be choosing the unilateralist, nationalist, populist, bullying, xenophobic, dictator-appeasing, environmentally negligent values of Trump’s America over the progressive, tolerant, green, alliance-building, human rights-supporting values of those in our own continent who have been loyal friends and allies for the past half-century. 

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer

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This article appears in the 28 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler