In the age of mobile phones which can so quickly be turned into covert recorders, the very idea of Chatham House rules ( the convention that a speaker at an event may not be quoted for what is intended to be off-the-record discourse) is somewhat suspect at best and extremely dangerous at worst. So Boris Johnson found out all for himself this week when he spoke at the Conservative Way Forward function.
Leaving aside the caddish behaviour of one of his audience, the lesson learned by Boris has had a positive aspect for the rest of us. We now know what we probably suspected all along. Boris has a degree of contempt for his Prime Minister, Theresa May, a visceral dislike of her Chancellor, Philip Hammond, and a huge admiration for the thuggish-ness of Donald Trump.
In relation to Brexit, he considers himself at war with Hammond’s Treasury which he regards as at the heart of the Remain movement. He considers that May is utterly weak in her negotiating strategy with the EU. He believes that a much more brutal strategy including flare-ups and walk-outs would be far more effective in obtaining concessions from the EU side. He believes that Trump-like ultimatums and willingness to threaten melt-downs in the negotiations would cow a nervous and divided EU 27 into giving the UK its wish-list demands and abandoning their own red lines.
Of course the differentiating factor between Boris and Donald is power. Donald has power; Boris does not.
And that is true at every level. Boris personally has little or no power; he cannot become PM in the short-run. If he destabilises Theresa May, he will probably be shown the door in the immediate term and lose any election for leader in the longer term.
He is also the hostage of the fixed-term parliament Act (of which Theresa May is the unlikely beneficiary). Neither she nor any hard-line replacement can force an early election. They are stuck with the Westminster arithmetic for the foreseeable future. Boris would be a very risky bet as leader for Tory MPs with marginal seats in the short-term or the long-term.
And the Westminster arithmetic is firmly against a hard Brexit favoured by Johnson, Gove and Rees Mogg. They have only about 15% support in the House of Commons.
On the question of the Irish border, Boris told his audience in confidence that it was “beyond belief” that the UK was allowing the “tail to wag the dog”. He referred to the economic issues arising from Brexit for Ireland as very “small”.
His alliance with the DUP is in fact the wilful political enthronement of the “tail wagging the dog” principle. He has signed up for it with his eyes wide open. London is, irony of ironies, subject, to a considerable extent, to “direct rule” from Enniskillen.
Boris would happily betray the DUP if he could advance his own interests by doing so. But for the moment he can’t. While the May administration needs the DUP to avoid being a minority government on a day-to-day basis, it is an effective minority government in the Commons and the Lords on the Brexit issue – with or without the DUP.
And so the categorical imperative of Tory party unity has marginalised Boris to the point where he was driven to his privately recorded indiscretions this week. And he is weakened by this exposure – not strengthened as the hard man of UK politics. The quiet Philip Hammond is, in gact, far stronger than Boris. He is in charge of the Treasury. Boris’s Foreign Office is excluded from management of the biggest foreign issue of the day;
So much for his domestic weakness. Trump has world power to wield; Boris doesn’t.
Trump has military and economic power. The UK is economically weak and militarily relevant only in so far as the US permits it to be. The UK cannot unilaterally impose economic sanctions on any other state or person.The problems with Aughinish Alumina on the Shannon estuary remind Ireland of the strength and reach of US sanctions and tariffs.
The only threatened UK sanction of recent times was that uttered by Jacob Rees Mogg to the effect that the UK should threaten to bankrupt Ireland if the EU would not make the concessions that he was demanding.
Militarily and geo-politically the UK is an important pillar of the Atlantic alliance. But that status would be completely undermined in a hard Brexit scenario.
The sad fact is that Britain has much more geo-political power and influence as a member of the EU than it will ever have on its own.
With any degree of deft politics and diplomacy, Britain could have excelled at the old game of leading an alliance of the Scandinavian, Baltic, Visegrad and Balkan states within the EU.
But the myopic foolishness of Johnson, Gove, Rees Mogg, and Farage has led the UK into a cul-de-sac, politically, economically, and militarily. Past glories have blinded them to opportunities for future greatness. They have sown the wind and must now reap the whirl-wind.
Perhaps the most instructive part of the leaked Boris Johnson remarks was his admission of admiration for the personality and methods of Trump. It rings true. Boris would love to “stand up” to the coalition of wops, degos, paddies, and pickle-eaters who are refusing to kow-tow to David Davis. He knows in his heart, as the bayonet-wielding Corporal Jones of Dads Army fame put it, that “they don’t like it up ‘em!”
It is all very well to appeal in an atavistic way to the Dunkirk spirit. But Dunkirk was a low point whose only bright side was that it could have been a whole lot worse.
Britain’s greatness from Dunkirk onwards lay precisely in Churchill’s recognition of their dependency on others. And it meant nothing until they were back on the Continent with their allies. Boris and his dining-club friends should ponder that reality.
And maybe, just maybe, some of them might begin to understand that it is they, rather than the Remainers, who are the real enemies of, and obstacles to, true greatness for England. Hammond is no latter-day Lord Halifax of “Darkest Hour” fame.
Boris emerges as more of a Captain Mainwaring set in Walmington-on-Sea than a rival with Trump for the title of political silverback of our age.