If there was ever a week in British politics which demanded the utmost tact, a delicate combination of steel and charm, then this was it.
Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, made what will undoubtedly be one of the most significant statements of public policy in recent British history, as she took to a stage before a cast of international diplomats and media at one of Britain’s former royal palaces, Lancaster House, to announce that as part of Brexit, the UK would be leaving the European single market, in order to end free movement of people across its borders.
Concluding with a warning that any attempt to ‘punish’ Britain for leaving would be an act of ‘calamitous self-harm’ on the European Union’s part, it was, many felt, a well-calibrated address.
Even some Remainers, who never wanted the future that Mrs May is promising, felt that as Brexit is happening anyway, this was at least the right way to do it.
The delicate meniscus of European co-operation was just about holding, with Britain’s European counterparts welcoming some clarity from May on the issue. All was going as well as could possibly be expected under the circumstances.
Until Boris Johnson, Britain’s characterful Foreign Secretary, got stuck in.
Johnson went on Indian TV—he was in India on a trade mission—and, disgracefully, compared the French to prison guards in a World War II movie administering punishment beatings.
Johnson said, in unscripted remarks during a TV interview, “If Mr. Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who seeks to escape the EU, in the manner of some World War Two movie, I don’t think that is the way forward, and it’s not in the interests of our friends and partners.
“It seems absolutely incredible to me that in the 21st century member states of the EU should be seriously contemplating the reintroduction of tariffs or whatever to administer punishment to the UK.”
Johnson’s remarks went down like a bag of sick in Europe, instantly destroying whatever positive reception there had initially been to May’s speech.
The EU parliament’s chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt was a typical representative of European opinion when he described the comments as “abhorrent”.
As incredible as it may seem, this is not the first time Johnson has sought to draw a parallel between the EU and Nazi Germany. During the referendum campaign, Johnson compared the EU’s ambitions to those of Adolf Hitler.
Indeed, Johnson has long thrived off making outrageous and offensive comments. Hard as it may be to believe, Britain’s foreign minister, the UK’s chief diplomat, is a man who once described, in print, Africans as having “watermelon smiles.”
Boris began his working life as a newspaper reporter covering the EU for the highly Eurosceptic Daily Telegraph before becoming Mayor of London. He then knifed his old Bullingdon club chum David Cameron by backing Brexit—his intervention is credited with tipping the Leave campaign into victory—before being politically assassinated himself by his erstwhile Brexit ally Michael Gove in the leadership contest which took place after Cameron, humiliated by the referendum result, stood down.
Boris’s private life is even more fascinating than his public life. When he was editor of the British political weekly Spectator it was dubbed the Sextator by wags as he and many of his other staff embarked on a series of well-publicized affairs. Boris allegedly got the columnist Petronella Wyatt pregnant, and paid for her to have an abortion.
He is married (to a senior lawyer, Marina Wheeler) and has four extravagantly named children—Milo, Theodore Apollo, Lara Lettice, and Cassia Peaches—with her.
He has another child as the result of another affair, details of which he sought—in vain—to prevent being published in the British media.
Johnson has over the years tried—and succeeded—in laughing off his offensive comments, which have seen him apologize to whole cities (Liverpool) and even countries (Papua New Guinea).
He’s had to apologize for running articles that claimed black people had lower IQs and that African-American NBA players had “arms hanging below their knees and tongues sticking out,” he attacked Obama as a “part-Kenyan president” and accused Donald Trump of “stupefying ignorance.”
In truth he has more in common with Trump than he may care to admit. Johnson previously got away with a lot of this owing to his clubbable manner, and his disarming habit of using terribly British expressions of enthusiasm, such as “Crumbs,” “By Jove,” and “Golly” to illuminate his policy viewpoints.
His disheveled appearance—crumpled suits and chaotic hair— has become an unlikely trademark, communicating, one assumes he hopes, authenticity as opposed to saccharine spin.
Remarkably, Johnson has not merely survived this latest self-induced disaster, but actually emerged from it emboldened.
The Prime Minister let it be known she had “full confidence” in him, and her spokeswoman said Johnson was merely, “making a theatrical comparison to movies” with his offensive words.
Disturbingly, if not surprisingly, the Daily Express newspaper opined the Europeans are acting like wartime prison camp guards.
The Brexiteers argument was encapsulated by Johnson when he told an Italian minister that the EU ought to let free trade between the EU and the UK continue or they would “sell less prosecco.”
Johnson and his cheerleaders seem to delight in wilfully missing the point that the EU is primarily a political project, not a financial one.
As Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, a country which is essentially friendly to the UK and currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency said after May’s speech: “We want a fair deal for the UK, but that deal needs to be inferior to membership. This should not come as a surprise. Thinking it can come otherwise indicates a detachment from reality.”
Detachment from reality is exactly where the UK government is, where the Brexiteers are and why bumptious Johnson is the perfect Foreign Secretary for the new Little England.