Sometimes even us news junkies have to look away. I could not bring myself to examine the three letters that Boris Johnson sent to the EU about the Brexit delay. Not least, that is, because the substantive one requesting a necessary extension to the Article 50 process was supposed to be “just a photocopy” of the relevant section of the Benn Act. The refusal to sign the thing, the accompanying (signed) note attempting to undermine it... it was something I’d thought couldn’t happen. It was just too embarrassing to confront. It’s the most internationally shaming thing since the Brexit clowns turned their backs on the European Parliament. International shame.
It was so juvenile. It was as if Johnson had his fingers crossed behind his back, or added the word “Not!” after giving the text to the diplomats. Or shaking his head and doing the internationally recognised wanker gesture to mark the historic moment before retiring to his boudoir with a bottle of red and convivial company to salve his bruised ego. Maybe he did. I’d not put anything past him.
Still when I did glimpse the main document it was not in fact quite as it was spun. Although framed with inverted commas – a peculiarly student politics type touch – and not bearing the prime ministerial moniker, it was in fact a proper letter, and not a tatty photocopy of a page of the legislation. So that was another lie put out by Downing Street.
The absent signature is also legally irrelevant. And there is no challenge in the courts by the government to demonstrate that the Benn Act can be trumped by EU law and nor is there any sign of any of the other judicial reviews hinted at by the Johnson operation. There was no cunning plan to get us out by October 31st. All, shall we say, spin.
None if it should detract or distract from the fact that yet another Boris Johnson promise has been broken. He said he would not ask for an extension. He has asked for an extension. He says we would leave on 31st October. We won’t.
Like Donald Trump – another man of letters – someone should be keeping a count of the broken promises and misleading remarks Johnson has made since, well, when and where to begin? Since he was at school, and then as a journalist and politician, it seems he has had a tricky relationship with the truth. From regulations about kippers and straight bananas to the border down the Irish Sea and the £350 million for the NHS on that bus he will say anything to anyone, anytime, anyplace. He is the all-purpose Martini of political deception. He is the world king of dissembling.
Now, though he has gone full Trump. The lies are one thing, the stubbornness and buffoonery in high office another. Those letters mark a fresh low.
Always a rather spoilt man, Johnson’s silly stunts and stubborn childishness, like Trump’s, is becoming a motif of his government. The reactions too are paralleled. There are threats to take both to court. Johnson has even been threatened with a charge of misconduct in a public office, the nearest thing we gave to presidential impeachment.
Like the Trump White House, Number 10 is a seething, unstable mass of competing egos, where the boss neither knows nor cares what is going on (Johnson reportedly knew nothing about Dominic Cummings sacking the chancellor’s staff or sending a lengthy written Brexit briefing to a journalist). There is the same swagger, the same contempt for the Commons as Trump reserves for Congress, and especially speaker Bercow/Pelosi’s challenges to his untrammeled authority.
There’s the same distrust of the law and lawyers not in his own pay. And then there's the personal attitude to women, which we know all too well, but live in fear of fresh revelations. Both Trump and Johnson enjoy teasing the “fake news media”, including, in Johnson’s case, the “Brexit Bashing Corporation”. Both men lack any moral compass, and have few real friends, and may not even actually like each other that much. Remember what Johnson used to say about not wanting to go to New York for fear of bumping into Trump?
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So we can see it in plain sight, this Trumpification, this infantilisation, of British politics in style and, more worrying, in substance. The transatlantic echoes are striking – people versus elites, with a rich and deeply establishment figure bogusly pretending to be the little people’s ally, their friend.
What is so strange is that so many at the top of politics believe Johnson even now. There are some remarkably decent but disappointingly trusting figures on both sides – Caroline Flint in Labour and the Spartan Mark Francois on the Tory benches, for example, who want to take Johnson at his word. They cannot both be right about the guy, after all. They can both be let down. Ask the DUP. Ask Theresa May. Ask anyone who’s worked with him in the foreign office or City hall. Ask the old Etonians. Ask his editors. Ask the Queen. Ask the Vienna journalist who shared a dinner table with him. He is not to be trusted. Most MPs are not foolish enough to do so – hence the safeguards against a no-deal Brexit they are imposing on him. In the absence of trust, this is how politics ends up.
Famously, an Eton housemaster spotted early on Johnson’s tendency to believe rules were not for him, and it remains one key to his character. Someone else who can claim to know Johnson of old is David Cameron, who likens him to a “greasy piglet”. Well, the greasy piglet keeps trying to get loose and he needs an especially strong pen to keep him in. Ignore his squeals though – he’s still enjoying himself in Number 10, like a pig in s**t.