‘Let’s put the apostrophe into O’lympics” was the killer line deployed by a popular mayor of London courting the Irish community on St Patrick’s Day back in 2012. Happy days for a more charming and inclusive version of Boris Johnson than the one we witness today.
He took his time, on arrival in Downing Street, before telephoning the Taoiseach and Monday’s visit to Dublin felt long overdue. His previous visit was equally short, with the single aim of picking up a €58,000 fee for a speech. But Leo Varadkar should not underestimate his counterpart, nor the challenge he poses to Ireland, north and south, as prime minister. Mr Johnson is no fool, and he’s very clear about what he’s trying to achieve and what he’s prepared to do to deliver it.
A man dismissed as an incoherent clown, desperate to be liked, has shown a ruthless focus and determination since winning the Conservative leadership. A brutal cabinet cull was just the start.
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Then came proposals to suspend Parliament, the summary dismissal of a key aide to the chancellor and, most recently, mass expulsions of some of most respected MPs in his party. Parliament has taken the wind from his sails for now, but he has five weeks with little scrutiny and plenty of time to think creatively.
The sense of purpose as Mr Johnson pursued a no-deal departure from Europe was breathtaking. A semblance of handshakes and small talk with a couple of European leaders over the summer lightened the mood and implied there might yet be a compromise, but the plan was clearly to deliver a clean, swift break.
Mr Johnson has to think again after Monday’s manoeuvrings in Westminster but he’s still prepared to pay a high, messy price for departing.
What that might mean for Northern Ireland is well documented but largely dismissed by the people now running the UK. There are some creative ideas to avoid a hard border through trusted trader schemes and such things, but the bottom line is that the risks to the North of a no-deal departure do not weigh heavily enough with the current UK government to jeopardise its mission to leave the EU.
Neither does the prime minister care enough about the economic damage to Ireland to modify his overall approach. Such considerations barely feature in the Brexit debate in the UK and there’s a lot more focus on mitigating any impact on Dover than there is on avoiding the same issues in Holyhead.
That said, there are now three things that give Mr Varadkar some leverage. One is a genuine concern in No 10 that the Irish lobby in the US will get to the president and prompt Donald Trump to get his head around war and peace, the Irish backstop and the economic wellbeing of a country that 30 million or so Americans regard as their homeland.
Secondly, the wind is no longer in Mr Johnson’s sails. He has – at least for now – hit the doldrums. The most recent leverage comes with the appointment of Phil Hogan as EU trade commissioner, signalling a potential revival of the idea of an all-Ireland backstop.
In a high-stakes game of political poker, Mr Johnson has gambled everything – risking the historical humiliation of being the shortest-service prime minister ever if he lost. Faced with an opponent who was prepared to put that on the table, it’s no wonder his opponents seemed wrong-footed. But there was one major miscalculation. Mr Johnson and his inner core assumed that the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was so hungry for an election that he’d bite their hands off. Instead, he finally found common purpose with others at Westminster to put Mr Johnson in a bind.
In the past, Mr Johnson has relied on his charm to get out of many tricky situations, and his inimitable ability to connect with parts of the electorate usually immune to politicians may yet allow him to emerge on top of this challenge.
But the tone of this government has been less charm than menace. Persuasion has been replaced by abuse. Dominic Cummings – a pivotal figure in the Brexit campaign – has been allowed to stagger around Westminster, glass of wine in hand, telling elder statesmen that they are nobodies or they should “f*** off”. It was him who fired a special adviser to the chancellor without consulting him, and had her marched out of Downing Street by the police. Kicking out respectable rebels last week was the final straw – it seems – for Mr Johnson’s own brother Jo.
Pursuing an aggressive strategy in any walk of life is risky and if you do so it has to be watertight. When most of us stumble, if we’ve conducted ourselves well, we will be helped back to our feet. When you alienate your own, and dismiss anyone with a legitimate concern, reasonably conveyed, you shouldn’t be surprised if they leave you in the ditch.
The timing of this recent visit has therefore proved useful to the Taoiseach. A week ago he’d have been hosting a far more bullish Mr Johnson. This week he met a man relying on Mr Corbyn to blink to get to an election that even he will be a little less confident of winning. That said – one way or another, the UK is still heading for an election, and more than likely to be out of the EU in the next few months.
Guto Harri is a senior adviser with Hanover Communications and former spokesman and director of external affairs for Boris Johnson in his first term as London mayor.
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