BORIS Johnson used to entertain the world with his ruffled tomfoolery and verbal prestidigitation. How we laughed at the astonishing sight of a politician dangling from a zip-wire!
While sober heads counselled that such an impulsive character might not be best suited for serious policy decision-making, the desire for ‘something new’ overruled those doubters and swept him into office, first as Mayor of London and more recently as Foreign Secretary.
But with a Brexit disaster looking increasingly possible, it now turns out that the post he holds is incredibly significant with massive ramifications for the future of our country. The hilarity about Boris has long worn off and, sadly, the joke is on us.
Just look at the question of the threat to the Good Friday Agreement. For 20 years, it has governed a carefully balanced peace settlement between communities that for decades appeared irreconcilable. This peace deal ensures that a coalition of interests from Northern Ireland and the Republic can work in harmony through joint institutions and shared arrangements.
At present, there are several hundred crossing points and trade a deal that we disrupt at our peril. Yet, like a bull in a china shop, the ideological obstinacy of Boris Johnson risks smashing this settlement and reintroducing a ‘hard border’.
If goods, services and people can no longer move freely between North and South – because we have left the Customs Union and the Single Market – then the checks and inspections posts put in place will deeply offend those who thought that the days of being forced to choose were long gone.
The Good Friday Agreement gives the people of Northern Ireland the right to “identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both”. Borders disrupt that settlement. And publicly everyone was being told that the Prime Minister and her entire Government agreed.
Yet a leaked letter this week from Boris Johnson suggests that, privately, he thinks otherwise. The quotes from the leak suggest he believes it shouldn’t be the Government’s job to ensure ‘no border’.
This would clearly represent a seismic shift in Government policy. When Boris was confronted by Sky News journalists on his return from a morning jog in the snow, he breathlessly promised that the letter would show how simple it would be to overcome this border question, then urging the journalist to publish the whole thing and going further, promising to put it up online himself!
So should we be surprised that – despite that bluster – his Ministerial colleagues then told me when pressed in the Commons that, actually, it wouldn’t be published after all?
In the good old days, a promise by a Foreign Secretary to publish an official paper would be taken on trust. Was Boris deflecting with a false boast to that journalist who collared him about it? Or did he retract that promise in fear of the public finding out exactly what he advocates behind closed doors?
Either way, we are at a crucial moment in the Brexit saga and this is no time for buffoonery. Former Prime Minister Sir John Major is right to voice concerns that the Government’s ‘red lines’ are incompatible with continued inspection-free trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
In December, Theresa May promised us – and the EU 27 nations – that by now we would see the fabled ‘alternative solutions’ to full alignment with the internal Single Market. But we are left feeling that promise then was either just magical thinking, or more likely a classic example of warm words designed to kick the issue into the long grass. Well, we are shortly to arrive in that field of long grass because the deadline to make decisions is right here.
At the European Council meeting on March 22, thousands of British businesses employing millions of people are hoping that a ‘transition’ agreement will be met so we can avoid a ‘cliff edge’ Brexit with the UK falling out of the EU and onto World Trade Organisation rules in a year’s time. If we don’t get that transition deal, some of these international investors will initiate their contingency plans and start to relocate into EU jurisdictions to enable the continuity of their right to trade. The EU say that if we want a transition we need to agree to a ‘no border’ plan for Northern Ireland.
So the moment of truth has arrived – and our Foreign Secretary is a crucial player in this event. Can Boris suppress his personal ambitions to take over at Number 10 and stop playing to the hard Brexit gallery in the Conservative Party?
He and the Prime Minister will need to show some imagination and admit they are wrong about ‘divergence’ from the rules we share with our neighbours, rules we helped to write over the past 40 years.
For the sake of continued trade, economic growth and the Good Friday Agreement we have to hope that either common sense will strike Boris Johnson – or more likely that the Prime Minister finally recognises that the time for his embarrassing game-playing is over.
Chris Leslie is Labour MP for Nottingham East and a former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was MP for Shipley from 1997-2005.