My Irish mother taught me always to try to see the good in people. But it has to be admitted that the attempt to see the good in Alexander “Boris” Johnson would, in another of her favourite sayings, “try the patience of Job”.
It is already a commonplace in this country and around the civilised world that our prime minister is a charlatan on an industrial scale. John Major knew what he was about when declaring, as a prime minister himself, that Johnson should not even be allowed to fight a parliamentary seat.
The late Lord Carrington resigned as foreign secretary on principle over the fiasco that led to the Falklands war in 1982 – the war generally thought to have saved Margaret Thatcher’s skin after she’d achieved the dubious distinction of being the most unpopular prime minister since the second world war. Many years later, Carrington found himself listening to some young-fogey Tories discussing the case for making Johnson prime minister. There was a pause. “Anyway,” said the good Lord, “he won’t do.”
There are some Johnson loyalists who say he should do the decent thing and resign as honourably as he can in the circumstances. But most witnesses to the sorry spectacle of his premiership think he couldn’t spot a decent thing even if it were a favoured horse running in the 3.30 at Newmarket.
I am reminded of Dostoevsky’s short story A Bad Business. Things go badly wrong when the general, whose driver has disappeared, turns down a lift from a colleague and heads off into the night, with unfortunate repercussions. It has been a Bad Business since Johnson, who – notwithstanding his irresponsible reporting of fantasy stories about Brussels – was in no doubt that it would be crazy for the UK to leave the EU, but decided to put self-interest above country in leading the mendacious Leave campaign.
But “here we are”, as Harold Macmillan once said, “and the question is: where do we go from here?”
Macmillan was prime minister when the British economy was lagging behind what was then the European Economic Community. We tried forming a rival group – the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), seven nations as opposed to the EEC Six. The joke was that Europe was “at sixes and sevens”.
It soon became apparent that we needed to link up with the EEC. We applied twice, were turned down by President de Gaulle, and finally joined in 1973. Now I have an awful feeling of deja vu.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves talk about “making Brexit work”. I can only hope that this is tactical stuff intended to appease “red wall” voters, who were really protesting at the social consequences of several decades of industrial decline – and, let’s face it, the well-meant but disastrous Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
It looks as though Labour’s defeated Remainers envisage a return to the 1950s and early 1960s, to begin the process of “rebuilding a relationship with the EU” – a process whose logical outcome would be rejoining in decades to come.
But why wait? Why should Labour attach itself to the chimerical goal of “making Brexit work?” For the truth that dare not speak its name is that Brexit doesn’t work, and never will. The experiment has been tried – and has failed. All this stuff about the “opportunities of Brexit?” There are none. Johnson may have packed his sordid cabinet with Brexiters and time-servers, but the all-party public accounts committee is beyond the reach of his soiled hands. As its chair, Dame Meg Hillier, was reported as saying in the Financial Time: the only detectable impact of Brexit is “increased costs, paperwork and border delays”.
There was a classic moment on television last week when a lorry driver held up in one of those dreadful queues on the Dover road was asked: “Is it going to get any better?” His reply was to the point: “Not unless we go back into the EU.”
Now, I read that it suits Labour, while protesting against him all the way to the electoral bank, to see Johnson remain in office. But, to paraphrase Carrington above: this won’t do. The man has besmirched the office, and the good name of the country. One of the Brexit secretaries who failed “to make Brexit work” – because it can’t – is my old friend David Davis. He was right to echo Cromwell and say to Johnson: “In the name of God, go!” Even if Johnson were to be succeeded by another Brexiter, there are no morally cogent grounds for acquiescing in his continuance in office.
I cannot resist concluding with yet another quotation from the Roman poet Juvenal: “I want this, so I order, it will be for a reason.” (“I want this done, so I order it done: let my wish replace rational judgment.”) This epitomises our present prime minister’s mentality. A nation suffers.