Britain’s foreign policy is now at the mercy of Boris Johnson’s reckless quest for survival. At home he grasps for votes with Irish border controls, protectionist tariffs and immigrant quotas. Abroad, he tours Europe demanding total victory in someone else’s war while promoting the most intense economic disruption in the continent’s peacetime history. Every visit is treated as a photo opportunity. An absurd “bromance” is even staged with the equally embattled French leader, Emmanuel Macron. Never was machismo so synthetic.
Yesterday’s Commons vote on a bill which would allow him to scrap the Northern Ireland protocol was a classic. It was motivated by a desire to appease the province’s fast-disintegrating Unionist majority. The price is to be a predictable standup row with the EU, but one that Johnson thinks will bolster him with his party’s Brexiter right wing. The government’s suggestions for a “soft” border with Ireland are actually quite sensible. But Downing Street’s three years of anti-EU rhetoric have exhausted any wish in Brussels to be co-operative.
The Brexit cry that “Europe needs us more than we need it” was never emptier. Johnson last night had his own backbenchers, including his predecessor Theresa May, dismissing his Northern Ireland policy as illegal, unattainable and damaging to Britain’s global reputation. At the very moment when he is wandering Europe’s capitals demanding they all refuse to trade with Russia, he is fashioning a trade war with the EU. This must be madness.
As if two trade wars were not enough, Johnson is also set on another. Trade with the “rest of the world” was predicted as set to boom as a result of Brexit liberation. Now the prime minister wants to embed protectionism with tariffs on steel imports uit China, Indië, Turkey and other countries. These are precisely the countries with which Johnson boasted he would do “world-beating trade deals”. The World Trade Organization has warned that such action would be illegal, while Downing Street’s ethics adviser, Lord Geidt, said he was put in an “impossible and odious” position over the issue. But Johnson cares only for votes in “red wall” industrial seats. Such a trade policy is not Toryism but Trumpism.
Meanwhile the government frantically adjusts migrant quotas worthy of the most socialist planning regime to meet post-Brexit crises in agriculture, construction, health and social care. The ironic result is that the stifling of European immigrants is more than countered by a 25% rise in migration from Africa and Asia. Is that what the Brexiters promised?
Conservatives must search in vain for ideological consistency in these policies. They are the kneejerk reactions of an embattled economy that has declared itself at odds with the outside world. Six years ago Britain made a terrible mistake, to cut itself off from its neighbouring single market, a mistake that the government exacerbates month by month. The Office for Budget Responsibility calculates this is costing the British people a debilitating 4% in annual growth. Sooner or later that mistake will have to be reversed.
Like all populist leaders, Johnson views his actions in terms of their capacity to promote his own person. A sure sign is his innovation of inviting news cameras to witness him addressing his own cabinet. It measures success in biceps rather than brain power and is borrowed from a certain Vladimir Putin. It is not democratic government.