Britain’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has wasted no time in telling Europe and the world that Britain wants to be somewhere else, writes Denis MacShane.
Denis MacShane is a former Europe Minister under Tony Blair and author of Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe published by IB Tauris in January 2015. He is a senior advisor at Avisa Partner, Brussels
Perhaps because she very nominally supported David Cameron’s Remain campaign – in much the same way as a rope supports the hanged man – she feels confident enough in appointing three men – a clown dubbed a ‘proven liar’, a man whose ministerial career ended two decades ago, and someone who had to resign from David Cameron’s government over a murky scandal – to be in charge of isolating Britain from Europe and telling the rest of the world this makes sense.
It shows a large generosity of spirit however and her belief that everyone should be given second and third chances and the concept of rehabilitation beats in her heart.
It is impossible to do justice to Boris Johnson, whose fabulations as a journalist in Brussels twenty-five years ago led his colleague, the current Diplomatic Correspondent at BBC News, James Landale, a fellow Old Etonian, also starting his journalistic career in Brussels at the time, to compose these lines:
Boris tells such dreadful lies
It makes you gasp and stretch your eyes
One of the champions of Brexit in the press, the Conservative writer and historian, Simon Heffer, has written that Johnson is a “proven liar”.
He began the EU Brexit campaign by saying that the EU was a Hitlerite creation, and insisted on one of the big lies of the Leave campaign that Turkey’s 75 million citizens were about to join the EU and soon arrive in Dover.
When it was pointed out that the UK, and 27 other member states could veto Turkey joining the EU and that is any case only a tiny number of clauses in the accession process had even been examined, Johnson waved all this away.
He is now in charge of UK relations with Turkey about whose President Erdogan, Boris penned a little “jokey” poem about sex and a goat.
A first job of a Foreign Secretary is to go and meet his opposite number in Washington and Johnson can travel on a US passport as he was born in New York.
During the Brexit campaign, he said that President Obama’s modest statement that a UK out of Europe might have difficulties concluding trade deals was inspired by the US leader’s ‘Kenyan ancestry’ which meant he had a grudge against the colonial British.
Around the world, even the most ugly of Obama’s foes has not stooped so low as to reflect on his colour and African heritage but in the Boris playbook all is permitted.
One has to feel pity for the ultra-smart officials of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who if they had existed in Roman times would have found it easier to deal with Nero appointing his horse to high state office.
Boris is notorious for cheating on his wife, on his Eton and Oxford comrade David Cameron, and on the truth. Books have been written on his record and now more will be.
He is charming and tells jokes faster than a Hollywood comedy scriptwriter. Once crossing the Central Lobby of the Commons with my friend, Timothy Garton Ash, Boris spotted us, looked up and said, “Good God. It’s Talleyrand and Metternich.” You can forgive a man much for that but a British Foreign Secretary should be un homme serieux on at least two days a week.
Sexit or See EU?
The Secretary of State for Exiting Europe – or in his FCO acronym – ‘SEXIT’ or ‘SEE EU’, is David Davis. Born in 1948 to a humble background, he was a sugar industry manager until entering parliament in 1992. He rose quickly under John Major, another man for whom the Tory Party was the ladder out of poverty. Davis became Europe Minister for the last years of Major’s unhappy administration. He cheekily wrote to the Prime Minister asking that his Europe Minister job be elevated to full cabinet rank. Now 20 years later he gets his wish.
Davis, like all obsessive anti-Europeans, speaks no European languages and makes his Brexit case in more measured, less excited language than others. He has twiddled his thumbs as a backbench MP spending his fifties and sixties in the limbo where British politicians of talent are parked if their party is out of power or the prime minister does not like them.
Davis stood against David Cameron to be Tory leader in 2005. They tied on the first ballot and there were 40 Tory MP votes that had gone to Liam Fox, another anti-European May has put in his cabinet.
In 2005, Fox offered his votes to whichever man – Cameron or Davis – would agree to pull the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party – the loose federation of centre-right parties like Merkel’s CDU or Rajoy’s PP which currently dominates Brussels, where both Jean Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk are EPP men.
David Davis told me that “I could not make the offer to quit the EPP. I didn’t like their federalistic leanings but I knew from my time as Europe Minister how much influence they had and how important it was for the Conservative Party to make its case inside the EPP family.”
David Cameron had no such scruples, promised the Foxites he would quit the EPP which he duly did in 2009, thus leaving London without political family contacts with EU power-brokers after 2010.
Davis is an engaging man. I have enjoyed hill-walking with him and he has offered personal support which he did not need to when I had troubles as an MP. A decent man and un homme serieux. But how does he handle Brexit negotiations? No-one knows. He has written superficially about concluding trade deals with the rest of the world – North America, China, Japan, India, Korea and then telling the EU they must permit the UK access to the Single Market but Britain need not meet a single reciprocal obligation but he has never explained how this will be achieved.
He had been pumping out Brexit arguments and anecdotes from the 1990s and will find quickly it is all much harder than he thinks.
The third member of the Brexit troika, Liam Fox, the new Trade Minister is a medical doctor from Scotland with a safe Tory seat near Bristol and was a devoted admirer of Margaret Thatcher, spending time with her in her sad, last years.
He had to leave Cameron’s government as Defence Secretary in 2011 over a sandal involving a close friend who had access to Fox’s security sensitive diary, attended meetings, and had business cards printed saying he was Fox’s adviser. It was poor judgement and Fox had to resign in disgrace. But he is a likeable man who has now been rehabilitated. Again, he will soon find that as he travels to Washington, Ottawa, Seoul and Tokyo that trade ministers there just do not know what to say to a UK that wants to leave Europe.
Every foreign capital that William Hague visited as Foreign Secretary (2010-2015), saw its balance of trade with the UK improve, as Hague and Tory trade ministers presided over the biggest balance of trade deficit seen in UK history.
Tariffs on Scottish whisky?
Can Fox reverse this? Can he persuade India for example to drop the 150% tariff it applies to Scotch whisky? After the announcement of May’s Brexit team, the pound at airports like Edinburgh and Bristol was buying just one euro so it may be argued that the UK has finally entered the eurozone.
The three laughing cavaliers of Brexit will now see if and what they can deliver. Their camp wants fast progress. Already over four million have signed an online petition to parliament for a second referendum. A march in London two weeks ago, say 60,000, marching to parliament demanding a re-think.
The Brexit camp has promised an economic nirvana once outside the EU. The signs this is about to happen are few and far between.
So the question emerges. Have Johnson, Davis and Fox been set up to fail? The Foreign Office will not know how to handle two chiefs of equal status – Johnson and Davis. Or perhaps they do and will send their political masters off on missions impossible to persuade the EU that the UK should have full single market access, keep $120 trillion volume of euro trades and clearing in London, but not have to respect a single EU treaty obligation like free movement of citizens or respect EU trade and other laws and directives.
Every EU leader from Merkel downward has said flatly that the UK cannot have its gateau and eat it. Will the new Foreign Secretary, who wrote in his Churchill biography of a “Gestapo-controlled Nazi EU”, really sway Merkel, Schäuble and Steinmeier?
May’s secret conspiracy?
Mrs May may be more of a Remainer than is realised and she is closer to the UK deep state than anyone else left in government other than her cynical but pragmatic Chancellor, Philip Hammond. Allowing free rein to fervent anti-Europeans to show they can deliver is smart initial politics in the aftermath of the plebiscite result.
Everyone agrees that the 23 June vote was won on the basis of massive lies not seen in European politics since the 1930s.
Now the men who won their plebiscite are in charge of turning their wishes into reality. They will soon confront the truth. And if they fail Mrs May can put her hand on her heart and say, “I tried, I tried. I let the anti-Europeans run the show. Now they haven’t delivered, Britain needs a rethink.”
It will win May the 2020 election, and that’s not a bad start from a Conservative point of view.