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Relegation’s too good for Boris Johnson and his team of Brexit fantasists

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/AFP/Getty Images

It turns out that throughout the Brexit discussions with the British government, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, was keeping a diary. That he managed to do this at the end of days of usually frustrating talks says something for Barnier’s staying power. And to judge from speculation about the next French presidential election, he intends to stay around for some time.

His diary has been published in France. Surprise, surprise: with one or two exceptions, the British side does not come too well out of what our football commentators would call “the Frenchman’s” reflections.

From the moment our first secretary for Brexit, my old friend David Davis, turned up in Brussels armed with a few pieces of paper, and faced Barnier’s heavily prepared team, carrying volumes of material, the die was cast: the EU had the upper hand and, for all we know, Davis’s negotiating paper could have been a copy of the Times crossword.

It has been abundantly clear ever since that, unlike Chelsea and Manchester City, the British team representing Theresa May and then one Boris Johnson were never in the Champions League. As for Lord Frost, I think he ranks way below my team, AFC Wimbledon.

Brexit done? Like hell has it been done. Brexit is unravelling all over the place. British fishing crews are being told at Calais that they can keep the fish over which they have regained control, as the blockades go up. Commentators are saying, now that we have “regained control”, that we need more immigrants to fill the gaps in the labour force of the construction and hospitality sectors.

The fact that complaints about immigration were among the factors contributing to the Brexit vote is neither here nor there. The Cummings/Johnson/Gove campaign was always a nonsense; but, alas, it turned out that, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, you could fool some of the people some of the time.

The 'bureaucracy of Brussels' was largely a myth. Now we do have bureaucratic delays to normal business, as a direct consequence of Brexit

The zealots who fooled far too many of the people did not even understand the consequences of their great “victory”.

While our elected representatives fool around negotiating trade deals that are but a pale shadow of what we used to enjoy in the EU, our exports to the continent have taken a dive, and the normal flow of imports continues to be seriously disrupted. The “bureaucracy of Brussels” was largely a myth. Now we do have bureaucratic delays to normal business, as a direct consequence of Brexit.

Talking of bureaucratic delays brings me to another book on our relations with the rest of Europe, by the London-based French journalist Tristan de Bourbon-Parme. Like Philip Stephens in Britain Alone – which I recommended recently – the author covers UK relations with our neighbours since 1945, culminating – or reaching a nadir – in Brexit.

However, to please his publishers, De Bourbon-Parme had to get our dreaded prime minister into his title: Boris Johnson, Un Européen Contrarié. The English version is Boris Johnson – a Frustrated European, the author’s view being that Johnson is a “cultural European” but can’t stand the EU. (By the way, they can be forgiven for not standing him.)

Which brings us to yet another triumph of the time-wasting bureaucracy of Brexit. Whereas Barnier’s book almost certainly presents a partial view of the Brexit negotiations, De Bourbon-Parme has conducted extensive interviews with both sides. But we cannot read it yet: the consignment sent to the UK has been held up at Customs and Excise for the past three months. That’s taking control for you.

An obvious area of interest for De Bourbon-Parme is the debacle over Northern Ireland. He believes a fundamental error was for the negotiators to concentrate too much on the concerns of the republicans, and not enough on those of the unionists. The resulting chaos is far from being resolved; but, as the EU’s ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida, has pointed out, the fundamental problem is not the much-discussed protocol, but Brexit itself.

In lying his way through the Northern Ireland “deal”, Johnson should have paid more attention to Sir Walter Scott’s great line: “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.”

Which brings me to a famous dictum from another Scottish author. Amid the speculation about another independence referendum, I wonder whether, in their hearts of hearts, Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues worry about the words of Robert Louis Stevenson.

The situation is that the UK is suffering economic harm from Brexit. Scotland, it appears, is a lot more “European” than England. But, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, by leaving the UK to rejoin the EU Scotland would also suffer economic harm. Is this a case where, as Stevenson wrote, “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive?”