Saying the quiet part out loud

Sunday National, 17th October 2021.

All Dominic Cummings did was say the quiet part out loud. Reflecting on the UK government’s ongoing efforts to rat on the international obligations it voluntarily entered into in the EU withdrawal agreement, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff suggested that “cheating foreigners is a core part of the job.” Only “SW1 insiders infantalised by EU membership” could think otherwise – because real men always lie. Europe is still full of Talleyrands and Metternichs, looking to stitch up Blighty. A freeborn Englishman’s task is to rook the buggers unsentimentally.

Cummings has form for this kind of macho bravado, but his message wasn’t a world away from the one Boris Johnson’s Brexit plenipotentiary shared with an audience in Portugal this week. Lord Frost had a range of moans for our European counterparts. “We look at the EU and see an organisation that doesn’t seem to want to get back to constructive working together, he griped. “We are constantly faced with generalised accusations that can’t be trusted and are not a reasonable international actor” he lamented. (I can’t imagine why.)

But Frost came to Lisbon with a threat too. Unless the EU reopens the Northern Irish protocol, he said, the UK government will contemplate using Article 16 of the agreement to suspend the rules it signed up to. Article 16 isn’t a full break clause. It allows either side – unilaterally but temporarily – to suspend elements of the Northern Irish protocol if it generates “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade.” The ink may still be wet on the agreement, but now Frost wants to rip it up and start again. In January 2020, the deal was “fantastic” and “final”.  Months later it is provisional, debatable, just a first draft.

You can understand the scepticism this has provoked from the EU side. This is the international equivalent of signing your divorce settlement, kidnapping the family shih tzu and attempting to reopen talks on who gets to keep the dog while trying to persuade your ex-wife that she’s the one being unreasonable.

Considering the Tories have stoked political tensions in Northern Ireland for years, considering Boris Johnson is personally implicated in making then dishonouring impossible promises about how Brexit would be delivered, it is astonishing that his mouthpiece is touring European capitals suggesting the protocol “has completely lost consent in one community in Northern Ireland,” as if this outcome had nothing to do with the way the Tory party used then discarded unionist rhetoric and votes when it suited their political purposes. Good faith is the last thing in the world this government has demonstrated.

Frost also sought to challenge the idea the Tory party is still enjoying these opportunities to be rude to foreigners. “We can’t help taking it with a pinch of salt when we are told that the EU has stopped thinking about the UK and it is we who are still obsessed with Brexit,” Frost explained. “Actually we are not – there is no electoral dividend in endlessly talking about Brexit – quite the reverse. That is why the PM barely mentioned it in his Party Conference speech last week.”

Quite who Baron Frost means by “we” here is not obvious – but as political analysis goes, this is almost comically obtuse. Frost is an old enough Foreign Office hand to know that it wasn’t the tortuous process of leaving the EU which powered Tory sentiment, but low-level, little England xenophobia. It was always this rather than the technical debates about Brexit which was catnip for the Tory base and their newspapers of choice.  

And it remains as valuable as ever. More so, arguably, as the material challenges of Brexit accumulate. “FRENCH THREAT TO SINK XMAS” howled the front page of the Daily Mail last week, accompanied by tips on “how to survive the big squeeze” of “soaring prices and tax hikes.” Surprisingly, “don’t vote Tory” didn’t make the final cut from their financial agony aunt.

The next line of Frost’s speech shows he clearly understands this, telling his audience that what “we” see when we look at the EU “is an organisation that doesn’t always look like it wants us to succeed.”

If all this feels very familiar – it should. It was on the 1st of November 1990 when the Sun ran its famous front page bearing the legend “Up yours Delors!” accompanied by a traditional archer’s salute, a union flag, and a slew of accusations about the perfidy the then President European Commission had visited on the plain people of Britain, from banning British beef to “flooding the country with dodgy food.” Monsieur Delors was, as some older readers may remember, one of Mrs Thatcher’s bêtes noires, and regularly received the sharp end of her tongue towards the tail end of her tenure in Downing Street. Little has changed.

In the absence of a real war with the French – which seems like a point of regret for some members of the governing party and op-ed writers – successive Tory politicians have tried to burnish their credentials at home through confected conflicts with their European counterparts. As Lord Frost well understands, it is this rather than Brexit per se which the Tory party have bottled and sold to the British public, while the Prime Minister and senior members of his government make obviously disingenuous speeches about Britain’s good faith and plain-thinking pragmatism aboard.

After 30 years and more of this stuff – under a man-child Prime Minister who made his name in journalism by inventing entertaining lies about Brussels – we’re supposed to believe that leaving the EU is the moment which will help Britain grow up and grow out of its John Bullshit? Pur-lease.

The last half decade in British politics has – if anything – seen a wholesale revival in this kind of “luftwaffle” nostalgia in British public life. It is used both to justify and excuse the UK government’s actions and inactions. It works as both a sword, and shield. Earlier this week, a well-heeled Times columnist who used to write David Cameron’s speeches assured us that a cold winter of shortages, tax rises, benefit cuts, empty shelves, rising prices and massive hikes in energy bills was just a jolly opportunity for Best of British stoicism in the face of adversity.

Clare Foges suggests “we have got used to a degree of chaos during the pandemic and many secretly enjoy the chance to show some Blitz spirit.” Apparently “we like to believe that nobody keeps calm and carries on like us, and a winter of missing turkeys, cars running on fumes and gentle chaos is our chance to prove it.” What a jolly jape freezing to death in your own home is. Put up the bunting, mother: we’ve no food for the children tonight. Had your universal credit cut to the last copper penny? Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye. Crass insensitivity barely covers it.

Whether or not the UK is still in the EU, the political utility of Tory ministers insulting the Belgians and reminding the Germans “who won the war” is completely undiminished. Political parties rarely discard the stories which propelled them to power. Why should the Tories give up on it now? In victim fantasy island, you pack up your troubles in your old kit bag – and blame the French.

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