Yesterday, on a beach at Normandy, a 93-year-old man fought back tears. He was remembering the friend who had died in his arms. He knew his friend had a three-week old baby.Harry Billinge was 18 when he landed on Gold Beach during the D-day landings. He said that as the boat approached the shore he saw the water turn red. “Don’t thank me,” he said, “and don’t say I’m a hero. I’m no hero. I was lucky. I’m here. All the heroes are dead.
Harry Billinge did not say what he thought of the man who landed at Normandy at 11am yesterday, in a military helicopter with his highly coiffed wife. He did not comment on the fact that that man had lied to get out of military service and used the opportunity to criticise some of his political foes. He didn’t say what he thought of the new world order, or of an American President whose only political interest is to put America first. “My generation,” he said, “saved the world”. And they did. Or at least, they saved our world. It isn’t at all clear who’s going to save our world now.
This week, the man who lied to avoid military service was greeted by the Queen. She was polite. She’s always polite. At a banquet at Buckingham Palace, she welcomed him, but she also said this. “After the shared sacrifices of the Second World War,” she said, “Britain and the United States worked with other allies to build an assembly of international institutions, to ensure that the horrors of the conflict would never be repeated. While the world has changed, we are forever mindful of the original purpose of these structures: nations working together to safeguard a hard won peace.”
It’s not clear whether Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States of America, took in those words, or if he even heard them. There are photos which seem to show he was asleep. But then this is a man who said on Tuesday that the NHS was “on the table” in future trade talks with the US, but didn’t seem to know what it was. The next day he said that it wasn’t “on the table”. It makes you think of the time he was talking about peace in the Middle East. “I am looking at two-state, and one-state” he said when asked about potential solutions. They were, he implied, pretty much the same.
His approach is the one that’s also taken by the man he wants to be our next Prime Minister. “I think Boris would do a very good job” he told a press conference earlier this week, in a breach of international protocol that has become routine. Boris Johnson agrees with him. He has always thought he would do “a good job” as Prime Minister. As a child, he wanted to be “King of the world”.
Last week, Boris Johnson said, in one of the speeches that have helped him earn nearly £700K in the last year, that he would ensure Britain left the EU on 31stOctober, “with or without a deal”. This week, at the hustings for the “One Nation” group of Tory MPs, which is meant to represent those Tory MPs who haven’t yet entirely lost their wits, he ruled out a general election. He ruled out a second referendum. He ruled out, in fact, every single solution to the Brexit problem within the “red lines” that he himself set out. He might as well have ruled out the laws of gravity or any action that wasn’t based on the world being flat. And Tory MPs loved it, of course. Even “moderate” MPs loved it. Even MPs who have sworn they would never serve in a Government under Boris Johnson are now swallowing their words as quickly as Trump swallowed his on the NHS.
He ruled out, in fact, every single solution to the Brexit problem within the “red lines” that he himself set out.
The reason? Oh, the reason’s clear. “We need to realise the depth of the problems we face,” he told the One Nation group. Well, yes, though some of us are so aware of the “depths of the problems” we face that we can’t actually sleep. But then it became clear that what Boris Johnson was talking about wasn’t mass job losses, or a long-term recession, or the collapse of the United Kingdom and a hard border in a place where, until relatively recently, there was a real, live, bloody war. He was talking about something completely different. “There is,” he said, “a very real choice between getting Brexit done and the potential extinction of this great party.”
What Boris Johnson cares about, or says he cares about, is the survival of a political party. He wants to save his party so he can save his skin. You might hope that Tory MPs would think that this wasn’t really the top priority when the country was facing the biggest crisis it had faced since the Second World War. Unfortunately, quite a lot of them seem to agree with him. What they really want is save their jobs. And they think he’s the man to do it.
The European Research Group has this week issued a 10-page plan for a “clean, managed Brexit”, by which it means a no-deal Brexit, which would leave us with the same trading terms as Afghanistan. For anyone who still hasn’t quite grasped what this means, it means that cars would face tariffs of around 10%, dairy products would face tariffs of around 35%, and there would be a tariff of 67% slapped on all exports of lamb. Any normal person might think this wasn’t a great idea, if, for example, you represented a party that was meant to be about preserving wealth. But the Tory party in 2019 doesn’t seem to give a flying unicorn about preserving wealth. The man who will probably be our next Prime Minister’s current policy in relation to business is, in his own words, to “fuck” it. And it’s a policy programme he seems to be following very well.
But the Tory party in 2019 doesn’t seem to give a flying unicorn about preserving wealth
It’s almost quicker to name the Tory MPs who don’t want to be Prime Minister than those who do, since practically everyone now seems to think that nothing could be more fun than to come up with a solution to Brexit that has literally eluded everyone else. So most of those who are in the running have simply ignored the problem. “We’ll just leave!” yell these armchair warriors. “We’ll make it pure! We’ll make it clean!”.
And so Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey, Mark Harper (no, I hadn’t heard of him either) and, of course, Boris Johnson, have all said that they would be willing to take the UK out of the EU without a deal. Most claim they would try to renegotiate the deal. Esther McVey doesn’t bother. She’d take the country straight to “no deal”, presumably because she thinks it sounds easy and popular. She also, by the way, thinks parents have the right to teach their children codes of behaviour which actually break the law. No one seems to think she’s a strong contender for Brain of Britain, but then all but two of the current candidates went to Oxford, and most of them seem to have a pretty slender grasp of reality, too.
It’s possible, I suppose, that the EU, which has been absolutely clear that it won’t renegotiate the withdrawal deal it spent more than two years drawing up, will suddenly tear it up and present a magical new solution, one perhaps where the Northern Irish border is policed by invisible angels playing harps. It’s just about possible, but it’s not all that likely. And so the options are what they always were: leave with May’s deal, leave with no deal, or let’s call the whole thing off. Since no one seems to think Parliament will suddenly vote to revoke Article 50, this means either a general election or a second referendum. Or going on our knees to ask for an extension.
Parliament will not allow the UK to leave the EU without a deal. This week, the Speaker, John Bercow, once again made that clear. But one potential Tory leader doesn’t care. On Wednesday, Dominic Raab said that he would be prepared to prorogue Parliament, in order to force a no-deal exit through. This means that he would literally shut down Parliament to ensure the UK left without a deal. It’s what Charles I did in 1629 when Parliament didn’t give him what he wanted, and what led to the last English Civil War. It didn’t end well, at least for Charles, who lost his head, and not just in the way that’s now completely normal for Tory MPs.
It didn’t end well, at least for Charles, who lost his head, and not just in the way that’s now completely normal for Tory MPs
If you were a Martian, you might find this all rather funny: to see a bunch of Oxford graduates strutting around and trying to outflank each other in their promises to deliver miracles and their macho disregard for the people, jobs and economy of the UK. I am not a Martian. I am, unfortunately, a British citizen and I can honestly say that this is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.
Where will it end? God only knows. The most likely option at the moment is that Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister of our country, but there’s no evidence that he has given any thought at all to what he will do once he’s placed his ample bottom on that throne. He knows that all the options he has suggested are unattainable. He knows he has boxed himself in. He doesn’t care. The man who once wrote a biography of Winston Churchill has decided he will wing it. We’ll all be on a zipwire. The only question now is when and if it’s cut.