In order to switch off from Brexit in the evenings, your correspondent has taken to re-reading his favourite novels. Yet there is no escape! At the start of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, we find the Oxford University Bollinger Club running riot and disrobing a fellow undergraduate, Paul Pennyfeather, who dashes across the quad stripped naked for the safety of his rooms. His fate is to fall into the hands of the college authorities and be “sent down” for indecent behaviour. Meanwhile, the perpetrators escape unscathed.
Now the Bollinger Club is obviously modelled on the notorious Bullingdon Club, to which David Cameron, Boris Johnson and George Osborne once belonged. And I cannot resist drawing the parallel between what the Bollinger Club do to Pennyfeather and what the Bullingdon trio have done to the country.
In Norma Percy’s BBC2 series Inside Europe: 10 Years of Turmoil, we recently heard the president of the European council, Donald Tusk, confirm a story that had been rumoured for some time: Tusk said that Cameron had told him he hoped that the Liberal Democrats would get him off the hook of the referendum commitment. He was expecting to have to form another coalition after the 2015 election, not to win outright.
When he did call the referendum, Cameron urged Johnson to support him on the Remain campaign. As Simon Walters reported in the Daily Mail in 2017, that intrepid Remainer Lord Adonis also asked Johnson whether he would back Remain, saying: “The biggest British failure in Europe has been our failure to show leadership since Margaret Thatcher. You are obviously the right person to do that.” To which Johnson apparently replied: “Yes, but I’m not sure I can bear the thought of backing Cameron.”
I go back to this report, which I checked with Adonis, for an obvious reason. Like it or not, and I certainly don’t, Johnson is regarded as a charismatic politician, and the favourite candidate of the sado-Brexiters’ wing of the Tory party to take over the party leadership if and when they finally oust the prime minister, who has humiliated herself and the nation by kowtowing to them.
Johnson likes to think he is a modern Churchill. But Churchill was not averse to changing his mind, boasting on at least one occasion of having “ratted” and “re-ratted”.
Is it beyond the bounds of possibility that Johnson may re-rat, recognise that the mere prospect of Brexit is causing serious economic damage, and acknowledge the error of his ways? I am probably fantasising, but it would be interesting if Johnson, by far the favourite Tory of his party’s rank and file, could take them with him. (I hear, by the way, that this being the strange country it is, Johnson’s “toff” image goes down well with non-Tory Brexiters.)
But back to reality: we now have the Conservative chief whip, Julian Smith, warning his colleagues that if they don’t support Theresa May’s so-called “deal”, there is a danger that there may be a soft Brexit – or, quelle horreur!, no Brexit at all.
Imagine: it might be possible to remain with the best of both worlds: our present status within the EU, membership of the customs union and the single market, and freedom from closer political union. As Jon Davis and John Rentoul write in their reassessment of the Blair years, Heroes or Villains?: “The European single market, legislated for by Thatcher, and its opening up, driven forward under Blair, was good for the British economy, and a factor in turning the UK from the sick man of Europe into one of its more dynamic and successful economies.”
That was then. As the OECD pointed out last week (in more polite language), the British economy is now a disaster zone. When Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, is reported as saying “no-deal damage would be less than we feared”, Brexiters try to make us think this is somehow great news.
We are now told that immigration, May’s obsession, is no longer considered a big issue by the public: the message is getting across that this economy depends heavily on immigrants, many of whom are causing alarm in the NHS by planning to abandon these shores because they no longer feel wanted.
As that doyen of New York Times commentators, Roger Cohen, observes: “‘Fantasy Brexit’ was based on lies, like the imminent invasion of 80 million Turks … Now Britain has had a three-year crash course in ‘Reality Brexit.’”
This government does not know what it is doing or where it is going. We are told there will be a “transition period”. But as Carney said to the Lords economic affairs committee last week: “Transition is knowing where you are headed, not wondering.’’