Oh, the drama! The last-minute Christmas dash to Brussels! Can our hero make it to the airport before the plane takes off? In this particular rom com, of course, the ruggedly handsome prime minister is trying to get out of a long-term relationship, rather than save one, but I guess a leading man has to stick to playing his type.
Anyway, it’s Brexit, actually. It is an article of faith for the Tory Party that the best deals are negotiated at the last possible moment. And as deals in the real world involve compromises, it is vitally important that Boris Johnson is seen to be Trying Terribly Hard. Otherwise his troops, who are starting to have nagging doubts about whether he really is the man of iron principle that they told themselves he was last year, might wonder if he could have got a better deal if only he’d tried a bit harder.
So we’ve had the late night weekend phone calls, the suggestion that it’s all off, the chink of light and now there’s the final dash for dinner. Will they find a way through, or will he have to walk away? If only we’d seen this movie once or twice before, we’d have some idea. I don’t want to spoil things for people who are new to the franchise, but it’s unlikely that Brexit Talks: Resurrection will offer a dramatic shift from the formula.
We have Keir Starmer to thank for setting out the reasons why in Prime Minister’s Questions. It was very far from a vintage performance from the Labour leader, who suffered from having to isolate because of a Covid contact. He seemed stilted, unable to adapt to what Johnson said. The pair talked past each other in a series of poor exchanges. But there was still a small amount of enlightenment.
Tory MPs acted like they were at the panto, chortling and cheering away
The prime minister opened by greeting the Labour leader in “his vantage point of exile in Islington, his spiritual home.” It’s the kind of nice line that Johnson used to use in his Telegraph columns and, like his Telegraph columns, it was swiftly followed by a correction, with Starmer pointing out that he lives in Camden. Johnson on the other hand did live in Islington until his wife kicked him out, so when he tells us that everyone there is an out-of-touch elitist, I suppose we should take his word for it. Perhaps the lure of free public housing was what ultimately attracted Boris to Number 10?
Starmer wanted to know why this time last year Johnson had been telling people that there was “absolutely zero” chance of a no-deal Brexit. Johnson’s reply was that when he’d talked about an “oven-ready deal”, he hadn’t meant a trade deal, just the withdrawal agreement, though for some reason he hadn’t managed to make that clear during the election.
Let us pass over Starmer’s comment that the Withdrawal Agreement had been “the easy bit”, which makes me wonder whether he was also in isolation between 2016 and 2019, and instead look at the politics that his question revealed.
Johnson’s big promise to the electorate last year was that he would “get Brexit done”. If he doesn’t get a deal this month, Brexit will not be done and he will have failed. He and his MPs could Churchill away for weeks, but at some point, he would have to get on a plane back to Brussels. There is no particular reason to think that the EU would be more willing to compromise then than it is now, and quite a few ways in which a no-deal Brexit might make the government very unpopular. So the prime minister has good reasons to do what needs to be done now.
Indeed, a look at the Tory benches suggested that they know that. Downing Street may be trying to tell us that we’re watching a nerve-shredding political drama, but their MPs acted like they were at the panto, chortling and cheering away.
Johnson tried several times to push Starmer on whether Labour will vote for the deal he gets, but the more interesting question is how many Tories will.
Roy Jenkins once compared Tony Blair approaching the 1997 election to a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a slippery floor. Tory Brexiteers stare at Johnson’s handling of their precious Brexit as though he were a toddler using the same vase for a basketball game. In the coming days, they’re going to have to decide whether to defend what he brings back, or denounce it. Spare a thought for them, aware that only Johnson could have got them this far, but fundamentally unable to trust what he might do next.
Rachel Reeves, for Labour, articulated the problem quite well a few minutes later, as she interrogated Michael Gove about the government plan to put border checks into the Irish Sea in a way that Johnson had very much said he wouldn’t.
“Did the prime minister actually know what he had had signed up to last year, and then give false assurances to this House, or did he simply not care?” she asked. Come on, Rachel, it’s Christmas. Can’t we compromise and agree it was probably a bit of both?
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