Big Bozza is not watching us

Cuts are increases. Good deals are bad

“We have to stick to what we agreed.” Maroš Šefčovič, vice president of the European Commission, had the weary, baffled air of a man who had spent the morning negotiating with Boris Johnson’s government.

At his press conference in London, he sighed deeply before answering each question, sometimes between sentences. One sensed this was a career diplomat who had thought he understood how the world worked. People made agreements and stuck to them. Sometimes they broke them, of course, and he understood that, too. But to see someone make a deal, call it a triumph, and then immediately denounce it as unworkable was, well it was new, and a little unsettling.

Šefčovič, a Slovak, began his career under Communist rule, which ought to have prepared him for dealing with a one-party state where a capricious ruler leads a cult of personality. He should, surely, feel at home learning border checks aren’t checks, that forms aren’t paperwork, that deal means no deal.

“The UK has to abide by its legal obligations,” Šefčovič said, several times, though there was an edge of doubt in his voice that hinted at several hours spent in a room with people who clearly disagreed on this point.

He seemed particularly baffled by the current row over sausages and the implementation of checks on meat crossing the Irish Sea. It had been the subject of much discussion during the triumphant and disastrous negotiations of Johnson’s brilliant and terrible Brexit deal. The EU side, he said, had asked the UK: “Will you manage? Will it be enough time? And they assured us, ‘yes.’”

There was a tiny sigh. “Therefore, we were so surprised when the first bunch of unilateral actions came.”

The sketch sympathises, really it does, but people are just going to have to stop being shocked when Boris Johnson blithely ignores promises he has made moments earlier.

Which brings us to Prime Minister’s Questions.

Keir Starmer asked about education funding, and Ian Blackford asked about aid spending, and Johnson blustered, as he is wont to do. But what was really interesting was watching the Tories behind him.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine two men negotiating over the Irish border – for ever

On the back row — listening whilst the prime minister explained that Kevan Collins, his education adviser, had resigned more out of ecstasy than anger — was Robert Halfon, the chair of the Education Committee. He is an independent-minded and determined man, and one who cares a lot about schools. He will have read Collins’s furious resignation letter with some interest.

To either side of him, loyal Tories nodded vigorously as the prime minister explained that £50 a year would buy poor children the equivalent of an Eton education. Halfon was almost motionless, the only sign of life in one of his hands, which picked at a thread on his trousers. He did not, to put it politely, look convinced.

When Blackford raised the cut in overseas aid, the sketch’s attention shifted to Theresa May, two rows in front of Halfon. The SNP leader had asked if the prime minister would give the Commons a vote on the government’s plan, as Speaker Lindsay Hoyle demanded on Monday. Johnson claimed, improbably, that the good Tory showing in last month’s local elections were a sign of public support for foreign aid cuts. That seems unlikely to convince Hoyle.

The prime minister went on: “You should not believe the lefty propaganda, Mr Speaker, that you hear from those on the opposition benches. All they want to do is run this country down.”

May too was motionless during this, her fingertips touching in her lap as though they were clasped around the neck of an unworthy successor. The day before, she had spoken with cold fury about Johnson’s aid cut. It is possible she has never been called a “lefty” in her life. It seems an unlikely label to attach to her fellow Tory rebels, David Davis and Sir Edward Leigh.

But then here in the People’s Kingdom Of Borisovia, we are used to such contortions: right is left. Cuts are increases. Good deals are bad. Big Bozza is not watching us, unless we happen to be an attractive woman in his field of view, but we love him all the same.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine two men negotiating over the Irish border – for ever.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover