A few months before he died in 2007, Bill Deedes asked if I would come to see him at his home in Kent and bring Boris Johnson along with me. I was writing a biography of Bill at the time, and I knew he was miserable because he had broken his hip and could no longer come up to London.
Boris jumped at the idea and I remember our lunch as the last time I saw Bill exuberantly happy. Boris knew instinctively what a 93-year-old journalist who was struggling to write his weekly column needed, and filled him in hilariously on the London political and media gossip. The only slight awkwardness came when Bill stressed his admiration for David Cameron, and Boris’s impenetrable eyes momentarily turned just a little beady.
I think back to this lunch when I read all the abuse thrown at Boris by journalists and Tory MPs. I can’t say I know Boris well, despite our once having been Telegraph colleagues, mostly on different continents. I cannot say I even like him that much. I resented him when I edited the paper’s Comment pages for filing his column three hours late, which meant I couldn’t get home to see my infant children. Nor can I convincingly dispute the charge that he is a shameless self-promoter, or that he uses people, especially women, and discards them casually.
The Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Mirror titles, the BBC and Channel 4 are united in their loathing of Boris for his mendacity, frivolity and recklessness. My former editor Max Hastings has written that he would not trust Boris with his wife, which is surely insulting to the blameless Lady Hastings, and by extension to all women, as the phrase has a strange 1950s, John Junorish feel to it. It almost deserves its own hashtag.
The worst thing about having voted Leave is realising how naive one was to believe that the Conservative party would have the backbone to implement the will of the majority. In our corner of north London, I am constantly assailed by Remainer neighbours and friends asking, with fake concern: ‘So how do you think your Brexit is going now?’
The answer of course is terribly badly. People one regarded as spiritual allies are abasing themselves. Why is Michael Gove — once a proper hack and later an outstanding education secretary — pretending to think the Chequers ‘agreement’ is the way to go? Has he not noticed the ritual humiliation of David Davis, who was supposedly in charge of Brexit but who, it turns out, would scarcely recognise Michel Barnier in a crowded Brussels restaurant?
His replacement at the Department for Exiting the European Union, another alleged Brexiteer called Dominic Raab, stood last week at a Brussels press conference, looking like Barnier’s under footman. And we know he has no authority, because Theresa May chose to release the news that she and Olly Robbins had taken total charge of negotiations just as Raab was appearing before a key Commons committee. It is genuinely impossible to know whether this was another gaffe by May, or spite.
I wanted to believe the Prime Minister when she first said Brexit means Brexit, but I remember thinking that if she really thought that, wouldn’t she then have to sack all those Remainers in the civil service who helped push Cameron and George Osborne into their Project Fear suicide mission? Would she hell. The fix is in; Barnier and Robbins have doubtless already agreed the outline. The deal will ultimately be formalised in the small hours in the penumbras of some or other EU summit. There will be lots more of the European Court of Justice, a firming up of the common rule book, our fishing rights will be retained by the Spanish and the Scandinavians.
We will go on paying money indefinitely. And Raab and Gove will turn up on the Today programme to tell us those were never really red lines — they were pinkish and, let’s face it, slightly wonky — and that the alternative was to crash out, and that would have played into the hands of Jeremy Corbyn. And May’s deluded circle will convince themselves that they have averted catastrophe, when in reality the Tory party will be out of power for 20 years.
Last week we belatedly watched the DVD of the Churchill movie Darkest Hour. I had heard it was two hours of anti–Brexit propaganda, and so it proved, especially the scene on the Tube when the West Indian with the pre-Windrush comedy hat finished off Churchill’s rendering of the Lays of Ancient Rome. Sign a trade deal with that man!
But what surprised me most was our 13-year-old daughter intoning: ‘Churchill is so like Boris.’ Her reaction is, of course, the annoying outcome foreseen in Boris Johnson’s self-serving book, The Churchill Factor, which explained how a brilliant statesman distrusted by his own party could save the nation in its hour of need. It is not one of those politician’s books that is difficult to decode.
But when Cameron went under the referendum bus, Boris bungled his Churchill moment dreadfully. So instead we got our Lord Halifax figure, and still she is busy trying to cut deals with the enemy over the water. Indeed, she has now reverted to playing Chamberlain, flying around the Alps with important pieces of paper to secure peace with Brussels.
This cannot go on, it really cannot. I know the objections and why so many will discard this notion, but especially after watching that Churchill film, it became suddenly obvious to me: it has to be Boris.
For sure, he is loathed by most of the media and much of his parliamentary party. But we forget he twice won popular election in London, a city which will probably never vote Conservative again. The loathing of Boris expressed within the Westminster media bubble is not shared by the rest of the country. And who else on the Tory benches would have a chance at the next election? Not May, not Philip Hammond or Raab, or Gove. It has to be Boris.
Some thought Boris’s foreign secretary resignation statement bloodless, but it was wise and measured. It was not, he said, that the government had failed to make the case for a free trade agreement as laid out at Lancaster House, but that ‘We have not even tried’.
The electorate understands this point, Tory voters even more so.
Voters might have forgiven May had she tried to secure a proper Brexit, but she never intended to. Failure is one thing, but betrayal is another matter. Which is why, for all his obvious faults, we now need someone to cheer us up, as Bill Deedes did — someone who will be seen to have tried, even if he fails.
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