No amount of hope or optimism will ease Boris Johnson’s challenges | Politics News


Today was the last day of term in Westminster – but one where the new headteacher turned up early, a tantalising glimpse of political life in September.

We didn’t learn that much. Boris Johnson’s statement revealed little new but at least consolidated our understanding of the topography of his premiership.

For a start, there is clearly not going to be an attempt to morph or mutate Mr Johnson to fit the demands or traditional interpretations of the office of prime minister.

PM and Corbyn argue over backstop

His speech on the steps of Downing Street was much in the same traditional Johnsonian mould as that of his appearance in the House of Commons today: frenzied, a little rambling, energetic, energising (for some).

I had thought he might channel his great hero Churchill a little more: more sombre, more sober, if anything a little graver.

Not a bit of it. The strategy is clearly to let Boris be Boris.

We have also learnt the broadest contours of his Brexit policy.

Throughout the leadership campaign, there has been a fierce debate within Johnson’s camp as to how to approach the European question.

One group has advocated keyhole surgery on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, perhaps modest changes (such as a time limit) to the Irish backstop and beefed up workers’ protection to finally lure the much talked about but never realised phalanx of mutinous Labour MPs.

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A second camp appears to have decisively won the battle, a group which has advocated hardball and the embrace of no-deal, wholesale.

Mr Johnson again today said he would tolerate nothing but the complete removal of the backstop, something the EU will never accept.

He repeatedly implied that it was now the EU’s responsibility to devise proposals for the UK government to consider.

That also will not happen.

New PM Boris Johnson repeats "no ifs, not buts" pledge on Brexit by 31 October as he holds first cabinet meeting

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Mr Johnson has already, in 24 hours, surpassed his predecessor. Somehow, he has backed himself into corners tighter than even Theresa May managed.

These things were largely guessable before Mr Johnson became prime minister.

Perhaps what wasn’t – and the thing which is most ominous and different about the last 24 hours – is the new PM’s approach to dealing with political opposition.

Again and again, when questioned by members from the opposite side (or sometime his own), when faced with even the most gentle scrutiny or questioning, Mr Johnson responded by accusing them of being insufficiently “optimistic” about the country’s prospects; that they simply needed to believe in Britain more.

By contrast, scores of backbenchers from the Brexiteer wing lauded Mr Johnson, one thanking him for “finally having a prime minister with optimism”.

Another said that he could “finally sleep soundly in my bed”.

Optimism is fine for the party faithful, fine for the (new) lobby fodder. But as a charge against his opponents, it is a peculiar if not deeply problematic one.

Given they’re not in government and don’t approve of the direction the country is taking under the current one, given indeed that that set up is literally hardwired into our political system, it isn’t really the job of the opposition to be optimistic.

Moreover, it is perhaps, more menacingly, just a breath away from the accusation of just not being “patriotic” enough; that is a dark turn which shouldn’t be where our politics goes.

And leaving aside any more sinister undertones to Mr Johnson’s early jousts and parries, optimism (or lack of it) is a deeply unsatisfactory diagnosis of our ills or remedy for their alleviation.

Boris Johnson arrives in Downing Street after visiting The Queen and becoming prime minister

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Mr Johnson has spent his first two perorations, his introduction as prime minister to the nation, making a grand – if rather manic – list of all the things we can look forward to in the future and why we ought to not doubt ourselves.

Fibre optic broadband, 5G, electric vehicles and planes to name but a few.

I wonder how long this trick, to lift the spirits, will work.

These things are coming regardless, possibly a little faster, if government does the right things.

But looking ahead to the Britain of the 2020s and 2030s does nothing to overcome the problems of now.

Anything more substantial, more political – a better health service, better wages, better infrastructure, a solution to the social care crisis – will require more than the easy politics by declaration, a requirement heavier still for the thicket of Brexit policy problems.

You can say that there are “fantastic alternatives to the backstop” all you like, you can say the EU will negotiate a new deal with us all you like, you can say you can go for no-deal while adhering to the Good Friday Agreement all you like, you can say there are tech solutions to the border, again and again and again, but it doesn’t make it happen, it doesn’t will these things into existence.

Sometimes in politics, where there’s a will, there isn’t a way and you have to will something else, a compromise or half way house – something the PM’s side have often seemed unwilling to do.

Boris Johnson inside Downing Street

For declarative politics is just that, it declares, it doesn’t do – and no amount of “optimism” will change it.

He needs a plan, substance, and so often with Mr Johnson these things don’t exist, which makes the eyebrows elevate yet higher when he says it’s the EU’s job to come up with the answers.

While watching our new prime minister, too often it seems as if he, like Dorothy, is wearing a pair of ruby red slippers.

This focus on optimism comes not from the ether, not even from Mr Johnson’s sunny personality, but emanates from a misdiagnosis of the failures of the last years.

It has been all too easy for those in the Brexiteer camp to blame Britain’s Brexit woes not on the inherent difficulties of their project (about which they have rarely levelled with the public) but on a lack of “belief” from Mrs May.

She is a convenient Aunt Sally but a hollow one.

What retarded May’s efforts was not a lack of will but a lack of means: no parliamentary majority, no means of achieving sometimes contradictory promises of the Leave campaign, no means of squaring the hard Brexit her party wanted with the open Irish border to which she was, as a unionist first, committed.

The bare, stark realities of Brexit, with all the possible trade-offs and possibilities (and lack therein) have been there for all to see.

The truth is no amount of hope nor optimism can change them much.


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