He was there to urge the public to be cautious over Christmas. In an address peppered with apologies, he asked people in England not to accept the gift of relaxed rules around household mixing they’d been offered only a week previously. “You can, but please don’t’’ was the message expressed by leaders of the devolved governments too, yet none of them looked as miserable as Mr Johnson at having to deliver it.
We have come to learn that our Prime Minister doesn’t like being the bad guy. He’s the good-cop dad who struggles to say no. Mr Johnson would love to give you a sweetie but your mum says you’re not allowed because you’ve already brushed your teeth. Terribly sorry about that.
We don’t know if that’s the parenting strategy he employed with his unspecified number of children, but it’s not exactly a reassuring quality in a Prime Minister tasked with spearheading our response to a global pandemic. This crisis has tested our leaders like never before. We’ve become more invested in their shortcomings, because we really can’t afford for them to fail.
‘A failure of statecraft’
When he said “Have yourselves a merry little Christmas – and I’m afraid this year I do mean little’’ I almost felt sorry for him. It was an attempt to soften his gloomy warning with humour, but with no crowd or sycophantic colleagues behind him ready to laugh on cue, it fell flat.
It was a more optimistic Boris who said in 2019 that the odds of a no-deal Brexit were “a million to one against’’ and that such an outcome would be a “failure of statescraft’’.
He knew then what he knows now: a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster for the UK. Since then, the stakes have risen considerably. As we get ready to say goodbye to 2020 and all the harm it has caused, we do so in the knowledge that what we’re heading into could be just as challenging. When the vaccine is fully rolled out, the word “lockdown’’ will hopefully be consigned to the history books, but the economic legacy of the Covid crisis will endure.
It reads like one of Mr Johnson’s bad jokes that, at this pivotal moment for the country, he is the one in charge. The decision on whether the UK enters a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU, or crashes out on December 31 with no-deal, is largely in his gift. That fact would be almost poetic if it wasn’t so terrifying.
Mr Johnson clawed his way to Downing St, using the heads of his colleagues as stepping stones. He blamed the EU for the country’s woes; he blamed Theresa May for not getting Brexit "done”; he blamed parliament for blocking his deal and then, he won a whopping 80-seat majority. Now he’s got the power, he just needs to decide what to do with it.
Fishing should not wreck deal
Given the economic uncertainty that Covid-19 has brought, that decision should be an easy one. Even a middling deal, forged through compromise and concession, is better than no-deal.
Why then, is good-news-Boris suddenly so downbeat about the prospect of reaching an agreement?
On Thursday, during a phone call with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, Mr Johnson said that the negotiations were in a “serious situation” and that time was very short. He said no-deal looked likely unless the EU changed its position “substantially”. Ms von der Leyen was equally downbeat when commenting on the call, saying that “substantial progress” has been made on many issues in the post-Brexit trade deal negotiations but “big differences remain” and “bridging them will be very challenging”.
After the Thursday call, EU diplomatic sources said that, in their opinion, it was fishing that was the standout problem. While the divisions over quotas and access to fishing waters are substantial, they are not insurmountable. To throw away the chance at a deal over what is a small issue (in economic terms, at least) would be an act of political vandalism.
A resignation issue
Of course, it’s not just the EU that Mr Johnson has to negotiate with. His own backbenchers have shown during the Covid crisis that he is only as powerful as they allow him to be. Some of his former Vote Leave chums have been vocal in their opposition to any deal that, in their view, compromises British sovereignty. For them, nothing less than the catastrophic “clean break” of a no-deal Brexit will do.
Though the no-deal zealots are a vocal group, they are relatively small in number. There are some Tories, such as veteran MP Sir Roger Gale, who worry that they have undue influence over the Prime Minister’s decision-making.
Earlier in the week, Sir Roger was scathing in his assessment of the progress of the talks. “My view is that if the Prime Minister is not able to obtain an acceptable deal then he would have failed the British people and not kept the promise he made. Before the election he was saying it will be easy and we’ll get a deal with no trouble. His position would be untenable so he should step aside and make way for someone else.”
On Friday, Michel Barnier told the EU parliament that we were now at a “moment of truth” in the negotiations and warned there was little time left to strike a trade deal with the UK.
The latest deadline set by the EU is that an agreement must be ready by tonight, in order for MEPs to have enough time to ratify it. The House of Commons is now in Christmas recess, but if an agreement is reached then parliament will be recalled. Time is running out, which means we don’t have much longer to wait to find out if Boris Johnson will finally put the country’s interests before his own.