Euan McColm: Europhile mask just Boris Johnson’s latest disguise

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At least the Prime Minister’s sentimental waffle has failed once again to ‘get Brexit done’. writes Euan McColm.

It was a speech of such pro-European sentiment that one might have been forgiven for thinking it came from the mouth of an ardent Remainer.

A placard depicting Boris Johnson at yesterday's demonstration for a People's Vote in London. Picture: 'Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

A placard depicting Boris Johnson at yesterday's demonstration for a People's Vote in London. Picture: 'Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

He spoke of the continent’s great history, of its culture and of the United Kingdom’s part in its story. It was sentimental, even romantic, stuff.

And it was, of course, utterly cynical.

Boris Johnson, having spent the first weeks of his premiership playing to the hardline Eurosceptic gallery, rose to his feet in the House of Commons yesterday morning wearing a different mask.

A country torn apart

Boris Johnson speaks in the House of Commons.  (Jessica Taylor/House of Commons via AP)

Boris Johnson speaks in the House of Commons. (Jessica Taylor/House of Commons via AP)

So desperate was he to persuade MPs – called to parliament on a Saturday for the first time since the Falklands War – to support his new deal for the UK’s departure from the European Union that the Prime Minister turned on what passes, among the gullible, for his charm. He reached out to opponents, promising that his – as yet untouched by economic assessment – agreement would usher in a new era of national unity.

If MPs backed the Prime Minister, they could begin the task of bringing back together a country torn apart by events of the past three and a half years.

That Johnson and his cronies in the Leave campaign lied their way to victory in the 2016 EU referendum campaign, along the way creating and exploiting division, gave that pledge an especially bleak irony.

But, despite his efforts to win the hearts and minds of a majority of MPs, yesterday, he was not to be successful.

Majority support for an amendment put forward by former Conservative MP Oliver Letwin (one of those stripped of the party whip for past failure to support the PM) forced Johnson to abandon plans to hold a meaningful vote on his proposed withdrawal agreement.

This outcome means that the Prime Minister is compelled, by law, to write to the EU asking for another Brexit delay.

Johnson was adamant that he would not negotiate a further extension of the UK’s membership of the European bloc. This was typically bullish Johnson stuff, but given the government’s own lawyers have already confirmed in court that the executive will abide by its legal obligations, a letter will surely be sent.

Identity politics

One thing is certain. Yesterday’s events in parliament expose the nonsense of Johnson’s claim that he is the man to reunite a nation split by ugly identity politics.

Regardless of the result of yesterday’s vote, no matter the next steps by government and opposition, the division about which the Prime Minister spoke yesterday will not easily be healed by him or anyone else.

Johnson and fellow travellers such as Michael Gove and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage were shameless in their scaremongering during the referendum campaign. These great “statesmen” played on fears about uncontrolled immigration to imply that the United Kingdom was soon to be swamped by tens of millions of Turkish people. And when they weren’t blowing their immigration dog whistles, fuelling racism and paranoia, they were lying about both the sum of money the UK sends to the EU each week and what they would do with it, given the chance. (We don’t send £350 million a week and so there will not be an extra £350m a week to invest in the NHS once Brexit is completed).

It suited this gang of spivs to create division. How hollow the suggestion from any of them that the country can now begin to come back together.

The Prime Minister continues to see himself as a One Nation Conservative, a liberal-minded leader with broad appeal. But he has played the leading role in changing the nation in which that Johnsonian fantasy might have been true.

The Prime Minister’s cynical decision to back Leave in 2016, against his personal pro-EU instincts, might have paid off in terms of him getting the keys to 10 Downing Street, but in achieving that personal ambition, he has disfigured the country.

Fuelling the divide

His relentless use, since becoming Prime Minister, of the language of “surrender” and of “people versus parliament” has only exacerbated tensions

How, exactly, does Johnson go about healing the divisions for which he is responsible? His constituency, now, is hard Brexiteers who’ve bought into fantasies of a United Kingdom that flourishes as never before once free of the EU.

Can he afford ever to reach out to Remainers – or even soft Brexiteers – without those hardliners turning on him?

Farage can be relied upon to maintain a running commentary on the Prime Minister’s actions and to give his verdict on their implications. Johnson is now in hock to that extreme Euroscepticism. He is never more than a careless word or two away from being denounced as a traitor.

And what good would it do for Johnson to try to build bridges with Remainers, anyway?

The Prime Minister fuelled the transformation of the political divide from left/right to leave/remain, in the process scorching the centre ground, and he will not soon be forgiven by those who bitterly regret Brexit.

The thing about identity politics is that it solidifies opinions. And, so, just as Brexiteers will demand of the PM the most aggressively Eurosceptic position, so pro-EU voters will continue to think him dishonest, self-interested and cynical.

Johnson may have a dream of one day leading a happily united nation but the reality is that his premiership stands to be relentlessly, grindingly stressful and unhappy. This is the small crumb of comfort available to those of us who believe him to be entirely unfit for the office he holds.

The mantra of the Prime Minister and his acolytes in recent days has been that it’s time to get Brexit done. Impatience is the engine with which they hope to get their creaking charabanc over the cliff edge.

Where once the champions of Brexit spun stories of a United Kingdom rejuvenated and refreshed by breaking from the EU now they plead, in the name of God, make this end.