Aaaaand: it’s Groundhog Day! Admittedly with different actors on one side, but as far as the EU is concerned, nothing has changed. Surprised? I’m not! More on that below, first let’s look at what happened yesterday in the HoC where it most certainly wasn’t Groundhog Day.
You remember that the MSM pundits declared that the most significant appointment by Johnson was that of Jacob Rees-Mogg as Leader of the House (here). Thus the very first appearance of JRM at the dispatch box yesterday was awaited with bated breath by us politics nerds. It preceded that of Johnson’s first statement as PM which was suitably Johnsonian.
JRM did not only not disappoint, he had the HoC in the palm of his hand. Even the Speaker, after one intervention which fell flat like the proverbial, enjoyed the spectacle. You can watch the whole thing here. I highly recommend watching because in contrast to JRM’s outstanding performance the general peacockiness of the MPs, from their own mouths, is nicely evident.
Next we had the Johnson ‘act’, and it was breathtaking. He was unstoppable, had the details to slap round the opposition’s heads at his fingertips and at one stage I realised that the space between the two benches – two lengths of a rapier – was well considered because, had there been rapiers and had the space been smaller, Johnson surely would have spitted Mr McDonnell …
I’ll quote this sketch from Quentin Letts in The Times so you can relish it as well:
“They said parliament would be his weak spot but Boris Johnson pulverised Jeremy Corbyn on his first Commons appearance as PM, turned him into one of those troublingly pondish vegan smoothies which are popular in Islington. Some Boris fans had advised him not to go to the House, fearing he would flop. But he whacked and peeled and pummelled a sub-par Mr Corbyn. He Kenwood-mixered the myxomatoisoid old coney, left him a fearful mess. While veterinary surgeons crouched sorrowfully round Mr Corbyn, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, leapt from his frontbench seat. He was so cross at Boris’s success, it looked as if he was going to stomp out of the chamber in fury. Thinking better of any walkout, Mr McDonnell decided he was going to pour himself a glass of water from the carafe next to the dispatch box. The glass quivered in his hand with agitation.” (link, paywalled)
Yes, that’s how it was! And what did the EU, what did M Barnier make of this? If you guessed he’d say ‘No, non, nein’ then you guessed correctly. The Brussels correspondents of our MSM had only that one thing to report, and did so with various spin. Here’s the paywalled DT:
“But on Thursday they received the clearest possible answer as Mr Johnson called simply for the “abolition” of the backstop, which Brexiteers see not as an “insurance policy” to preserve Northern Ireland’s invisible border but an unequal treaty no self-respecting country could sign. […] His team, he said, were ready to meet the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and his team “on this basis” and “whenever they are ready to do so” – terms on which Europe says it will never be. As Mr Barnier observed with icy understatement in his letter to EU member states after the statement, this was a “combative” approach which required “unacceptable” concessions given the EU’s own red lines.” (paywalled link)
The Times, a.k.a. RemainCentral, has some more details:
“[Johnson] also clashed with Brussels after saying that he would start talks on a new deal only if the EU agreed to the abolition of the Irish backstop. […] Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, told European governments that the demand was unacceptable, implying that the prime minister was bluffing. In his confidential diplomatic note, leaked almost as soon as it was sent, Mr Barnier said that he would not open any negotiations based on the Brexit terms set out in Mr Johnson’s speech to MPs.“Johnson has asserted that if an agreement is to be reached it goes by way of eliminating the backstop. This is of course unacceptable and not within the mandate of the European Council,” he wrote, referring to guidelines set by EU leaders.” (link, paywalled)
Some other interesting points on the EU attitude are reported in an article by The Times’ Brussels correspondent:
“The EU is working on a strategy to avoid a “Brexit cold war” amid fears that relations between Brussels and London could break down completely after a no-deal Brexit. Many EU countries no longer believe that the UK would come back to the table cap in hand within weeks of a no-deal, which had been the received wisdom, particularly in France. European governments and diplomats, especially in Germany and the Netherlands, now fear that the acrimony of a no-deal could become a political conflict that drags on for years in a “Brexit cold war”. (link, paywalled)
This highly interesting report deserves to be looked at in detail in our “From Behind the Paywall” column later today.
While Brussels officially says ‘no’, while EU member states are apparently desperate to find some way out of this impasse, another report shows why there’s now this undercurrent of what looks like quiet desperation. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes in the (paywalled) DT:
“German industry is in the deepest slump since the global financial crisis and threatens to push Europe’s powerhouse economy into full-blown recession. The darkening outlook is forcing the European Central Bank to contemplate ever more perilous measures. The influential Ifo Institute in Munich said its business climate indicator for manufacturing went into “free fall” in July as the delayed damage from global trade conflict takes its toll and confidence wilts. […] Clemens Fuest, Ifo president, said Germany’s forward-looking gauge of business expectations saw the steepest fall since early 2009. “All the problems are coming together. It’s China, it’s increasing protectionism across the board, it’s disruption to global supply chains,” he said.” (paywalled link)
You’ll have noticed that there’s no mention of Brexit. Given this background of economic gloom, one does wonder if the Junckers and Barniers, in their French top-down dictatorial attitudes, are simply incapable of reading the economic storm signs:
“Mario Draghi, the ECB president, warned that the picture is getting “worse and worse”, describing the German and Italian economies as victims of an asymmetric trade shock. There are signs that industrial woes are spreading to the broader service sector, raising fears that the slowdown could turn into something far worse.” (paywalled link)
One also wonders if our home-grown Remainers are capable of reading these signs of impending economic turmoil. At the moment, they are delighted to find the first chink in the new BoJo premiership, namely that Steve Baker rejected a job offer from Johnson – see here and here. The report in RemainCentral is nicely spun:
“Boris Johnson’s attempts to lock in the support of hardline Tory Eurosceptics suffered a serious blow last night after one of the most senior Brexiteer MPs angrily turned down a ministerial role. In the first rift between the new prime minister and the faction that backed him for the leadership, Steve Baker told Mr Johnson that a job in the Brexit department would have left him “powerless”. […] In a warning shot Mr Baker, 48, said on Twitter after rejecting the job that “disaster awaits us” unless Britain left the EU on October 31. One Eurosceptic Tory MP said: “Steve has been badly treated, this smacks of poor man-management. Arguably without Steve Baker we would already have signed the withdrawal agreement, we would be trapped in the backstop for ever and Theresa May would still be prime minister. Some people clearly have short memories.” (link, paywalled)
Some people have indeed short memories – and those are sitting on the Tory Government benches. They still play their political games, according to which there must be ‘rewards’ in the form of a cabinet post. I sadly include Steve Baker who has put his own advancement (‘I would be powerless’) before the good of government and indeed country.
A snap GE is obviously on the cards – here is a fascinating report. The Tory backbenchers would do well to take into account the veiled allusion Johnson made when telling Corbyn that a Labour Remain Party would lose in a GE. He didn’t need to say ‘because of The Brexit Party’, but all who listened understood. That this also applies to the Tory Party doesn’t need emphasising.
Parliament has now gone on their Summer Recess and won’t be back before September. If you think that this means we can slacken off – no such thing! Your constituency MPs are now back home where you can grab them and tell them what’s what. After all, one BoJo performance does not a Brexit make!