Boris Johnson sets himself up for a disastrous dinner date

Business

One sometimes wonders whether Boris Johnson is aware you can watch British television in Europe. For either the prime minister was setting himself up for one of the biggest climbdowns – even by his own standards – in modern political history or his dinner on Wednesday night with the EU commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, is going to be one of the shortest on record. With awkward silences at that, as the EU appears in no mood to budge. Maybe Von der Leyen should rethink the menu and just go for chicken nuggets and chips so Boris can get an earlier flight home. Because at this rate a no-deal Brexit is looking a certainty.

The tone had been set right at the start of prime minister’s questions with Johnson’s reply to the Tory backbencher and longtime Brexiter Edward Leigh on the chances of a trade deal agreement. Boris didn’t even attempt to moderate his language. Not a word about how far both sides had come in the negotiation, just straight for the jugular about how the EU was trying to punish the UK and that if we didn’t get what we wanted on fishing rights, sovereignty and level playing fields then it could get stuffed. “We will prosper mightily” if we leave without a deal, he said. Leigh looked beside himself with pleasure. A further 2% fall in GDP was what he had always wanted. The orgasm that would make the four years of tantric Sexit that had preceded it worthwhile.

Brexit was also on Keir Starmer’s mind, as the Labour leader ran through some of Johnson’s previous convictions. The oven-ready deal that was anything but. His promise that the chances of a no-deal Brexit were zero. His September declaration that leaving without a deal would be a failure of statecraft. Was there anything else he had forgotten that Boris wanted to add to the charge sheet?

Johnson merely grinned inanely, tugged his hair and began ad-libbing. It was good to hear Starmer talking from Islington, “his spiritual home”, where he was self-isolating. Keir corrected him: it was actually Camden. Though he could have pointed out that Islington had been Boris’s home up until a year ago when he had finally been kicked out after one affair too many.

Having cleared that up, Boris rehashed the nonsense of “oven ready” only applying to the withdrawal agreement, before repeating “prosper mightily”. His phrase of the day. Along with “delphic”. Time and again he accused Starmer of delphic silences over Brexit. Again Starmer slightly missed a trick, as what we have had from Johnson is delphic white noise. Loads of words spilled out in no particular order and all equally meaningless.

Perhaps the height of mindlessness was Johnson’s observation that Labour had yet to say whether it would support a deal. It seemed to have escaped Boris that the whole reason the negotiations were still continuing was that there was no deal to support. Still Starmer came as close as he ever has to saying he would back any crap deal over none. Not least because the Conservatives might need the opposition votes if the hardline Brexiters cried “betrayal” and chose to rebel against the government. Then Johnson’s days really would be numbered.

Next up was Michael Gove to explain how the government would now be signing up to the Northern Ireland protocols, which it had negotiated and signed up to in the withdrawal agreement less than a year ago. This being the Govester – Westminster’s ultimate shapeshifter and a far more accomplished liar than Boris will ever be – he managed to make this sound like a major triumph of diplomacy on his part, rather than a decision not to violate international law. A negotiation in which he had both managed to hoodwink the EU into not building a mini-embassy in Northern Ireland and restricting them instead to having 15 observers dotted around the country telling UK customs officials what to do, and securing grace periods of up to six months for some goods to maintain supply lines and ensure no one starved to death.

It’s a tough gig following Gove because the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster manages to mix so many untruths and half-truths, along with a few connecting sentences that may be factually correct, that it’s hard to know where to begin. With the truths that may mean nothing or the lies that conceal the reality. Labour’s Rachel Reeves chose to hedge her bets and not get stuck into a semantic battle in which there would be no winners. Rather she tried to stick to the known knowns. That a three-month period of grace wasn’t that long, and how many UK customs agents he had managed to recruit.

Inevitably, the Govester avoided answering those questions, though he did confirm to Bernard Jenkin that under the new regime parts of Northern Ireland would still be covered by EU “acquis” and subject to the jurisdiction of the European court of justice. Yet somehow he managed to convince Jenkin – along with Richard Drax, who asked a similar question – that this was a victory for the UK and not a concession we had agreed to a year back, as they both sat down looking reasonably satisfied with the answer. Had it been anyone but Gove, they would have been spitting blood.

Gove’s ability for mendacity reached its zenith in response to a question from Labour’s Ben Bradshaw. When he had said UK citizens could still be able to take part in the Erasmus scheme, he had meant that those students currently on the course wouldn’t be thrown off it. And when he had said British citizens would still qualify for EU healthcare, he had only been talking about those still living in the EU. One wonders what lies the Govester has to tell himself to allow him to sleep at night.

Still, at least Gove had finally got round to agreeing that the UK would be doing what it had already said it would. The more pressing question was whether Johnson would do what is best for the country or what is best for his position in the Tory party. We’ll need an answer to that one in a matter of days.