Brexit’s Mr Pooter may not survive his dispute with Cummings
Boris Johnson and his former aide are locked in a relationship that is still having damaging consequences for all of us
Before he moved on to lower things, Boris Johnson lived in our neighbourhood, just off the Holloway Road in London’s Islington. Another famous Islingtonian who lived off the Holloway Road was the fictional Mr Pooter, protagonist of the Victorian classic Diary of a Nobody.
Mr Pooter’s wife was called Carrie, and his close neighbour went by the name of Cummings, of whom on one occasion Pooter writes: “Cummings and I have a little misunderstanding.”
Well, in the great book – which I recommend to anyone who is tired of “streaming” and, indeed, of this government – Carrie’s husband and his friend Cummings manage to get over their misunderstanding. However, if there is one thing certain about the fallout between the Brexiters of Downing Street, it is that hell hath no fury like a Cummings scorned. It is obvious that this episode is going to end in tears; and, as a betting man, I would not put money on Johnson’s long-term survival – not least on account of the way the forensic skills of our underestimated leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, seem to be coming into their own.
However, there is enough elsewhere on the subject of sleaze inquiries and the stink of corruption that permeates this government. Johnson and Cummings may have fallen out, and David Cameron may be up to his neck in his own sleaze inquiries, but the focus should not be taken off the immense damage the three of them have done to the British economy, and to the viability of what is still called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Cameron started the rot, not just by bowing to the resistable pressure for a referendum from what Edward Heath used to call, in a delightfully venomous tone, Euroseptics; Cameron also woefully mishandled the referendum campaign. The former president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently revealed in an interview that, knowing how distorted the British view of “Europe” had become as a result of a largely Eurosceptical press, he had offered to explain to the public the advantages of the EU and how it really worked.
Cameron evidently turned this offer down flat, saying he himself could handle everything to produce a safe result, with the result that, in Juncker’s words, “no one told the British public what we agreed on, say, the free movement of workers” in Cameron’s pre-referendum negotiations. I agree with Juncker that too many members of the British public were “brainwashed” into voting Leave – not of course by Cameron, but by the unholy alliance of those two former friends, Johnson and Cummings.
We know what that result was, and we are trying to live with it. A once great nation, whose foreign policy was geared to improving our overseas trade, voluntarily signed up for a hard Brexit, which is having the reverse effect and hitting exports badly. From the referendum result onwards, the British economy’s performance was inferior to that of the rest of the EU, and, now that we have left, things are going from bad to worse, as all reputable surveys show.
Obviously there is an economic recovery from the impact of successive lockdowns on output, and the government is making the most of that fact. But business investment has been feeble and the thinktank UK in a Changing Europe expects Brexit will in time outweigh the pandemic in its inhibiting impact on growth.
For the moment the obvious casualty is Northern Ireland, whose government, led by the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), was – sorry, I cannot resist this – DUP-ed by Johnson.
As the EU’s ambassador to the UK said in an interview with the Institute of Government last week, the Northern Ireland protocol is not the problem; “the problem is Brexit”.
But it was not just the DUP who were duped. Too many English people were duped too. It may seem like poetic justice that Johnson and Cummings have fallen out, but the awful truth is that they actually won the battle to diminish this country – with knock-on effects for the EU itself, whose leaders know they benefited from our membership.
Fear not: we are told that this is the most dramatic recovery since 1948 – or is it 1066? Not difficult after the biggest collapse for 200 years. Moreover, as Robert Chote, former director of the Office for Budget Responsibility, points out, although there is a feeling that the government should be devoting a greater share of spending to public services, notably health and social care, “the government is currently pencilling in lower departmental spending than it did pre-crisis”.
Levelling up? Pull the other one …
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