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Paul Vallely: Sleepwalking PM has harmed the UK

18 December 2020

He has undermined trust at home and abroad, says Paul Vallely


Boris Johnson and the President of the European Commission, Dr Ursula von der Leyen, before a dinner in Brussels, last week

Boris Johnson and the President of the European Commission, Dr Ursula von der Leyen, before a dinner in Brussels, last week

I WENT on a rare outing last week — to get my hair cut and to do some Christmas shopping. It was a veritable adventure for someone who has been in virtual lockdown since the end of July, thanks to the restrictions placed on Greater Manchester, where I live. It brought an encounter with a different reality to the constant news agenda that the internet brings into my home.

To my surprise, my fellow citizens have not been keeping up with the news so obsessively. In the hairdresser’s, as holidays were off the conversational agenda, the talk was about Covid and Christmas. But none of the folk out there in the real world have been slavishly following the reports about the rising and falling R-rate in the local area — and how that might effect what tier we might be about to enter. “Let’s face it,” one remarked, “the actual facts and figures make no difference to what this Government decides to impose upon us.”

There was a worrying sense of impotence. Many people feel that they are being whirled around on a tide of events far beyond their control. In this, it seems to me, the coronavirus is a grim correlative to Brexit, although that was a subject about which no one wanted to converse at all.

Considering that this has been a year of transition into Brexit, one of the extraordinary things about it has been how little progress has been made on that tectonic trauma. Brexit is the dog that has not barked all year, although perhaps it might more accurately be said that all we have had is barking.

It is always dangerous to opine on a process that is not complete. By the time you read this, London and Brussels may have agreed a trade deal with which everyone is happy. Perhaps. Yet, even if that be so, as a nation we have lost something valuable in the process, something to do with trust, both internationally and at home.

Boris Johnson’s jaunt to Brussels to have dinner with the negotiators of the European Union seemed a microcosm of his approach to government. He blundered in with an ill-judged joke about how Michel Barnier had given him Covid, and then suggested that the way to break the deadlock was for the EU’s veteran negotiator to be replaced just 18 days before the exit deadline. When this tactic failed, Mr Johnson resorted to announcing that the Royal Navy would deploy gunboats to confront French and Dutch fishermen.

There are those who warm to the rumbustious cavalier jollity of his approach. They talk of John Bull and Merrie England. To me, he recalls another larger-than-life character, Shakespeare’s Falstaff, a mixture of reckless high spirits, harrumphing bluster, and low cunning. Our present Prime Minister is, I fear, a gambler of such arrogant irresponsibility that he could sleepwalk us into armed conflict with our neighbours as easily as he has sleepwalked us towards a no-deal Brexit, the flouting of the law, an undermining of the Union, and a disregard for Britain’s standing on the international stage.

I realise that this is not a very Christmassy conclusion to the year, but then hope must start in even the darkest of places.

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