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It took Boris Johnson thirty seconds to try to get Angela Merkel to take the blame for his own failings. It didn't work

Johnson came to Berlin to demand the impossible and state the palpably untrue. No one swallowed a word of it

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Wednesday 21 August 2019 20:48 BST
Brexit: Boris Johnson says the UK 'want a deal'

As the anthems played and Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel sat side by side and stared straight ahead as if both had been cast in iron at the precise moment they had seen their own dead ghost, for whatever reason I found myself returning to a favourite story of a friend of mine’s from some time ago.

Indeed, scenes outside the German chancellery in Berlin might have had a certain déjà vu for any of the other passengers on a now notorious pre-Christmas train from London to Manchester in 2009.

For folk who might have seen the man and woman, well into their thirties, sitting bolt upright and rigid as the dead, both having opted to style it out like this for just over two hours, rather than risk rotating their neck even two degrees and thus potentially having to acknowledge the presence of their sixth form boyfriend/girlfriend on the other side of the aisle, and with it the deadly risk of having to go through the details of a ferociously acrimonious separation which had by this point been left undiscussed for more than a decade.

And who can blame them? Well, her at least. Angela Merkel wears a face that gives nothing away, but if anything could be read from between the lines of those narrow eyes, it’s that she is adopting the same coping strategy most of Britain has alighted upon.

Just take a deep breath and pretend it’s not happening. If you keep telling yourself that Boris Johnson isn’t really prime minister, then maybe, just maybe, he isn’t.

Just keep telling yourself he isn’t really going to inflict food shortages on your family just so he can get to be prime minister, just so he can impress, well who exactly? All of his families all already hate him.

No Mrs Merkel, just keep it up and it’ll all be over soon. That’s not really prime minister Boris Johnson, sitting next to you. It can’t really be the guy who can hardly go 15 minutes with doing a little Nazi-based lol about the European Union. You knew it was bad, but Britain can’t really have become that much of a full on, irredeemable basket case, can it?

If you don’t want to know the truth, keep looking away now.

It can. And it has.

And there, moments later, the pair of them emerged at the press conference to prove it. As Mrs Merkel spoke, Johnson peered up at the ceiling, his usual resting half-smirk respectfully suppressed to a quarter-smirk.

It won’t go any lower than that, unfortunately. Come on. What do they expect? The single most execrable British human quite possibly ever to have lived, here on his first ever foreign visit as actual prime minister? If they were expecting Boris Johnson not to see the funny side of that then, well, bad luck I’m afraid.

It took around 30 seconds for events to move on to the subject of the backstop, and thus for everyone in the room to wish instant death upon themselves.

“If we can get that backstop removed, I’m confident we can move forward,” Johnson said.

Alas, no clarification on the level of confidence was provided. Was he, for example, more confident of this than he was three weeks ago, when he said he would refuse to meet any EU leaders until the backstop was removed?

Because – and this is kind of awks – here he was, in Berlin, and while Angela Merkel was clearly still trying to convince herself she wasn’t actually there, she could nevertheless be clearly seen, standing right next to Boris Johnson, making it clear for something like the ten trillionth time that the backstop isn’t going to be removed.

And for the ten trillionth time, Boris Johnson was asked by journalists what his alternatives to the backstop were, and for the ten trillionth time he waffled about technological solutions, about trusted trader schemes, about “a fantastic report by Greg Hands”, the findings of which are indeed fantastic but have all already been rejected by the European Union as insufficient to replace the backstop.

Again he said how, “The United Kingdom will under no circumstances ever erect a border, or have customs checks at the border.”

And again, the viewer must make up their mind who to believe. The words of Boris Johnson, or, say, the leaked report of his own government, as published in The Sunday Times, that called this exact position “unsustainable”.

It was, as ever, an exercise in pure bluster. All positioning, all noise, all the tragic curse of a man too narcissistic to understand that you cannot always get where you want by demeaning the intelligence of others, because there are, believe it or not, one or two people out there just as smart as you.

There are no easy solutions waiting to be explored. If there were, is it, perhaps, fair to imagine Johnson wouldn’t be gambling the future of his country against having an insurance policy – the backstop – in the unlikely outcome of their failure?

It’s drivel. All of it. A short, pointless, hop round Europe to pre-apportion blame for his own pre-emptive failure. But as he and Angela Merkel wandered off for their short, pointless meetings, she had at least made one thing clear. She wasn’t going to be conned into any of it.

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