Incredible Hulk Johnson is too scared to go to his own press conference

The booing is following the prime minister around the continent. Does he care that he is reviled everywhere he goes? 

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Monday 16 September 2019 17:40 BST
Boris Johnson ducks out of press conference amid noisy protests, leaving empty podium next to Luxembourg's PM

It is 24 hours since Boris Johnson described himself in a newspaper interview as The Incredible Hulk. It is not even a fortnight since Boris Johnson launched a campaign to brand Jeremy Corbyn a “chicken”, for not being stupid enough to give him a general election on the precise day he wants.

And yet, on Monday afternoon, he refused to go to his own press conference in Luxembourg because it would have been, in his own words “too noisy”.

At such times, it is hard not to consider the emotions of a particular member of Conservative party staff. Somewhere, in the Conservative press office, watching the scenes in Luxembourg on television, will have been the very same person who, two weeks ago, was forced to dress up as a chicken and wander round Westminster handing out Tesco Value chicken breasts in Jeremy-Corbyn-branded packaging.

On Monday afternoon, it will also have been their job to sit at a desk, quite possibly with an actual chicken suit sitting in a carrier bag beneath it, fielding questions from journalists about quite why it was that the prime minister was too scared to go to his own press conference.

Still, who can blame him? There were as many as eighty anti-Brexit protesters waiting behind the gates at his scheduled press conference with the Luxembourg PM Xavier Bettel. In such circumstances, what choice did Boris Johnson have but to not appear at all?

How could he possibly have coped with some barbed comments from the Luxembourg prime minister? How could the Incredible Hulk himself have been expected to cope with the premeditated snark of a prime minister from a country with a population slightly larger than Reading?

In such circumstances, how can the prime minister possibly be blamed for not turning up at all?

One other reason, perhaps, is that he knows he has absolutely nothing to say. That his entire Brexit strategy is a no-longer concealed lie that is dying in plain sight.

Indeed, there is, arguably, no small amount of good fortune in Boris Johnson becoming prime minister right at the moment the role became a ceremonial one.

For around 30 years, one of the now prime minister’s favourite after-dinner jokes was that he has “only one conviction, and that is for speeding”.

Other prime ministers, like, say, all the other ones there have ever been, might find themselves frustrated at not being able to do anything, but this is a burden that will fall uniquely lightly on Johnson’s untroubled shoulders.

He can’t seem to get an election. He can’t seem to get the UK out of the European Union. His one actual policy, of 20,000 new police officers, he accidentally confessed to a Doncaster shopper amounted to no more than putting back the same number that his party has removed.

And now, on Monday, he has been to a restaurant in Luxembourg to meet Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier to carry on what can only be described as the Potemkin Brexit negotiations.

Some brief background: 26 days ago, he punched the Berlin air with glee when Angela Merkel told him he had “30 days” to find a workable solution to the Irish backstop problem.

With four of them to go, Juncker and Barnier have again had to make clear that they are still waiting for any such proposals to be made.

Boris Johnson explains why he did not take part in a press conference alongside Luxembourg PM Xavier Bettel

Such was their summary of a two-hour lunch, which began and ended with Boris Johnson being booed on his way in and out of a restaurant in Luxembourg, by a small but dedicated crowd of protesters who are unwilling to play the roles Johnson would like of them in this deeply depressing and utterly ridiculous pantomime.

Does Johnson care that he is widely reviled everywhere he goes? For someone who became a politician for absolutely no reason beyond the service of his own towering narcissism, one imagines the answer must be yes.

But it is not a reality that stands much prospect of changing. These are the natural consequences of his actions.

There has already been too much written about David Cameron’s forthcoming book, even in the three days since it returned to the news agenda. But the executive summary is quite short. He doesn’t regret calling the referendum, but he absolutely didn’t realise that Johnson, Gove and the rest of the Vote Leave campaign, who are now the government, would go to the places they did.

He didn’t realise Michael Gove would become a “foam-flecked Faragist”, would happily talk about “Turkey” and the UK “being swamped”.

He didn’t realise they would base their campaign on what can only be called Islamophobic lies.

He didn't realise he would face a psychopathic campaign for which the price of victory could never be too high, and which has delivered the British politics of the moment to its febrile, perhaps unsalvageable place.

He never imagined that a referendum, fought principally to liberate the Conservatives from the damage inflicted on it by Nigel Farage, would lead, three years later, to the two of them discussing some sort of electoral pact.

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The people who ran that campaign are now running the country. They will do anything and say anything to get beyond the next obstacle, now matter how impossible, no matter how untrue.

It is a journey that has led to prime minister Johnson, sitting across a restaurant table with nothing to say, nothing to offer, beyond a campaign of misdirection at home, talking up negotiations that are not happening, and not offering any possibilities that can open the path to progress. Because there are none.

We are at Brexit’s biggest crunch point. Like Kipling’s dead statesman, Vote Leave has seen all of its lies proven untrue. It has nothing to offer now, just as it had nothing to offer then. It only has more of the same. More strategy, more tactics, more clever hacks for how it might escape from underneath the crushing weight of reality for which they bear total responsibility.

It is an almighty mess. No wonder they’re booing, from Leeds to Luxembourg. And Johnson cannot do a thing about it.

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