When will the bottom of the barrel be scraped no further? Only the Tory party can decide

One clear benefit of Brexit is that it has made Boris Johnson prime minister, and without that, we would not have a government reduced to the performative cruelty of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda

Tom Peck
Monday 13 June 2022 19:14
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Unilateral action on protocol ‘no big deal’, says Boris Johnson

The clock strikes eight and Boris Johnson dials in for his interview on LBC from somewhere below the waterline of a toilet bowl in Cornwall.

To what was almost certainly the relief, in equal parts, of both the prime minister and the listeners, not a word he uttered could be heard. This will have pleased him no end. People have by now begun to see through his usual, decades-old tactic of belittling the interviewer, or waffling on about nothing, or just generally obfuscating until time is unfortunately up. So his new idea, of simply rendering himself straightforwardly inaudible, is bold, but by no means new in spirit.

It was just as well. On the agenda today were the government’s plans to pass new legislation on Brexit that would allow it to break the terms of an international agreement that it not only signed several years ago, but also fought an entire general election campaign based upon, to the exclusion of almost anything else.

Then there was also going to be the case at the Court of Appeal, where the government stands accused of seeking to deport people to Rwanda illegally. And with this as the subject of the interview, all Johnson had to say was: “It’s the job of government to stop people breaking the law.”

I’ve gone back and listened to the clip a few times now, and remarkably, there is little doubt that he really did say those words. It’s not merely that the people he will now deport to Rwanda have not broken any law. There is absolutely no law against seeking asylum wherever you choose. It’s also that, well, there he was, being broadcast live and just about audible, saying the above words. “It’s the job of government to stop people breaking the law.” To which we can only say: “Mate. Come on. 126 people broke the law in your own house, and one of them was you.”

It is for this very reason that Margaret Thatcher said many years ago that it was the “first duty of government to uphold the law” and not “bob and weave and duck around it”. And it is for this reason that Johnson is finished, and this nonsense simply can’t carry on for very much longer. You just can’t be prime minister if you don’t have sufficient moral credibility to be able to go on the radio and tell people not to break the law, without them all instantly laughing at you.

In some ways, it is a thing of wonder that his oven-ready Brexit deal falling apart wasn’t even the most crapulent thing he’d manage in this particular 24 hour period. You’d have thought, back in 2019, that if it turned out that the prime minister hadn’t read or understood his own Brexit deal, and nor had the people who negotiated it, that that would be sufficiently bad to dominate the news cycle for at least a day. But it really isn’t.

The latest plan for the Northern Ireland protocol is to create some sort of dual system, so that goods being taken to Northern Ireland are treated differently from goods that are transported there first but are destined to go across the border. Prior to 2019, the EU said no to this, many times over. It is now Johnson’s position that they’ll simply have to say yes to it now, or Liz Truss will shout at them. It isn’t going to make any difference.

On the subject of Brexit, and specifically the recent analysis showing that the UK would have the slowest growth of any developed nation bar Russia over the next 12 months, the government has, arguably to its credit, given up on any meaningful pretence that Brexit is anything other than terrible.

On Monday morning, Johnson’s spokesperson was asked whether Brexit was going well. He could only reply that it was “too early to say” but that the government was “fully confident that the opportunities Brexit provides will be a boon to the UK economy in the long term”.

At this point, one is allowed to wonder what “long term” means, given it will soon be six years since a once-sane country chose to do the single stupidest thing any once-sensible country has ever done.

Six years feels quite long-term, doesn’t it? And so far, the “minister for Brexit opportunities”, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has at the very top of his list of possible Brexit benefits the potential reintroduction of more powerful vacuum cleaners.

It’s not as if this isn’t pathetic enough on its own, but more pathetic is the certain fact that it will never happen. Who is going to manufacture these vacuum cleaners? And are they going to bother producing a more powerful version solely for the UK market? The answer to that is no. If the UK were a big enough vacuum-cleaner market on its own, one suspects that leading Brexiteer and vacuum magnate James Dyson might not have relocated his company to Singapore.

Still, one clear benefit of Brexit is that it has made Johnson prime minister, and without that, we would not have a government reduced to the absurdist performative cruelty of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda.

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The first flight carrying these people is now expected to go ahead on Tuesday, though the number on board, at the time of typing, has been whittled down to nine. One chap who was reprieved very late in the day on Monday was a former Iranian policeman who had been jailed in his own country. His crime, it transpires, was to disobey government orders and prevent his unit from opening fire on demonstrators.

This is the kind of person that human rights lawyers have to intervene on behalf of, to prevent his enforced deportation to Rwanda, where he will be dealt with by a government that routinely jails its political opponents.

It’s so horrifying, it frankly doesn’t quite go in. It is almost impossible to accept, to understand, that this is who we are now. That this is how bad it has been allowed to get.

As it happens, Johnson was dialling in from a farm just over the Devon border, where he was campaigning and simultaneously hiding over the weekend in the run-up to a by-election in one of the safest Tory seats in the country, which he looks set to lose after one of his MPs was caught watching porn in the House of Commons chamber.

If he loses that, it could be the end of him, but it’s not up to us. Only the Tory party gets to decide when the bottom of the barrel can be scraped no further, and you wouldn’t like to bet how far down the U-bend they’re prepared to follow their leader.

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