Foreign secretary Boris Johnson quits over Brexit
It has been an agonising few weeks for Boris Johnson. The prime minister he served as foreign minister, Theresa May, was showing worrying signs of Bino (Brexit in name only) syndrome. Then she confirmed it the Friday before last at a conclave of her ministers in the country retreat Chequers.
With Britain’s exit from the European Union to take effect on March 29 next year, May cut to the chase. The best deal would be to continue following the EU’s “common rule book” on trade in industrial and agricultural products, with new high-tech systems obviating the need for checks on the border with Ireland.
Britain would be free to diverge in regulation of digital, financial and other services, allowing it to extend its role as a global centre of money and ideas. The plan was a bit hazy on whether people, as opposed to goods, would continue to have free movement across borders with the EU.
According to some reports, Johnson spoke enthusiastically about getting behind the plan while at Chequers. But over the weekend, he was said to call this “polishing a turd”. On Sunday night, David Davis, the minister for Brexit negotiations, resigned, effectively forcing Johnson off the fence. He quit on Monday, telling May her plan meant Britain was “truly headed for the status of colony”.
Indeed, the plan effectively would keep Britain inside the EU customs area, but without a voice in the councils that set the rules. With fewer and fewer people drawn to the romantic ideas of hardline Brexiters such as Johnson – that new deals with America, the old empire and emerging economies would soon make up for any lost European trade – May’s soft option emphasises the question: what is the point of Brexit?
As the week progressed, attention focused on whether the hardliners could roll May. They would need 48 of their MPs to petition for a leadership vote. But the camp is divided. Johnson is discredited by his clownish behaviour and recent comment of “Fuck business” to city doubters of Brexit. Michael Gove supported May’s policy, and is now seen as “the main snake in the grass” by at least one colleague. The retro figure of Jacob Rees-Mogg was emerging as the last champion of a hard Brexit.
It could go on until October, May’s deadline for concluding an agreement with the EU and presenting it to parliament. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour opposition is not yet saying how it will vote. It may combine with Tory diehards to vote it down, in the hope of precipitating an early election.
Even as this British crisis played out, Donald Trump was landing in Europe, first to attend the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Brussels on Monday, then his long-delayed first official visit to Britain.
It was preceded by the usual Twitter storm from the United States president. “First meeting – NATO. The US is spending many times more than any other country in order to protect them. Not fair to the US taxpayer. On top of that we lose $151 Billion on Trade with the European Union. Charge us big Tariffs (& Barriers)!”
Poland’s Donald Tusk, the head of the EU’s top council, fired back in kind: “Dear @realDonaldTrump. US doesn’t have and won’t have a better ally than EU. We spend on defense much more than Russia and as much as China. I hope you have no doubt this is an investment in our security, which cannot be said with confidence about Russian & Chinese spending :-)”
And so it went on. On the ground, Trump told other leaders they should meet a defence spending target of 2 per cent of gross domestic product “immediately” then raise it to 4 per cent. His feud with Angela Merkel continued: Germany was “captive to Russia” because of its dependence on its supplies of natural gas.
The more immediate worry was whether Trump was going to show himself to be the captive of Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday. The meeting itself is already a big win for Putin, a pariah since annexing Crimea. Would Trump follow the example set with Kim Jong-un of suspending “provocative” military exercises, such as the ones planned for October and November for the defence of Poland? Or propose withdrawing some of the 63,000 American troops in Europe?
Trump did sign up to a NATO communiqué stiffly critical of Russia. But as Tusk said earlier this year: “The real geopolitical problem is not when you have an unpredictable opponent or enemy or partner, the problem is if your closest friend is unpredictable … It’s not a joke now.”
The joker-in-chief was due to land in London on Thursday evening, where a balloon representing Trump as a baby in a nappy was floating over Westminster and a hostile mass rally was planned. The three-day visit will include a visit to Queen Elizabeth. Having received Idi Amin in her time, she is sure to handle it calmly. Trump may also catch up with his “friend” Boris Johnson.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan started another term as Turkey’s president on Monday, armed with a strong majority in recent elections and sweeping new powers conferred by referendum that dispense with the office of prime minister, allowing him to run the show directly.
Turkey was “making a new start”, he proclaimed. “We are leaving behind the system that has in the past cost our country a heavy price in political and economic chaos.” To make sure all are with him, he sacked another 18,000 police, soldiers, teachers, academics and other civil servants ahead of the inauguration, bringing his total of purged followers of cleric Fethullah Gülen to more than 130,000.
However, economic chaos may not have been left behind. Partly as a result of Erdoğan’s reckless spending programs, Turkey’s inflation rate hit 12 per cent last month and is still rising, interest rates are around 18 per cent, and the lira has devalued by a fifth this year, leaving many businesses unable to service their borrowings. The country is heading for a South American-style crash.
What a nerve! Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo goes to Pyongyang last Saturday and starts talking about complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation. As if Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-un last month gave him any right to be so crass and premature. Lots of other things to agree on first, such as a peace treaty and recognition.
That was the official reaction from the North Korean foreign ministry, a few hours after Pompeo took off after his talks with the regime’s former spy chief Kim Yong-chol. “The attitude and demands from the US side during the high-level talks were nothing short of deeply regrettable,” the ministry said.
“We had expected that the US side would offer constructive measures that would help build trust based on the spirit of the leaders’ summit … we were also thinking about providing reciprocal measures,” it went on. Instead it came up with “one-sided and gangster-like” demands on “CVID”.
How naive and foolish the North Koreans had been. Now the follow-up talks had entered a “dangerous phase that might rattle our willingness for denuclearisation that had been firm”. It seemed, the ministry said, that “working level” officials were trying to undermine the “friendly relationship and trust” established between Trump and Kim. •
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 14, 2018 as "Boris lays out his cards over all Bino approach". Subscribe here.