Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Brexitwatch: 'My indecision is final.' Will Boris Johnson's dithering wreck the UK?

Boris Johnson has painted himself into a corner that allows only two unpalatable choices: accept a Brexit deal that breaks virtually every promise made by the Leave campaign or allow a catastrophic 'no deal' which could have any number of adverse effects including denying people the medicines they need to stay alive. (See my posts of Sept 27 and Oct 2).

It is a measure of how Johnson has been paralysed by this dilemma that his government has made no progress since I wrote about it two months ago, and now there is less than a month, and a month interrupted by Christmas holidays, before the transition period ends, and the UK has to face all the consequences of Brexit for the first time.

Now even the right wing Brexit fanatic newspapers are full of scare stories about how Brits who own holiday homes in Europe will be limited about how long they can spend there, how they'll face bigger bills, how insurance policies and driving licences aren't going to be valid anymore, how fishermen might 'take back control' of our waters but won't be able to sell their fish, how farmers will be bankrupted, how European freight companies will decide carrying goods to the UK is just too much hassle, etc., etc.

Of course, this has all been known about for years, but the right wing press had suppressed the stories, or derided them as 'Project Fear', hoping something would turn up. Maybe those German carmakers would finally ride to our rescue?

Johnson's inability to take tough decisions was notorious when he was Mayor of London. Now, faced with a much more crucial decision, he seems to be stuck in the Micawber position, desperately hoping that something will save him from having to choose between a rotten deal and no deal. It's the same approach he adopted with Covid - taking every decision too late. A failure for which many paid with their lives.

What price will the UK pay for his inability to take a decision over Brexit?

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Who let that thing out!? My new book 'Assassins' Deeds'


Out today. My new book Assassins’ Deeds. A history of assassination from Ancient Egypt to the present day. It does what it says on the cover.

Assassins’ Deeds identifies the earliest assassination in history so far as I can tell. An Egyptian pharaoh murdered about 4,300 years ago by his bodyguards. Then there is Britain’s first assassination in 293 AD – of Marcus Carausius, the self-styled ‘Emperor of Britain’, who was hired by the Romans to protect the south-east coast of England from Saxon raids, but was more interested in grabbing loot from the raiders than protecting the local residents.

I analysed 266 assassinations from ancient Egypt to the present day, and discovered the ace sniper of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal is a rarity. Most assassinations are up close and personal, with only 19 performed at a distance. Until the nineteenth century, stabbing was the favourite method, but even when firearms took over, it was usually the handgun at close quarters rather than the sniper’s rifle.

The book covers some of history’s weirdest assassinations – the king of Scotland killed by a booby-trapped statuette, the Swiss military leader hacked to death by a man disguised as a bear, and the Austrian empress murdered with a customised needle so fine the victim did not even realise she had been stabbed. She could count herself particularly unlucky as her assassin, an Italian anarchist, had been hoping to murder someone else, and she was a late substitute.

Fate moved in mysterious ways for some assassins too. An Italian nationalist was sentenced to the guillotine for a failed assassination attempt on the French emperor Napoleon III, but the emperor had a lot of sympathy for the would-be assassin’s cause of unifying Italy, and reprieved him at the last minute. He was sent to Devil’s Island for life, but escaped to the United States and went on to fight in and survive Custer’s Last Stand.

Then there is the story of King Zog of Albania, probably the only monarch to survive an assassination attempt by opening fire on the men who attacked him (as he was leaving the opera in Vienna).

Assassins Deeds’  also tells the story of history’s most famous assassinations – Julius Caesar, Thomas Becket, the French revolutionary Marat, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, etc., coming right up to the present day with the murder of Kim Jong-nam, renegade brother of the North Korean dictator, whose killers thought they were taking part in a reality tv show.

Assassins’ Deeds. A History of Assassination from Ancient Egypt to the Present Day by John Withington is published by Reaktion Books, price £18.





Saturday, 14 November 2020

Brexitwatch: of cakes and decisions

Another way of saying: 'I want to have my cake and eat it' is 'I am incapable of taking a decision'. Big political decisions usually involve making painful choices. Take Covid. The harder you lock down, the more you'll limit the spread of the virus, but the more damage you'll do to the economy.

The UK was late in imposing both of its lockdowns. Was this because Boris Johnson was incapable of taking the tough decision about how you balance economic damage against saving lives? Certainly, plenty of people complain about his indecisiveness when he was Mayor of London.

Brexit involves equally painful decisions. The more distant you want to be from the EU, the more damage you do to jobs, businesses and public services, and the greater the danger that you will break up the UK.

Johnson still seems not to have progressed from cakeism. He's still telling the dwindling band of people who believe him that we can have the benefits of EU membership without the responsibilities. The UK has tried demanding this for the last four years without success, but with perhaps just a week left to secure a deal, Johnson seems to have no fresh ideas.

Even if authoritarian nihilist Dominic Cummings has really departed, it will make the central decision no easier. What does the UK want: more distant and poorer, or closer and better off? With time running out, if Johnson continues to prevaricate, we will end up with no decision. And that will mean no deal. And that will mean we won't be able to have our cake or eat it.

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Brexitwatch: Kent's Brexit bogs - is Boris Johnson planning his greatest double cross?

There's a story doing the rounds that the UK could rejoin the EU in short order under Article 49. I personally do not give it a lot of credence. Nor do I think we should arrogantly assume that other EU members would want us back after the way we've behaved over the last four years.

Still, it does make you wonder. As I've noted many times, anything you say about Boris Johnson has to be highly speculative because you can't believe a word he says. 

So why is Johnson's government building 'Farage Garages' all over the place to accommodate lorry drivers stranded by Brexit, and why is Kent being turned into a public toilet that you'll need a passport to get in and out of?

Is this just the inevitable result of a no-deal Brexit or whatever lousy bare bones deal Johnson manages to do?

Or is it to ram home to the Brexiters what a disaster leaving the EU is going to be (Kent voted 59% for Brexit in the referendum), and to soften them up for an eventual application to rejoin or at least to agree a relationship that keeps us in the Single Market and the Customs Union? After all, it's quite clear that Johnson knows perfectly well that Brexit is a thoroughly foolish idea for the UK, however much it may have advanced him personally.

I don't believe this is Johnson's game, and I wouldn't put any money on it, but he knows that if he is not to go down in history as the UK's worst ever (and possibly last) prime minister, then at some point he needs to pivot away from disaster.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Brexitwatch: The Level Playing Field Mystery

'Watson. As you know, at the root of the art of detection is observation.'

'Of course, Holmes.'

'So why did I not observe it? Did I not follow the Brexit referendum campaign as closely as any man?'

'You did, Holmes.'

'So why did I not see the Level Playing Field, which we are now being told is the reason we cannot reach agreement with the European Union?'

'Perhaps because it was never there? Perhaps because "We need to leave the EU so we can hand out shedloads of hard-earned taxpayers' cash to 'businesses' run by mates of Dominic Cummings" might not have been an effective slogan?'

'And particularly not on the side of a bus! Capital, Watson!'

'But Holmes do you think the Conservatives had to conceal the fact that they wanted to use your money and mine, and the admirable Mrs Hudson's, to prop up unviable businesses because they have always said that lame ducks must go to the wall, that you can't buck the market. Indeed, wasn't Johnson saying the other day that the private sector always knows better than the state?'

'Though Cummings thinks he knows better than everyone. Watson, you excel yourself.  But there is another hypothesis, or indeed several.' The great detective paused to take a deep draught from his pipe. 'Suppose Johnson knew nothing of any of this during the referendum campaign? Suppose Cummings concealed it from him? Or suppose Cummings himself did not know about it, and that the idea came to him only after he watched 'Dragon's Den', saw the dragons, and thought:"I'd like to do that." Or suppose Cummings could see there was a danger of the EU and the UK reaching a sensible agreement, and decided that must be stopped at all costs, and that the Level Playing Field was just a useful pretext?'

'So what's the answer, Holmes?'

'That, Watson, is the mystery, but I wager the solution will bring no man any good.'

Friday, 2 October 2020

Brexitwatch: why Boris Johnson may go for 'no deal'

On 27 September, I put the case for why Boris Johnson may cave in and make a deal with the EU. Today I look at why he may be forced to settle for 'no deal'.

I was watching a clip from Johnson campaigning before the 2016 Brexit referendum. In the space of about 50 seconds, he promised: 1 Brexit would be 'win-win'. 2. There would be no tariffs. 3. There would be no trade barriers. 4. The City of London would continue to have the same access it has to now to the EU.

No deal that Johnson can achieve could possibly fulfil even these promises. To say nothing of all the others that were made - that we could have our cake and eat it, we could enjoy all the benefits of EU membership without any of the responsibilities, that it would make the UK better off, provide more money for the NHS etc, etc.

So the danger of a deal for Johnson is that it will be measured against the promises he and his acolytes made. And, therefore, perhaps the safest thing is to have 'no deal' and try to put the blame on the EU.

Certainly Johnson's government has been working very hard at that. The UK is reneging on treaties and breaking international law - that's the EU's fault. The UK's doctrinaire refusal to compromise means no progress is being made - that's the EU's fault, etc, etc.

So here is one reason why Johnson may feel 'no deal' is his safest option, and there are others which I will examine in the coming days - always remembering the health warning: because you cannot believe a word Johnson says, it is very hard to predict what he will do. 

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Brexitwatch: Boris Johnson - deal or no deal?

Sam Goldwyn warned: 'Never make predictions, especially about the future', and making predictions about Boris Johnson is especially hazardous because you can't believe a word he says (see my post of 5 January).

According to the crankish game theories of Johnson, or perhaps more important - Cummings, the UK will get a good deal only if the EU believes it is serious about 'walking away' from negotiations and settling for 'no deal'. (Though the consequences of no deal are now so widely recognised to be disastrous that Johnson-Cummings have had to try to rebadge it as an 'Australia-type' deal.)

There is no evidence that the EU are in the slightest degree impressed by this nonsense, but plenty that it keeps the more fanatically anti-EU element among Johnson-Cummings' supporters happy.

Nye Bevan asked: 'Why look in the crystal ball, when you can read the book?' And we have already seen Johnson-Cummings with their backs against the wall during the negotiations. They also threatened to walk away during the Withdrawal Agreement talks, but in the end they signed up to whatever the EU demanded, including things like a border in the Irish Sea that Theresa May had rejected. They and their nodding dogs then claimed this was a great victory.

Johnson-Cummings' attempt to renege on that agreement may mean that an even more humiliating climbdown will be required to get a deal on the future relationship, as the EU is probably unlikely to take much on trust from now on. But with a mendacious right-wing press still highly compliant on Brexit, if not on Covid, Johnson may still be calculating that he can repeat his earlier trick: surrender, then claim victory, while his media accomplices play along.

So, if I was forced to predict an outcome, it would be this one, though I wouldn't bet much on it. I'll be examining other possibilities over the coming weeks.