Sunday, 13 September 2020

Brexitwatch: this wasn't meant to happen! Part 3 - Boris Johnson's 115th Dream

Boris and Carrie are sitting watching television. Now read on:

 ‘Oh great! Season 4 of ‘The Crown’!’

‘Oh yes. World-beating! But wait a minute, Carrie. That caption says March 3, 2021. None of this has happened yet. How can they know about it?’

‘Shh. I’m trying to watch the programme.’

‘Oh God! I don’t look like that. Surely they could have found somebody better looking! And he’s nearly bald!  Where’s the phone. I’m going to get on to that new head honcho we put in – Davey Somebody – and make him take this off.’

 ‘Boris! It’s not the BBC, it’s Netflix. Now shut up and listen.’

‘Oh. I was expecting to see the Queen.’

A hint of a mirthless smile flickers beneath an impressive moustache. ‘I’m afraid Her Majesty is otherwise engaged. She asked me to see you on her behalf.’

‘Hold on!  I recognise you. You’re Tommy Lascelles. You were in the last series or the one before. You can’t see me, because you’re dead.’

Unlike his interlocutor, the urbane functionary is not in the least nonplussed. ‘Don’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia, Mr Johnson. It sometimes…….exaggerates.’

‘You mean “prime minister”’

‘Mr Johnson.’ The mirthless smile was back.

‘Well, the point is that once parliament has passed this ‘Unilateral Cancellation of EU Trade Agreement Bill’, I’ll need HMQ to give the Royal Assent pronto, so we can implement the populi voluntatem without delay and all that.’

‘And, of course, if you ask Her Majesty to take that action, she will have to comply.’


‘Which is precisely why you will not do it.’

‘What do you mean, Lascelles? You can’t obstruct the will of the people.’

‘I have here a few papers for your perusal.’ (The phrase: ‘Restricted. Top Secret. Not for Fatman’s eyes’ are fleetingly visible on one.)

‘Oh. I’ll take them back to number 10. Dom reads that kind of stuff for me.’

‘The papers will not be leaving this room, and, Mr Cummings is (Lascelles consults his watch) as of now, ‘a guest of Her Majesty’, as I think they say in the films. Apparently something about his time in Russia?’

‘There’s no point trying to frighten me about leaking stuff to the press. The ephemerides are all in my pocket and the BBC daren’t sneeze without my say so.’

The immaculately turned out royal servant produces a newspaper and eases it across the table. ‘If the papers I showed you a moment ago are too voluminous, perhaps you might cast your eye over this?’

“‘Bang Up Boris’ call. Gove poised for No 10.” What’s this?

‘The front page of tomorrow morning’s (Lascelles raises his eyebrows and utters the next word as though wiping something nasty off the sole of his Berluti Oxford) Sun. I managed to persuade them to tone it down from ‘string up’ to ‘bang up’.’

‘That bastard Gove! It’s a fake, Rupert would never do this to me.’

‘If you examine the papers I suggested you should read, you will see that some (the pause is followed by the same tone of voice used for ‘Sun’) gentlemen who had hoped to profit from certain actions of yours felt they had not received the degree of forewarning you promised, and so have not profited as much as they had anticipated.’

‘Can I get my mobile?’

‘As you know, these audiences are strictly mobile-free.’

‘Then I need to get back to Number 10 right now.’

‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible. Some kind of security alert. The police say there’s a suspected criminal in the building. However (it’s that mirthless smile again) should you wish to avail yourself of a generous offer from President Putin, you may leave now and take asylum in Krasnoyarsk.’

‘What the hell is that?’

‘A place in Siberia. The president has provided special transport from here to the airport, and your flight leaves in a couple of hours. Aeroflot. I’m afraid he couldn’t get business class.’

‘You can’t do this. I’m the prime minister! I’m the prime minister!’

‘Oh Boris, do shut up! That’s the third time this week. Anyway it’s eleven o’ clock. Time for even you to get up. What are these dreams you keep having? Is it always the same one?

Friday, 11 September 2020

Brexitwatch: Now Johnson is bragging about breaking the law - time to write to the Queen again

Just over a year ago, I wrote to the Queen to warn her of the danger of becoming an accomplice in Boris Johnson's illegal suspension of parliament (see my post of 30 August 2019, and 13 September 2019 for the Queen's reply).

It is likely that very soon now, the Queen will be asked to approve the UK Internal Market Bill, which by the government's own admission ('boast' may be a more accurate word) reneges on the Withdrawal Agreement Johnson signed with the EU, and support for which was the key policy that won him a general election just ten months ago, and breaks international law. Even prominent Brexiters like Lord (Michael) Howard and Lord (Norman) Lamont are unable to stomach this. 

So I have written to the Queen again, suggesting that her previous contention that 'I have to do whatever the prime minister tells me' is inadequate in a situation in which she is being asked to approve the UK breaking the law. Here is my letter:

Your Majesty,

 A year ago, I wrote to you to warn you of the dangers of simply following the orders of your prime minister. The result of following those orders was that you became an accomplice in an illegal prorogation of parliament. Now very soon, it is highly likely that your prime minister will instruct you to endorse the UK government breaking international law.

 I am sorry this crisis should have come upon when you are in your 90s and when you have given your country a long lifetime of devoted service, but you are The Queen.

 Unlike the prorogation, which Mr Johnson’s government at least pretended they believed was legal, with the repudiation of the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, your government is actually boasting that it is breaking the law.

 This agreement you will remember was freely agreed to by the prime minister, was approved by Conservative MPs, who refused to allow parliament time to scrutinise it properly, and then became the centrepiece of the Conservative Party’s successful campaign in a general election just ten months ago.

 You very kindly got your deputy correspondence co-ordinator to reply on your behalf to my previous letter, but her assertion that you must always ‘act on the advice of your ministers’ is surely inadequate when they keep telling you to do things that are illegal.

 I would humbly urge you the next time you are instructed to perform or endorse an act that may be illegal to seek your own independent legal advice. Would it not also be wise to seek the views of the leader of the opposition, of the other five living prime ministers, and of previous Lord Chancellors?  

 As I wrote in my first letter: ‘The national interest of our country, and particularly the long-term interest, such as protecting our democracy, is not the same thing as what a particular prime minister or government happens to find convenient at a particular moment. So there needs to be someone in our constitution who plays the role of standing up for the national interest, when necessary, against the prime minister or government of the day.’

 There is no one but you who can do this. These are the most dangerous times the UK has faced since World War Two. Please do not let us down.

 Yours sincerely,


John Withington

Thursday, 10 September 2020

My new book 'Assassins' Deeds' - 'entertaining and haunting' says an expert on terrorism

Thank you to Dr Tim Wilson, Director, Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), University of St Andrews, for his comments on my new book:

 ‘Like Shakespeare himself, Assassins’ Deeds offers us a stage memorably strewn with the most distinguished of corpses. ‘Bloody instructions’ (as Macbeth called them) are certainly to be found here in abundance. But there are also wise words about how often incompetence and unintended consequences derail the best laid plans. Assassination, Withington instructs us in entertaining style, is no exact science. A messy tale: and a haunting one.’

Assassins' Deeds. A History of Assassination from Ancient Egypt to the Present Day, published by Reaktion, is out on 12 October.

It delves back 4,000 years to seek out the first known assassination, then examines the famous killings - Julius Caesar, Thomas Becket, Abraham Lincoln, JFK, right up to Qasem Soleimani, while also uncovering some less well-known deeds like those of the Turkish sultan who had nineteen of his brothers strangled. 

It examines how motivation has changed, and how methods often altered surprisingly little, in spite of great technological changes. It shows how often assassinations go wrong and how many victims were surprisingly careless. Abraham Lincoln had let his bodyguard go for a drink. Finally it investigates whether assassination works.

Monday, 17 August 2020

Brexitwatch: this wasn't meant to happen! Part 2


Meanwhile at Leave headquarters:

Ever wondered why Boris Johnson looked as though he was going to a funeral when he announced Leave’s victory in the referendum? This transcript of a conversation from shortly before the vote explains: 

‘I say, Dom. Some jumped-up jackass has just asked me whether Brexit will mean less immigration. What’s our policy?’

‘Did they want less immigration?’

‘Er. I think so.’

‘So our policy is less immigration. If they want more immigration, our policy is more immigration. If they want no immigration, our policy is no immigration. Simple enough for you?’

‘But Dom, how will we reconcile all those contradictory promises?’

‘We won’t have to, because Remain will win.’

‘Yes, of course. Er, er, Dom I’m also a bit worried about these undertakings we’ve given about leaving the EU but keeping all the advantages of remaining.’

‘You just don’t get it, do you? We LOSE. So we won’t have to keep any promises. So we can promise anything. Then after Remain wins, we wait for the fury of the Tory head-bangers who’ve been denied their beloved Brexit, to force Cameron out. Look I’ve already written your campaign speech when you go for the leadership:

“My friends, no one campaigned harder for Brexit than me, but that fight is over, and now we must all accept the democratic result that we remain in the EU. Our task now is to bring together our party and our country – Leavers and Remainers – to take us forward to the next phase of our world-beating history.” Then throw in a bit of Latin or something if you must.’

‘Fine, Dom, yes. Er, one other thing. How should I vote?’

‘For Remain like me, what do you think? But don’t tell anybody.’

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Brexitwatch: this wasn't meant to happen! Part 1

When Prime Minister David Cameron gave in to the Conservative Brexit fanatics and promised to hold a referendum on EU membership if he won the General Election of 2015, he also let them do a lot of other things - e.g. gerrymander the electorate by systematically excluding millions of people who could have been expected to vote Remain.

He never bothered to think about crucial questions - such as what would happen if there was a very small majority, and/or a small turn out? What if some countries in the UK voted for Remain and others for Leave? Should the Leave campaign have to come up with a credible programme for quitting the EU or should they be allowed to be all things to all Brexiters and promise a whole pile of often contradictory things that could never be delivered?

You see none of this mattered, because Cameron knew the Tories were not going to win the election. At best, they'd be back in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and the Libdems would save him from holding the referendum.

Unfortunately, Cameron misjudged the ferocity with which his party would stab their former coalition partners in the back, and so, curses!, he won a majority. That wasn't meant to happen. 

So now he was stuck with the referendum, but still he didn't need to worry about the crazy, negligent basis on which it was being set up, because Remain was going to win. Leave was going to lose, and all but the most fanatical of the Brexiters could be put back in their box for a few more years.

To be continued

Friday, 24 July 2020

Brexitwatch: how incuriosity is killing British democracy. Part 2

Oh my prophetic soul! Two and a half years ago, I warned that MPs’ fierce determination to be incurious, to resolutely avoid inquiring into important matters, was threatening to destroy democracy in the UK (see my post of 21 January 2018). This week things got worse.

Back in 2018, MPs were busily voting against making the government publish studies on the impact Brexit would have on the UK: ‘Our constituents don’t need to know how their lives are going to be messed up by leaving the EU, and we certainly don’t want to hear about it!’

Now our MPs’ determination to be irrelevant has landed a double whammy in the last few days. First they voted to deny themselves any say on future trade deals. No fewer than 326 MPs decided: ‘not the kind of thing we want to be involved with, old boy.’

Even by the catastrophically low standards of today’s House of Commons, this is mind-boggling. Why would any MP with a scintilla of concern for the national interest deny themselves this right? After all, if you think a given trade deal is good, you just vote for it, don’t you? So what are you afraid of? That the deal’s bad, and then maybe your constituents will put you under pressure to vote against it, and if you do, Dominic Cummings or the extreme right-wing tabloids will be nasty to you? ‘No, please just let me be irrelevant and have a quiet life!’

MPs also determinedly looked the other way on Russian meddling in British politics and especially the Brexit referendum. Having tolerated Boris Johnson’s suppression of the cross-party report on this for nine months, they batted scarcely an eyelid when, after considering its demand for a proper inquiry into Russian interference for at least one second, Johnson dismissed it. 

Now they’re off on their hols!

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Brexitwatch: 'MacBoris' - Shakespeare's lost tragedy

Following my unearthing of Samuel Beckett’s hitherto unknown masterpiece, Waiting for the German Carmakers, (see my post of 1 February) I now unveil an even greater scoop - a new drama by Shakespeare! MacBoris. A Tragedy (for the UK).

It is the story of a privileged, entitled, selfish, rather overweight man who has to overcome no obstacles before being installed as the leader of his party and his country. 

Owing to the constraints of copyright, I can reproduce only a few lines from the work, but they are enough to illustrate that the bard of Stratford has produced another winner. One remarkable speech comes from the mouth of Lady Morgan, a very, very minor character, who on learning MacBoris has become prime minister, soliloquises: 

'Brexit, party leader, prime minister. Thou hast it all now, as Cummings promised, and I fear thou played'st most foully for it, but I'm not going to say anything about that, because I know which side my bread's buttered.'

But perhaps the most memorable line comes from MacBoris himself.  In the final act, while he is making models of buses from cardboard boxes, he gets a visit from the ghost of his hero Churchill (or was that Pericles? Depends on the audience, I suppose.) The spirit reveals that in an opinion poll in 2030 on 'who was Britain's worst ever prime minister', MacBoris will score 100%. The hero wonders whether, even now, he can repair at least some of the terrible damage he has done to his country, but concludes it would be too much like hard work:

'I am in lies stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er'.