It was supposed to be the Valentine’s Day speech in which Boris Johnson used his famed linguistic gift to win over the 48 per cent to the Government’s Brexit cause. It was going to be – we were led to believe – a unifying message of optimism, hope, and even, brace yourselves, love.
But this Valentine offering from the Foreign Secretary turned out to be the political equivalent of a fading bunch of polythene-wrapped carnations bought for a fiver from the petrol station forecourt – rushed, with very little thought, and leaving us wondering why he bothered at all.
Johnson asked us to put ourselves in the shoes of a constituent of his, who has become so disillusioned with Brexit she wants to emigrate to Canada. He wanted to understand her anxieties in order to put the reassuring “liberal” case for Brexit that the whole country could get behind. Of course, many of us don’t have to imagine ourselves as this would-be expat, because for many months now, the 48 per cent have felt left behind by the Government’s like-it-or-lump-it push for a hard Brexit, with no single market or customs union.
It is beyond argument that the referendum produced a result in favour of Brexit. But what is less clear-cut is that it delivered a mandate for a hard Brexit – because even the Leave side was divided on whether or not the result meant staying inside the single market. The case for a hard Brexit was therefore already weak, but last year’s election, denying Theresa May’s majority, made it far weaker. There is no majority in Parliament for a hard Brexit. These increasingly shaky grounds for hard Brexit should have made her government more consensual, not less; more humble, not less. Instead it has doubled down on the “mutineers” and “saboteurs” who, it claims, want to derail our departure from the EU – hurled at anyone who merely questions the austere, economically risky nature of a post-Brexit Britain that we face.
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It is a bit rich, then, that the Foreign Secretary now wants to outstretch his arms and ask the 48 per cent to succumb to his embrace. In his speech at the Policy Exchange, Johnson acknowledged that there were “anxieties” over Brexit, specifically around Britain’s security and its place in the world, being cut off from the cultural “aesthetic” aspects of continental Europe, and economic prosperity. Do not be fearful, the Foreign Secretary told us, while admitting that people were concerned that Brexit had made it “made it less easy to live, study and work abroad” – which is, in fact, technically true.
Johnson said a second referendum would lead to “another year of turmoil and wrangling and feuding in which the whole country will be the loser – let’s not go there,” he said. Except the Foreign Secretary already went there, during the campaign in 2016, when he led scaremongering over the prospect that Turkey joining the EU would pose a security threat to Britain.
In his speech, he said he wanted to dial down the divisive “you lost, get over it” rhetoric, that Brexit did not mean “some great V-sign from the cliffs of Dover” – yet in the same breath used phrases like “pro-European elite”. He said he recognised the “grief and alienation” felt by Remainers, including members of his own family and friends, yet claimed there was a “hardening of the mood, a deepening of the anger” among those who are anti-Brexit and repeatedly told how he’d been verbally abused in the street.
It was a Valentine’s message of passive aggression which, unless I’m very much mistaken, isn’t a great seller at Moonpig.
Perhaps the most deceitful theme in his speech was the idea that he is somehow leading a government charge for a “liberal Brexit”. But simply quoting the West Wing, the Gettysburg Address and John Stuart Mill, as he did, does not add up to a liberal vision. In fact, it was laughable to hear the Foreign Secretary ladle the word “liberal” into a speech that railed against migrants suppressing wages and undermining the skills of “indigenous” people.
If Johnson had really wanted a “liberal Brexit”, if he really wanted to resist what he called in his speech a “reactionary Faragiste” Brexit, then he should not have become the figurehead for a Leave campaign that was reactionary and Faragiste to its core: small-minded, anti-internationalist, xenophobic and unforgivably illiberal.
Johnson’s wooing of the 48 per cent isn’t fooling anyone: it wasn’t so much a Valentine’s Day message of sweet nothings, but of nothing at all.