It can hardly have escaped your attention that the centre of London has been taken over by a group of highly disruptive activists, as smug as they are zealous; committed to their inflexible objectives to the exclusion of all else. They are unimpressed by the rule of law, manipulative of the media, and combine an irritating insistence that they speak on behalf of the people with all the worst aspects of the privately educated.
So much, then, for Boris Johnson’s Government.
It says a lot about the state of the nation that the comparison between No 10’s guerrilla tactics and Extinction Rebellion’s campaign of civil disobedience stretches as far as it does. Indeed, the joke may be a little unfair on XR, which at least has a plan unambiguously intended to improve the lot of humanity, however difficult it would be to implement in practice.
In contrast, it has become woefully clear that Johnson’s commitment to securing a Brexit deal with the European Union has always been, at best, secondary to his determination to win a general election.
Naturally, he and his acolytes continue to insist that they wish to reach an agreement with Brussels and to avoid a no-deal exit on October 31. The PM and his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, are set to hold further talks this week, as the crunch EU summit on October 17-18 draws ever closer.
Yet the Taoiseach, who spoke to Johnson for 45 minutes by phone yesterday, has already warned that “it’s going to be very difficult to secure an agreement by next week, quite frankly”. After a separate call between the British Prime Minister and Angela Merkel, a Number 10 source said that a deal was “essentially impossible”.
In open exasperation, Donald Tusk, the European Council President, tweeted that Johnson was now playing “a stupid blame game” instead of concentrating upon “the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people”.
Tusk is right about the blame game: the first phase of any populist campaign is based on extravagant promises (“Take Back Control”, £350 million extra per week for the NHS, Britain liberated from imaginary “vassaldom”). The second is all about the attribution of blame: having stoked public expectations, the regime angrily denounces those insidious forces — Brussels, Dublin, the judiciary, the media — that have supposedly thwarted the popular will.
To this end, the Johnson administration has been turned inside out. It has elevated the longstanding practice of off-the-record briefing to the principal tool of governance.
Hence, the most comprehensive — if wholly unofficial — statement of HMG’s negotiating position on Brexit at present is the long and rambling message sent on Monday to James Forsyth, The Spectator’s political editor, by “a contact in Number 10”.
So dominant is the grip of Dominic Cummings, the PM’s chief adviser, upon Government strategy and communications that it has been reflexively assumed that he was the author of the message. In a sense, however, the identity of the specific writer is less important than the content — vituperative about Varadkar, threatening EU nations with withdrawal of defence and security co-operation, warning that the UK’s participatory duties in the EU will be “in the toilet after October 31.
Even if all this did not come from the keyboard of Cummings, it certainly came from his mind. Ditto the fantastically undiplomatic read-out by “a Number 10 source” on the Merkel-Johnson phone call. This was not a level-headed briefing about a serious conversation between two senior heads of government at a pivotal moment in British postwar history. It was the tactic of the snitch or the village gossip, to prepare the ground for an imminent fiasco.
The contrasting discretion of Merkel’s team only compounded the humiliating sense that high politics in this country has been fully infantilised. Like Jack in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Cummings leads the Government in a destructive march, whipping up the (wholly bogus) conviction that it has been liberated from all responsibility for the failure of Brexit.
As in the successful Leave campaign of 2016, the strategy is all about storytelling, narrative and emotional resonance. Doubtless Number 10 had absolutely nothing to do with the disgustingly xenophobic tweets posted by Leave.EU yesterday calling Merkel a “kraut”. But — as in 2016, when Cummings ran the official Vote Leave campaign — there will be quiet satisfaction that the virus of blame is now released, rampant and doing its poisonous work.
The crucial difference, of course, between 2016 and 2019 is that campaigning and government are utterly different. One is about simplification and amplification; the other is about confronting complexity and matching ambition with practicality. This regime’s merging of the two — in truth the relegation of government to a subsidiary of campaigning — is a disaster for the country at the worst possible moment.
I have been reading the third and final volume of Charles Moore’s magisterial biography of Margaret Thatcher. Her final years in office, do not forget, were upended by furious controversy over Europe, the poll tax and her indifference to senior Cabinet colleagues. Yet — reading Moore’s impeccably sourced account — one is struck by the extent to which, even at the moments of highest political drama, orderly government procedures and protocol carried on. The grown-ups were still in charge.
Where are the grown-ups now? Who will call a halt to the mayhem sown by this untamed gang of middle-aged children, running riot through the corridors of power?