Claud Cockburn claimed that while working as a young man for The Times, he and his colleagues used to amuse themselves by competing to see who could write the dullest headline. According to Cockburn, he won this contest only once, with the headline: “Small Earthquake in Chile. Not many dead.”
That was in 1929, and such restraint has long since gone out of fashion. Nowadays even the most respectable publications compete to put the most sensational headline on the dullest story.
A few days ago, the Foreign Secretary wrote a newspaper article. What could be less dramatic than that? He has spent the last 30 years writing newspaper articles.
Boris Johnson enunciated no startling new departure in British foreign policy. Nor did he announce that he has decided, after talking the matter over with Donald Trump and the Archbishop of Canterbury, to enter a Trappist monastery. With grotesque unscrupulousness, and deplorable lack of originality, he recycled various bits of material of which he first made use last year, and at the same time declared his support for the Prime Minister.
This was reported as a great attack on the Prime Minister. Commentators competed with each other to see who could heap the greatest derision on the Foreign Secretary.
In the Financial Times, Bruce Anderson called for him to be sacked: “He brings to his great office all the authority of a clown running away from the circus because a bailiff has just arrived with a paternity suit.”
Among embittered Remainers and dispossessed Cameroons, there is an insatiable demand for this kind of personal attack. They blame Johnson for their defeat, and yearn to show there can be no place for him in civilised society. The Dinner Party, as Frank Johnson used to call it, has voted never again to ask him round for a spot of Boeuf Bourguignonne.
But a lot more people voted for Brexit – a project for which Johnson evinces greater enthusiasm than Theresa May does. According to today’s Sun, he has even “told friends” the Brexit negotiations will fail and the Government must be prepared to walk away from them.
Yet as long as the Prime Minister keeps her head, which in many a tight spot she has shown herself quite capable of doing, there is no reason why she should not turn such reports to her advantage.
She can indicate during the negotiations that neither her party nor the wider public will be satisfied if she bows the knee to Brussels, and that she will walk away if she is treated as some kind of underling who can be ordered around. Such is the very strategy commended by Nigel Lawson in today’s Financial Times.
He contends that “there is no way they will offer us anything but a thoroughly bad deal (if that)… The EU establishment is scared stiff that a remotely good deal for the UK might encourage others to head for the exit.“
I do not know if this will turn out to be correct, but we ought at least to prepare for the strong possibility that it is correct.
It is absurd to treat Johnson as some kind of saboteur, just because he says Britain should negotiate with confidence. Does any of his colleagues disagree with that proposition?