Nick Robinson: I’ve underestimated Boris ever since our Oxford clashes

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

By this time next week the Johnson era will surely have begun. ‘We can, we will, we must now escape the giant hamster wheel of doom,’ our new Dear Leader will have declared in Downing Street. Or something like it. He will be rewarded with headlines such as ‘BoJo gives us back our mojo’. We will all have been urged to believe in Britain again. Then the questions will begin. With the same deadlocked parliament, the same deeply divided party and country and the same intransigence, what will the new prime minister be able to achieve that Theresa May hasn’t? I’ve been examining the past three years of failed Brexit negotiations for a BBC One documentary called Britain’s Brexit Crisis. What’s clear is that Britain never had a plan for Brexit. David Cameron didn’t have a Plan B in case he lost the referendum, Boris didn’t have a Plan A for when he won it. May didn’t have one when she fulfilled her childhood dream of reaching No. 10. Let’s hope her successor hasn’t just been dreaming about how to follow her there.

In contrast, the EU did have a plan — for its own survival — and it proved remarkably good at sticking to it. That, in no small part, is down to the suave Frenchman who has been the EU’s public face. On camera Michel Barnier is the disciplined master of the line to take — ‘the clock is ticking’ and ‘there will be no cherry-picking’. In private he can be witty. Returning to his office half an hour after my interview, he found my crew still de-rigging. ‘Aha,’ he said with a broad Gallic grin. ‘The Brits still haven’t left!’

One of many misunderstandings the Brits had which explains this whole sorry saga was to treat Barnier as the EU’s negotiator. Diplomats tell me that his real job was — in a phrase only they use — ‘to manage his authorising environment’, i.e. keep the EU 27 informed and on side. All the real negotiating was done by his deputies and masterminded by Jean-Claude Juncker’s right-hand man. When I interviewed Martin Selmayr, he skilfully parried my questions — as you would expect from a German lawyer — until I asked him what his nickname is. Ever so reluctantly he admitted ‘They call me “The Monster”,’ swiftly adding this was because of his capacity for hard work. I put it to him that it may be because people are scared of him. No one, he insisted, was scared of him. So, what would he like his nickname to be? ‘Martin, the friend of Britain,’ he replied with a trace of a smile. We’ll see.

Talking of diplomats, there are few better or more respected than our man — for now at least — in Washington. Sir Kim Darroch proves the truth of my favourite definition of a diplomat, as someone who tells you to go to hell in a way that leads you to ask for directions and look forward to the trip. Diplomacy may, of course, have been redefined by Donald Trump and Johnson. I still recall a gathering of the diplomatic corps at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office when Boris welcomed his guests by telling them ‘We have invaded, defeated or conquered most of your countries but you are here as friends.’ The Brits found it funny. Others less so.

Robust discourse long pre-dates the Johnson, Trump and even Twitter eras as I have been reminded as I savour Tombland, the latest in C.J. Sansom’s magnificent Shardlake series. It brings alive the story of the 1549 uprising of the people against the elite in the Kett rebellion. Gentlemen and their briefly liberated serfs exchange splendid insults. My favourites are ‘you dozzled spunk-stain’ and ‘you bezzled puttock’.

I have written this diary assuming that Johnson will win next week. If he doesn’t, we in the Society of Scribblers, Commentators, Hacks and Allied Trades will have to add Jeremy Hunt to the list of election results — Brexit, Trump and the May landslide — we got wrong. I ought to confess to a lifetime of underestimating Boris. It no doubt has something to do with recalling his shambolic, though never anything other than hilarious, speeches when we clashed at the Oxford Union in the early 1980s. A lot has been written about the impact on our national life of my generation at Oxford. I was recently asked to give the address at my college’s gaudy. I asked my fellow graduates to look around the room at the gathering of successful, influential and often wealthy folk in the City, the law, the arts and more. We should all take pride in our achievements, I told them — ‘such as the banking crisis, the loss of faith in politics, the era of Fake News’. My message to them is my message to our next prime minister and fellow Oxford graduate. We can, we must, do better. But will we?

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