If one wishes to understand Boris Johnson’s performance in the Brexit negotiations, it is worth studying his performance as a journalist.
Nobody, so far as I know, has yet done this. HIs critics have trawled his articles in search of proof that he is a racist and a liar, but were already determined to condemn him, so were in no condition to learn anything they did not already believe.
Johnson has been writing about the European Union since 1989, when Max Hastings, in a stroke of genius, sent him as The Daily Telegraph‘s correspondent to Brussels.
Soon Johnson’s office was adorned with herograms from Hastings, in recognition of the wonderfully readable and widely noticed copy supplied by his protégé.
While other correspondents still treated the EU with a degree of respect, Johnson set out to ridicule the Brussels bureaucracy, and to dramatise the mortal threat which the Commission’s expansionist zeal posed to the British way of life, symbolised by changes in the rules governing crisps and sausages.
His readers enjoyed these reports enormously, but some of his rival correspondents did not. They accused him of making things up.
He reported (as I noted in my biography of him, Boris: The Making of the Prime Minister) that the Berlaymont building was going to be blown up, in order to get rid of the asbestos with which it was infected. The editor of The European saw this story and wished to arrange for one of its readers to push the plunger on the detonator, but this proved impossible, for there was to be no detonation.
The Berlaymont is standing to this day, its asbestos-ridden cladding replaced by what looks like an entirely new building, in which Ursula von der Leyen last week entertained Johnson to dinner.
Stories like this continue to annoy The New York Times, and other journals which attach the highest importance to checking the facts.
They are not mollified, if anything are made still angrier, by the observation that Johnson approached Brussels in the manner of a dramatist, not a literalist, the urge to entertain taking precedence over mere facts.
When a brilliant caricaturist tells the truth by exaggerating somebody’s features, nobody objects, but the same latitude is not extended to reporters, even though the presentation of their work – the decision about which story to put on the front page, with a dramatic headline – can seldom be said to be free from hyperbole.
The row about Johnson’s cavalier attitude to facts obscured several other aspects of his work. One was that he was onto something: the Commission really was trying to expand its powers at the expense of the member states.
A second feature was his respect for the ruthlessness with which Jacques Delors, the President of the Commission, and his henchman, Pascal Lamy, were driving forward the process of European integration, which they believed to be in the French national interest, for it was a way of controlling Germany:
“With his virtually shaven head and parade-ground manner, Lamy runs the upper echelons of the Commission like a Saharan camp of the French Foreign Legion.”
British officials, with “their shy grins and corrugated-soled shoes”, were, Johnson lamented, “no match for the intellectual brutality of Lamy and his stooges”.
Another aspect of his coverage was harder to spot, for it was something he did not do. When objecting to the Commission’s plans, he did not generally protest that these were contrary to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.
Johnson is no disciple of Enoch Powell. In his voluminous journalism he pretty much ignores him.
In an interview which I conducted with Johnson for the Christmas 2012 issue of Weltwoche, published in Zurich, he admitted that he has always been seen by hard-line eurosceptics as “incorrigibly wet” on the issue of British membership of the EU.
He is not a dogmatist: something seen also in his attitude to the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Some of the greatest Telegraph journalists – one thinks of T.E.Utley, who died in 1988 – articulated an eloquent and principled Unionism.
No attempt was made by Johnson to follow in Utley’s footsteps, and last autumn he did a deal with Leo Varadkar, Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, which Unionists regarded with deep disquiet.
It would, however, be wrong to regard Johnson’s European journalism as inconsistent. His Telegraph colleague Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who has known him since 1991 and served as the paper’s correspondent in Brussels from 1999-2004, was occasionally commissioned by Johnson, by now editor of The Spectator, to contribute pieces, and has recalled:
“At no time during those years did I ever detect any deviation from his core view that the EU was amassing unhealthy powers…
“He shared my view entirely that the EU was creating an upper layer of executive government beyond accountability, with a Caesaropapist structure at odds with British democratic self-rule.”
During the long Greek agony over the euro, Johnson’s sympathies were overwhelmingly with the Greeks. Here he is, writing in The Telegraph in May 2012, defying the conventional wisdom that the answer to the eurozone’s problems is to go for fiscal union:
” it is frankly unbelievable that we should now be urging our neighbours to go for fiscal union. It is like seeing a driver heading full-tilt for a brick wall, and then telling them to hit the accelerator rather than the brake.
“Europe now has the lowest growth of any region in the world. We have already wasted years in trying to control this sickness in the euro, and we are saving the cancer and killing the patient. We have blighted countless lives and lost countless jobs by kidding ourselves that the answer to the crisis might be ‘more Europe’. And all for what? To salvage the prestige of the European Project, and to spare the egos of those who were wrong and muddle-headed enough to campaign for the euro.
“Surely it is now time to accept that the short-term pain of a managed euro rupture – a wholesale realignment, possibly a north/south bisection – would be better than continuing to immiserate so many people around the continent.”
The emperor has no clothes: this refrain echoes through Johnson’s journalism, and distresses Europe’s imperial class.
Johnson yearns to attract and amuse the largest possible audience, and does so partly by demonstrating his determination to do things his own way.
Michael Binyon of The Times has recalled how in Brussels Johnson would invariably arrive late for the daily press conference at noon, a fixed point around which the journalists’ day revolved.
Johnson would shamble in at about 12.10 looking as if he had just been pulled through a haystack, and a French journalist once asked Binyon: “Qui est ce monstre?”
If you want to make an impact in Brussels, you have to put on a performance. Johnson realised this, and by 1994, when he left, everyone knew who he was.
The short clip of him meeting von der Leyen last Wednesday evening was somehow tremendously watchable. Johnson as he took his mask off for the benefit of the cameras, then followed his host’s bidding and immediately put it back on again, communicated a subversive geniality, a sense of the ridiculous.
The message was that he had not gone native; that he was still the man who made his name as a journalist by refusing to take the Brussels Establishment as seriously as it took itself.
Whatever the outcome of the present negotiations, Johnson will be determined to preserve his reputation as a man who does not bow to the Establishment, and does not hasten to conform to its timetable or its manners.
By keeping everyone in suspense, uncertain of the outcome, he has maintained the theatrical nature of the proceedings, with himself as the lead actor.
Solemn people have often found his journalism irresponsible, and now they find his politics irresponsible. But that is part of the point. Whether writing, speaking or negotiating, Johnson puts on a performance which the spectators enjoy all the more because it horrifies the guardians of convention.