On his trip to Dublin, Boris Johnson showed that he has no idea how to get out of his Brexit mess-but we probably knew that already
Cameras were poised, journalists were waiting and the traffic in Dublin city centre was in shite.
Most of Merrion Street was closed off in anticipation of the Prime Minister's arrival, causing the kind of chaos that a Boris Johnson visit deserves. A Union Jack was fluttering opposite the tricolour above Irish government buildings. Perhaps a sign of things to come, if the British government keeps going the way it is and omnishambles itself out of having Northern Ireland.
Curtains on the windows of the government building twitched as civil servants gawked at the media circus below. British and Irish journalists bonded over lighthearted jokes, like that day’s Daily Telegraph front page. The newspaper had detailed a British government “plan” to send the EU one letter explaining how it wanted a Brexit extension, followed by another which explained that it didn’t; the same way little tiny children get out of promises by making them with their fingers crossed behind their backs.
Finally, the British prime minister’s motorcade arrived. The door of the sleek German car opened and there he was; the blonde bombshell. Boris Johnson got out and ambled up the steps of government buildings, making generic Boris Johnson noises.
“Hulluh, hulluh, rah,” was all that could be heard, before the PM gestured at the assembled media and complimented the Taoiseach on how “well-behaved” we were.
His hair was everywhere. His suit was “tailored” in the style of a first-day-of-school “you’ll grow into it” uniform. As he fiddled with the back of his jacket, he revealed low slung pants and a slightly untucked shirt. The tip of his too-long blue tie was flittering in the breeze, just above his groin. The Irish reporters took it all in, in stony silence.
“... The fuckin’ state of him,” one senior political correspondent said.
The Taoiseach, now looking like a Kennedy by comparison, started to speak ahead of his first meeting with the new Prime Minister.
In normal times, the diplomatic precedent for a meeting between two world leaders would be for them to treat each other as equals. Trapped in this nightmare, we have no room for precedent anymore. Since 2016, the most mundane, predictable utterances from Irish politicians about the need to protect the border have been twisted by some in Westminster into something resembling Anglophobic rebel shanties. So it’s no wonder that Leo Varadkar chose instead to speak to Boris Johnson in pure and utter plámás on Monday. It seems Ireland is now trying to flatter the UK out of a no-deal Brexit, which would destroy itself and anyone unfortunate enough to be associated with it in the process. Home truths were served up to the head of the British government using the tried and tested recipe for a shit sandwich: compliment first, then the bollocking, and then a compliment again.
We know Boris Johnson is partial to a bit of mythology, as his constant references to Grecian gods and his claims of having a workable “alternative” to the backstop show. Speaking to the Prime Minister in fluent Tory, Mr Varadkar described the UK’s attempts to negotiate new free trade agreements as a “herculean” task, meaning one that would require the strength of the Greek god. Ireland, Mr Varadkar added, could be the UK’s “Athena,” the goddess famed for her war strategies and for helping Hercules.
Flattered to the cusp of swooning, Mr Johnson started to titter away to himself before the Taoiseach added crisply: “I think the manner in which you leave the European Union will determine whether or not that’s possible.”
Mr Varadkar went on, and said the Irish government was open to “realistic” alternatives to the backstop if they were legally binding and workable.
“And we haven’t received such proposals to date,” the Taoiseach said, to some collective “oohs” from the drama queens in the press pack.
Before things got too awkward, Mr Varadkar swerved back to sweet-talk and brought up any Brexiteer Prime Minister’s two favourite things: Churchill and the war. The Taoiseach recalled a “poetic” description of Ireland written by Lord Alanbrooke from a plane he and Churchill were in, travelling from Washington to London during WWII. Mentioning war and Churchill together is a potent mix for an intoxicating cocktail of dick-swinging Blitz spirit that Mr Johnson was always going to be helpless to resist.
Then it was Mr Johnson’s turn to placate "Leo," as he called the Taoiseach. One day there will be a tribunal where Hugh Grant is finally held accountable for the cute, quaffing version of a Prime Minister which he played in Love, Actually 16 years ago, which has blighted Anglo-Irish political commentary and analysis ever since. It was obvious that Mr Johnson was aggressively trying to channel the same performance, as he joked about all the Irish cheese they eat in the UK (“a lot”) and how the captain of the British cricket team was born in Dublin. Heartwarming.
But as the press conference went on, Mr Johnson’s vibe veered more towards that of the bad guy Prime Minister in those Cillian Murphy/Liam Neeson Republican films that RTE show in the days between Christmas and New Year’s.
The Prime Minister refused to say if he’d been to visit the border since taking over from Theresa May. (He has not.) He couldn’t articulate what his B plan for the backstop was, even when one British reporter asked if he had “something in his pocket.” (A chilling moment for those of us in the Irish media who had heard lore about the Prime Minister’s sexual proclivities.)
A stark moment came when Mr Varadkar was asked how the UK would convince Europe to give it an extension until January, if it asked for one. Next to the Taoiseach, Mr Johnson looked incredulous and frustrated. He scoffed and rolled his eyes, the notion of the UK ever asking for an extension literally laughable to him. He seemed totally isolated from the possible realities which everyone else understood. It’s kind of like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Shutter Island - the PM thinks he’s in control of the machinations playing out all around him but in reality, he may be being humoured for his own sake.
And then an Irish journalist got straight to it.
“Prime Minister, when you talk about people being ‘dead in ditches’ there’s a sense in this country that you really don’t understand what’s at stake here,” Kevin Doyle, the political editor at the Irish Independent, said.
Mr Doyle went on to ask again when the last time the Prime Minister had been to the border was, and if he still believed it was like crossing “from Camden to Islington?” Mr Johnson shifted from foot to foot, he took out a pen and scribbled something, he shook his head, he frowned, he rolled his eyes. He bristled further when asked if he’d be “held ransom” by the DUP, now that he’d lost his working majority in the House of Commons. He ran his hand through his hair; which was as fluffy as his answers. He put his hand under his chin and rested on the podium, looking totally baffled. He fidgeted and fussed, but when his chance came he answered almost none of the questions.
He claimed everyone understands the "fantastic political importance of the border."
"We must also simultaneously allow the UK's democratic decision to be honoured, and that is the question that has bedeviled the talks over the last three years," the Prime Minister claimed.
"I genuinely think it can be done."
The taoiseach slightly raised one eyebrow, with a barely perceptible twitch.