Removing the NI protocol is just the start. Johnson’s trade wars are Trumpism in action | Simon Jenkins
BRitain’s foreign policy is now at the mercy of Boris Johnson’s reckless quest for survival. At home, he grabs the votes with Irish border controls, protectionist tariffs and immigrant quotas. Abroad, he travels across Europe demanding total victory in someone else’s war while promoting the most intense economic disruption in the continent’s peacetime history. Each visit is treated as a photo shoot. An absurd ‘bromance’ is even staged with the equally embattled French leader, Emmanuel Macron. Never has machismo been so synthetic.
Yesterday’s Commons vote on a bill that would allow him to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol was a classic. He was motivated by a desire to appease the rapidly disintegrating Unionist majority in the province. The price is to be a predictable row with the EU, but which Johnson says will strengthen him with his party’s Brexiteer right wing. The government’s suggestions for a ‘soft’ border with Ireland are actually quite sensible. But the three years of anti-EU rhetoric from Downing Street have exhausted any desire for cooperation in Brussels.
The Brexit cry that “Europe needs us more than we need it” has never been so empty. Last night Johnson had his own backbench MPs, including his predecessor Theresa May, dismissing his Northern Ireland policy as illegal, inaccessible and damaging Britain’s global reputation. Even as he roams European capitals demanding that they all refuse to trade with Russia, he is shaping a trade war with the EU. It must be madness.
As if two trade wars weren’t enough, Johnson is also planning another. Trade with the “rest of the world” is set to explode following the Brexit release. Now the prime minister wants to embed protectionism with tariffs on steel imports from China, India, Turkey and other countries. These are precisely the countries with which Johnson has boasted of having “world-class trade deals”. The World Trade Organization warned such action would be illegal, while Downing Street ethics adviser Lord Geidt said he had been placed in an “impossible and abhorrent” position on the matter. But Johnson only cares about the votes in the industrial “red wall” seats. Such trade policy is not Toryism but Trumpism.
Meanwhile, the government is frantically adjusting migrant quotas worthy of the most socialist planning regime to deal with post-Brexit crises in agriculture, construction, health and social care. The ironic result is that the stifling of European immigrants is more than offset by a 25% increase in migration from Africa and Asia. Is this what the Brexiteers promised?
Conservatives must search in vain for ideological coherence in these policies. These are the instinctive reactions of a struggling economy that has declared itself at odds with the outside world. Six years ago, Britain made a terrible mistake, that of cutting itself off from its neighboring single market, a mistake that the government is exacerbating month by month. The Office for Budget Responsibility calculates that this is costing the British people a debilitating 4% annual growth. Sooner or later, this mistake will have to be reversed.
Like all populist leaders, Johnson views his actions in terms of their ability to promote himself. A sure sign is his innovation of inviting press cameras to see him address his own cabinet. It measures success by biceps rather than brain power and is borrowed from a certain Vladimir Putin. It is not a democratic government.