Diarmaid Ferriter: A Boris Johnson victory may not be a doomsday scenario for Ireland
Tory leadership contender is so unprincipled and dishonest he may retreat on the Border
If, as expected, Boris Johnson succeeds in his gallop towards Downing Street, his elevation will present a heightened foreign policy challenge for the Government but it will not necessarily be a doomsday scenario.
True, that a character as flawed and shallow as Johnson is regarded as the Tory saviour is an indication of the depths to which the party has sunk, and his eulogising of the British empire and attempts to portray his hero Winston Churchill as hostile to European co-operation are as dishonest as they are irritating.
For all the focus on cocaine and the Tories in recent weeks, the late Sunday Times journalist AA Gill identified a much more dangerous stimulant, pointing in 2016 to those such as Johnson who insisted on “snorting a line of that most pernicious and debilitating little English drug: nostalgia”. Johnson is a serial offender when it comes to that, one of his favourite phrases being “the great things which we once did”; he trots this out to bust what he regards as the “myth” of Britain’s decline.
It is also the case that he has been full of contradictions and hypocrisies, insisting in 2016, apparently without irony, that the European Union is “just a massive stitch-up. It is the elites and the great corporate class meeting together, cooking things up in a way that I think is undemocratic.”
He is also profoundly dishonest and unprincipled: as a “journalist”, the Times of London fired him because he invented quotes and attributed them to an Oxford professor. He was described by Conrad Black, former owner of the Spectator, which Johnson edited, as “ineffably duplicitous” (Black being well acquainted with such traits).
In Brussels, he specialised in writing fables about the evil EU to create contempt and generate alarmist headlines for the right-wing Eurosceptic press. In 2016, Johnson decided only at a late stage to campaign on the leave side solely for careerist reasons; he had even written an article as to why it was a good idea to remain, though it was not published.
It is also true that in relation to Ireland, Johnson has displayed a wilful ignorance. At a private dinner a year ago he rubbished the idea that the Border was a complicated issue: “It’s so small and there are so few firms that actually use that border regularly it’s just beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog in this way. We’re allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly.” Publicly, he ridiculously suggested the invisible boundary between the London boroughs of Camden and Westminster as a possible model for a post-Brexit Border.
It is possible he will insist that as prime minister he cannot afford the luxury of his former positions
Johnson told the DUP conference last year there was a need to “junk the backstop” and said the DUP and Conservatives should work together, “backing our union against all those who would seek to divide us”, but was prepared to blithely betray the DUP by voting for the withdrawal agreement in March.
And therein lies the rub: Johnson has damn all interest in Ireland but has much interest in power and self-aggrandisement, and might be pragmatic enough to push to one side the offensive nonsense he has spouted in recent years; after all, he has consistently managed to extricate himself from previous stupid blunders and he may well again settle on a self-serving pragmatism.
As foreign secretary in 2017, Johnson penned, or had penned for him, an opinion piece for this newspaper, full of platitudes, noting that of the 52 countries he had visited, Ireland “is more closely tied to Britain by history and kinship than just about any other . . . I understand the importance of addressing the unique circumstances of Ireland . . . the modern story of Anglo-Irish partnership comes from the easy familiarity between our peoples”, including “the shared task of promoting peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. the future of the border is not simply a matter of economics . . . I am determined to stay on the path that leads to an ever closer friendship in the decades ahead.”
There is no reason to assume he believes any of that, but it is possible he will return to this kind of mood music by insisting that as prime minister he cannot afford the luxury of his former positions, and that the Northern Ireland issue cannot be allowed to prevent Brexit, meaning a special deal will be required. Indulging the DUP may have been useful to Johnson in recent times, but as previously, it might also become convenient for him to dump them.
If Johnson wants to become and remain prime minister – and a prime minister who delivers Brexit – he will need to consider, not the words of Churchill, but those of prime minister Harold Macmillan, who insisted in 1962: “We have to consider the state of the world as it is today and will be tomorrow and not in outdated terms of a vanished past.”