Whatever about Boris Johnson's private domestic affairs and rows, we should be more concerned about his private comments on Brexit, the Border and Donald Trump. Last summer, Johnson spoke privately at a gathering of the Conservative Way Forward, a Thatcherite campaign group, and dismissed concern over the Border as "pure millennium bug stuff". He also revealed he was "increasingly admiring of Donald Trump . . . I have become more and more convinced that there is method in his madness . . . Imagine Trump doing Brexit. He'd go in bloody hard . . . there'd be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he'd gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It's a very, very good thought".
His comments were leaked and a friend of Johnson’s decried the betrayal: “This was a private dinner under Chatham House rules so it is sad and very disappointing that it has been covertly recorded and distributed to the media.” It is sad indeed; sad that such wilful ignorance about the Border suffuses Johnson’s outlook and contempt; sad that a political strategy of encouraging chaos in order that you “might get somewhere” is regarded as a good option, and even sadder that he would invoke Trump as a role model. Sad, but not surprising, and in the public interest to expose it given his position in British politics.
There was no indication this week that there will be any attempt by Johnson or his colleagues to educate themselves about the Border, despite the furore over the backstop. Nor has the public nonsense and bluster about the Border abated; in his interview with the BBC on Monday Johnson erroneously insisted there were "abundant technical fixes that can be introduced to make sure that you don't have to have checks at the Border". This is a further indication of the mindset identified by Irish journalist Justine McCarthy when she wrote in relation to the farcical and even less than tokenistic visits to the Border by Brexit secretaries David Davis and Dominic Raab: "They might as well have worn khaki shorts and binoculars, such was the safari style of their mission."
The concern of the European Commission is about self-interest as well as empathy with Ireland
Contrast the consistent Tory shallowness on this subject with the recently-publicised report prepared by the European Commission on the Border in which it is "consistently recognised that virtually all areas of north-south co-operation are predicated on the avoidance of a hard border, including related customs or regulatory checks and controls". Just some of the areas relevant to such co-operation include agriculture, environment, transport, health, tourism, education, inland waterways, food safety, trade and business development, special European Union programmes and access to EU funding, language, aquaculture and marine matters, data protection, public procurement, state-aid rules, health and safety and employment frameworks, the provision of and access to services and mutual recognition of professional qualifications.
Clearly, there is much more appreciation on the part of the European Commission than in Britain that the Border is not just a technical trade challenge but also an issue of social and political stability. As Katy Hayward of Queen's University Belfast, an expert on the Border, has put it: "Sometimes the intangible effects of a policy or process are the most important. Perhaps the most successful dimension of cross-Border integration over the past 40 years of [EU] membership is its normalisation; this is precisely the dimension most directly threatened by an exit from the EU."
But the concern of the commission is about self-interest as well as empathy with Ireland and its focus could well change. This is why the Government, rather than repeating mantras about not designing a Border for Brexiteers, needs to more pointedly engage with the reality of what a post-Brexit Border might look like in the absence of a deal, if only because as the clock ticks towards October and as more EU states become irritated and anxious about the possibility of a no-deal Brexit or more delay in the process, the solidarity on the backstop might crack and the spotlight would be on Ireland in relation to what it would do to preserve the integrity of the single market.
True, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has in the past acknowledged potentially "difficult conversations" with the EU about this, but more substance is needed. The Government would, in the event of the worst-case scenario, need to answer two questions: could it accommodate the need for an external EU border with ongoing close cross-Border co-operation in Ireland? And could there be a new era of Anglo-Irish bilateralism as there was during the peace process?
A consistent line from the Government in the three years since the Brexit referendum has been that Ireland’s interests and the EU’s are “indivisible”, but there needs to be realistic planning in case that line becomes compromised and Johnson becomes a prisoner of his own bombast and ignorance.