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Fintan O’Toole: Johnson must confront tyranny of fact

The PM doesn’t do detail, but the details of Brexit are people's lives

Boris Johnson: has always been able to deal with facts he does not like by inventing his own ones. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to Brexit, it is not the devil that is in the details. It is real life. The details are workers, jobs, families and communities. They are the hours and the days and how people get to spend them, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. And one of the things even his fans will concede about the new British prime minister is that he doesn’t do detail.

Boris Johnson is a big picture man – which is a nice way of saying that he can't be bothered with the specifics of real-world consequences. His appeal to the Tory party faithful who voted for him so overwhelmingly is precisely that he allows them to fantasise about easy simplicity in a world of ferocious complexity.

Johnson’s master at Eton, Martin Hammond, reported of him in 1982: “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish for us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

To be fit for public office is to accept the “network of obligation” that connects every decision you make with the man feeding his kids, the woman paying her rent, the child beginning school, the old person in the hospital ward. And for Johnson this network of obligation does not exist – or rather it exists, but only for other people. He is the exception to his own demands. The carefully contrived eccentricity that constitutes (for some) his charm is also a way of saying: I’m not bound by common standards or principles. I make my own rules because, like Great Britain, I am exceptional.



In this, Johnson’s accession to the highest office is a fitting expression of the deluded British exceptionalism that has driven Brexit. Insofar as it can be called a project at all, it is a rejection of the idea that Britain can ever be an ordinary country, a mere equal in the network of mutual obligation that is the EU. Ordinariness is defeat, humiliation, intolerable incarceration in an unnatural condition.

Johnson has long embodied this sense of exceptionalism at a personal level – he believes he can get away with anything because, for the most part, he has. Lies, serial infidelity, the waste of vast amounts of public money on self-indulgent “big picture” schemes – he is exceptionally good at escaping their consequences. The Brexiteers have chosen him in the belief that somehow this magic can transfer itself from the personal to the political, that under Johnson Britain can be as free of the bonds of duty and the tedium of details as he is.

Johnson he believes he can get away with anything because, for the most part, he has

But the paradox of this wishful thinking is that there really is a great machine for obliterating detail. It is called the European Union. Its customs union and single market have successfully removed almost all the mind-numbing detail from trade within the EU. International trade – which is to say in reality the livelihoods of families and communities – is a horrible mess of dreary minutiae. What tariffs apply? Does this comply with our standards and safety rules? How much VAT is owed and to whom? How much of this complex object was made in what country?

The irony is that by making all of this go away, the EU has allowed it to be forgotten. Businesses don’t have vast departments to process this stuff. Neither do national governments. But when you decide to leave the EU, you demolish the dykes, the wave of complexity floods back in and you are drowned in detail.

Border delays

Details such as, for example, the 1,100 juggernauts that arrive in Britain from the EU every single morning, carrying components to the car and engine assembly plants that directly employ 186,000 real live people. Or the five minutes that is the average allotted time for one of those components to leave the truck and be actually placed into whatever part of the car it is meant for. Or the £50,000 per minute that border delays alone would cost that industry in the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Or the 46.5 per cent fall in inward investment in those plants between 2017 and 2018 because of fears of no deal. Or the fact that virtually none of the mass-market cars assembled in the UK is made from components more than 50 per cent sourced in the UK, which means that none of these cars would qualify as British in any glorious trade deal that Johnson might hope to do with, say, Donald Trump.

Health certificate

Details, details. A health certificate for a consignment of food costs £200 (€223) from the UK’s department of agriculture. In the case of a no-deal Brexit, exporters in just one sector (seafood) in just one local council area in Northern Ireland (Newry and Mourne) would need 60,000 of these certs every year. That’s £12 million (€13.3 million) extra costs in this one tiny area alone – money these businesses simply don’t have. To prepare one certificate of origin will cost a business about £400 (€446) – even small exporters will need huge numbers of these as well. And so on. But who cares? For Johnson, there are no details that do not come with a four-letter attachment. They are all “mere” details.

Johnson gave them the fantasy of a "clean break" Brexit that is just Tinkerbell in reverse

Johnson told the Brexiteers and the Tory members what they want to hear – that all of this complexity can be wished away. He gave them the fantasy of a “clean break” Brexit that is just Tinkerbell in reverse – if you believe strongly enough in it, it will happen.

This make-believe is childish but it is not innocent. For at its heart lies a vicious assumption of superiority: the people whose jobs will be lost or whose lives will be made poorer are unwanted little distractions. They are mud in the clear waters of Brexit, pesky flies in its healing balm of British salvation. They don’t matter enough to be told the truth, which is that they are not making a sacrifice for Brexit – they are being sacrificed to it.


But the details will have their revenge. In the real world, they do not take well to those who ignore them. They insist on having their say. For Johnson, crossing the threshold into 10 Downing Street is entering a universe he has never inhabited before, one in which specifics and particulars will tie him down like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. He has always been able to deal with facts he does not like by inventing his own ones and waving his fabrications about as props in his own solipsistic drama, like the kippers he lied about with such gusto at the final hustings of the leadership campaign.

Very soon, this pantomime of national liberation will find there is one rule that even Boris Johnson cannot evade: the tyranny of fact.