Belgium had surrendered, it was the second day of the Dunkirk evacuation and Winston Churchill – prime minister for less than three weeks - had addressed his cabinet in unsparing language: “If this long island story of ours is to end, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
That night, May 28th, 1940, George Orwell wrote in his diary: “For days past, there has been no real news and little possibility of inferring what is really happening. Last night, E [Eileen] and I went to the pub to hear the 9 o’c news. The barmaid was not going to have it on if we had not asked her, and to all appearances nobody listened.”
In view of the catastrophe unfolding a few miles away, you have to wonder if Orwell had simply picked the wrong pub. There will always be numbskulls who refuse to switch over from the football even if a world war is breaking out or the mighty offices of state are trembling at the prospect of swaggering new bottoms being wedged into their chairs. But Orwell surely chose his pub with that in mind. And still nobody was listening.
Perhaps fatigue had set in. Maybe the government’s Keep Calm and Carry On posters had actually worked.
Or maybe after a long period of fear, confusion and humiliation, the people were simply hopeful and could avert their gaze for a while. They had a prime minister who could make inspirational speeches but also unite a parliament in unanimous approval of his plan. His war cabinet included political rivals and opposition representatives.
For all his well-documented flaws, Churchill was acutely conscious of sending out false hope or suggesting that the Nazis would cave in a day. “Poor people, poor people. They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time,” he said to an aide.
As you see, the parallels between Churchill and Britain’s new prime minister are already blindingly obvious. Basically, Churchill decided to “put his shirt on a horse called anti-Nazism . . . and his bet came off in spectacular fashion,” wrote Johnson in a 2014 biography of his hero. Simple as.
So of course this modern Churchill duly put his shirt on a horse called Brexit, intuiting that it would take him all the way to 10 Downing Street. And boy, did it work.
That unwavering sense of his centrality in the grand scheme of things should be a boon to all slippery politicians on the slide. Churchill “is accused of being a spoilt, bullying, double-crossing, self-centred bore, and a bit of an all-round brute”, he wrote, but hey, Johnson was here to defend him because they’re like-minded souls, you understand.
As many were quick to point out, there is no such thing as a 'frictionless re-entry'
Meanwhile, back in the present day, the outgoing chancellor, a calm, competent type who has seen all the models, scenarios and forecasts, repeatedly states that no-deal would be a “catastrophe” for the country. Civil servants have already briefed Johnson to expect civil unrest. In their priorities for importation in a no-deal scenario, fresh food comes only third and purifying chemicals for drinking water fifth.
Even his insistence that “there will be adequate supplies of glucose, milk solids and whey to make the Mars bars we need” was met this week with a detailed rebuttal from a UK chocolatier.
But Johnson swats away such detail. “If they could use hand-knitted computer code to make a frictionless re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in 1969, we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish Border,” he wrote in his Monday column. “And yes, we certainly have the technology to do so,” he concluded. In which case, this “we” are doing a far better job of keeping it secret than the Kim Darroch’s telegrams.
And anyway, as many were quick to point out, there is no such thing as a “frictionless re-entry”. A famous image of Margaret Hamilton, the lead Nasa software engineer for the Apollo programme, shows her standing next to 17 enormous volumes of Apollo code, which also recalled the famous visual of Michel Barnier and negotiating team plus bundles of files seated across from David Davis and his team without a scrap of paper between them.
The odd thing is that the generation most persuaded by the divinity of Churchill is the one that has bought into the Johnson self-deification; the ageing superfans, simpering, laughing, yearning to touch the robe of a stand-up comedian with zero achievements to his name.
Without Churchill, Johnson wrote, “there would have been no liberation of the continent. This country would not have been a haven of resistance, but a gloomy client state of an infernal Nazi EU.” A killer sentence.
Yet, by the end of the war, looking out at a Europe about to be split in two, Churchill himself had become a passionate advocate for a union.
What might he think now of the cast of ignoramuses who think nothing of bulldozing the one so painfully constructed by his successors?
“To some extent all politicians are gamblers with events. They try to anticipate what will happen, to put themselves on the right side of history,” Johnson wrote. The reckoning is imminent.