Richard North, 18/09/2017  

I am very reluctant to waste time on the controversy over Foreign Secretary Johnson's latest effluvia. His contributions, as far as I am concerned, are always unwelcome and never helpful.

However, in the manner of the canary down the mine, he does serve the function of stupidity detector, flagging up the intellectual poverty of the media which publishes his verbiage and those commentators who applaud it.

In the latter category, there is no particular shortage. One such is Cathy Newman, a Channel 4 News's presenter, who trilled on Twitter, "Whether you voted leave or remain, there's no denying @Telegraph @BorisJohnson article is well-argued & optimistic".

You might get away with asserting that Johnson was optimistic – but only in the manner of the boy who stood upon the burning deck, whence all but he had fled. It is very easy to be optimistic when, as is clearly the case with the Foreign Secretary, you don't have the first idea of what is going on.

But it is stretching the bounds of credulity for anyone to suggest that anything Johnson produced by way of a "10-point plan for a successful Brexit " was in any way "well-argued".

Not least, he is reactivating the "£350 million a week" lie and then simply claiming that "Brexit will be a success". He writes: "This country will succeed in our new national enterprise, and will succeed mightily", this being one of his ten points that will make Brexit successful.

For Newman to suggest that this is "well-argued" is to say more about her than Johnson, as indeed does Andrew Grimson's commentary in the Mail say more about him. He calls Johnson a "warrior" and describes his article as a "brilliant piece of rhetoric".

As one might expect, Rees-Mogg has labelled Johnson "brilliant" and Farage has "heaped praise" on him, declaring him, the "first pure Brexit voice from the cabinet in a long time".

The thing is, we need time-wasting interventions from the likes of Johnson like the proverbial hole in the head. The issue on the table at the moment (as it has been ever since the referendum) is how we negotiate a timely exit from the EU without trashing the economy.

In other words, rather than rehearsing the reasons why we should leave the EU, as Johnson seems intent on doing – yet again - we need to be concerned about how we do it. And, while it is always helpful (and indeed necessary) to have a vision for a post-exit UK, we really do need some ideas of how any of the glowing visions offered can be achieved.

What really doesn't help is Johnson adding to his "£350 million lie" with another blatant untruth as he tells us that, before the referendum, "we all agreed on what leaving the EU logically must entail: leaving the customs union and the single market, leaving the penumbra of the European Court of Justice; taking back control of our borders, cash, laws".

So far from the truth is the claim that we all agreed to leave the Single Market that Oliver Norgrove, a former Vote Leave staffer recently wrote that the campaign did not ever present to the electorate a plan for Brexit, and did not advocate leaving the Single Market. It could never claim that the referendum gave anyone a mandate on this matter.

At least the Financial Times has managed to steer clear of the adulation, remarking that Mr Johnson's contribution to the debate is at best facile, at worst dishonest while the Independent speculates that one of his aims is to stop Mrs May going too far in Florence in offering to pay for access to the single market.

If that is the case, far from being an optimistic appraisal of our post-Brexit prospects, this is a wrecking agenda cloaked in the rhetoric of optimism, giving it wholly negative characteristics. Vague on most aspects in his Telegraph article, Johnson is only ever really specific when he is talking down the Single Market.

Even then, not even his critics have got the full measure of Johnson, even if the Independent gets the closest, suggesting that his efforts are not as the Telegraph billed them, "a positive and bold vision for Brexit", but a sign of weakness and desperation.

The crucial issue here is that this facile, vain man is a distraction. The obsession the media have for him means that every time he airs his stupid opinions, he becomes a distraction. Even at the best of times, the media needs little excuse to fritter away its time and energies and Johnson provides them with yet another opportunity to draw the debate away from the important issues.

But with Mrs May shortly on her way to Florence to deliver a speech which could be the turning point in the negotiations, attempts to close down her options in pursuit of an agenda for which he has no mandate is an abuse of his position as a cabinet minister.

Still, Johnson is no stranger to abusing his position. As Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph, that was his stock in trade with his inventions and lies. In nothing else, the man is acting in character.

That he was once a journalist and still has not been disowned by his former colleagues brings shame to that trade – and shows them up for what they really are. Even The Times, the editor of which once fired Johnson for fabricating a quote, has lost its ability to call a spade a spade.

There were some important truths in what Mr Johnson had to say, it opines, one of which is that, having embarked on Brexit, "the only way we will make a success of it is with an optimistic vision of this country and its place in the world". As a newspaper, it claims to have espoused such a vision, of an "open and outward-looking Brexit". The Foreign Secretary, it adds, "has caught that mood".

On Brexit, it goes on to say, "our glum prime minister is in danger of falling into a similar trap that she encountered in the June election, of not really convincing anybody". It tells us: "She may not agree with everything Mr Johnson says and she will no doubt question his motives. But many in her party and the country will prefer to laugh with the sinner, not cry with the saints".

Bluntly, though, anyone attracted to the facile message that Johnson has managed to cobble together would deserve every bit of the shambles that will hit us unless Mrs May can get her act together. And nothing Johnson has done has in any way helped the Prime Minister towards a stable Brexit settlement.

Assuming Mrs May is receptive to and capable of taking advice, she needs to be told that the designated chief negotiator is making a pig's ear of his task and, left to his own devices, will have us crashing out of the EU with no deal – a prospect, she needs to be told, would be a disaster for the UK.

Too many people, whether driven by ignorance or stupidity, or both, remain keen to gamble with the idea of a no deal, even somehow convincing themselves that a walk-away position would allow us to continue trading with the EU on much the same basis as currently.

There are now only a few days before Mrs May possibly puts this position to the test, and brings the UK crashing down – destroying the Conservative Party in the process.

A responsible media and a grown-up commentariat would have been making the best of time available and rehearsing the issues that the Prime Minister must address in her Florence speech. Instead, as always, they have allowed themselves to be distracted by a "back-seat driver" and are wasting valuable time.

We could thus do with a lot less of Mr Johnson's "vision" and a lot more hard reality about how we are going to achieve Brexit without a disaster. At this stage, optimism is for fools. There is no sound basis for it. Only the tightest grip of reality is going to get us out of this mess.

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