Richard North, 09/09/2020  

Brandon Lewis's admission that the Johnson administration is about to break international law but, only in a "very specific and limited way", is almost beyond satire. But, in other ways, it's pure Dominic "I'm only doing an eye test, Guv" Cummings.

Who other could come up with such a totally lame excuse, the sort of thing you would tell the speed cops only if you'd abandoned hope of getting off with a warning. "Yes Constable, I broke the speed limit, but only in a very specific and limited way". You can see this now being trotted out, as a laconic comment, in the same way that eye tests have acquired new meanings.

With that, it's almost got to the point where the details don't matter. Not one in ten thousand (being generous) might have the first idea of what "specific and limited" points in the Withdrawal Agreement have been breached. Most people have taken the Johnson option and not even read it.

But now, locked into the public psyche is the image of Johnson and his merry sycophants clocking up another egregious blunder by excusing themselves from liability just because their lawbreaking is "very specific and limited". And a lot of people will be saying quietly to themselves, "what's good for the goose is good for the gander".

What then gives the whole thing even more legs is the resignation of Sir Jonathan Jones, the Treasury solicitor and permanent secretary of the government legal department. Apparently, he told colleagues that he was resigning, without giving his reasons, but it has automatically been assumed that he has walked in protest at the government's law-breaking.

It is understood, says The Times - which means they haven't got a source strong enough to stand it up – that this senior official has been in dispute with Downing Street for some time "over what critics say is an attempt to override the withdrawal agreement with the EU".

For its comfort quote, the paper has had to rely on Lord Pannick, the lawyer who led two successful legal challenges to the government in the Supreme Court. He says it appeared that Jones quit after ministers ignored his warnings.

"There is a long and healthy tradition of senior government lawyers telling ministers in clear terms when they propose actions which will be unlawful", Pannick says. "It sounds as if Sir Jonathan has decided that a hard legal border is about to be crossed and he wants no part of it".

I rather hope this is true. It would be nice to think that there are still people in the civil service (until very recently) who actually had principles and were prepared to resign when lines were crossed. We've grown used to Ministers ignoring such quaint, old-fashioned ideas, so the hired help has to take up the slack.

Certainly, we're not going to get anywhere with the minister responsible for keeping the government on the straight and narrow. That would be the attorney general or, as Marina Hyde calls her, "leading invertebrate" Suella Braverman. Actually, when it comes to insults, Hyde is a class act. Mine tend to be a bit pedestrian by contrast.

On this issue, though, John Crace is also having a go, but it's difficult to do satire when the government is making it so easy that it's almost redundant.

His "pen-picture" of the truth-giver Brandon Lewis, though, is quite delicious: "not even his most generous friends" would describe him as particularly bright. "He is one of parliament’s natural plodders. A born follower. A man who has unexpectedly found himself in the cabinet both by virtue of his more talented colleagues having disqualified themselves for being awkward and having no principles of his own he could possibly compromise".

By way of a change, the paper also does "pompous", although I don't think this quite catches the mood, as it intones of Johnson: "my word is not my bond".

Referring to a man who is a pathological liar and who has turned political lying into an art form, this surely has to be the statement of the bleedin' obvious to end all such statements.

Nonetheless, the paper does rehearse the details. Johnson won the last election, it says, in part because he could say on what terms he would leave the European Union and his opponents could not.

He had that infamous "oven-ready" deal, except that this was an MRE (Meals Rejected by Ethiopians) deal, one so dire that even Theresa May wisely rejected it, saying that "no UK prime minister could ever agree to it".

On the basis that there's one born every minute, the EU found in Johnson exactly the prime minister stupid enough to buy into the original version, handing him the draft of what he was to call a "fantastic" deal – the very same one that he now wants to kick into touch.

Mrs May at least had the sense to go for a better deal and then broker the Strasbourg Instrument which emphasised that the parties did not wish the backstop solution in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland to become applicable.

Should it do so, they agreed, it would represent a sub-optimal trading arrangement for both sides, and both parties, therefore, were determined to replace the backstop solution for Northern Ireland by a subsequent agreement.

No one then knew what that agreement would entail but on one thing everyone was agreed, that it would ensure, on a permanent footing, the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland, in full respect of the integrity of the Union's internal market and of the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.

The Instrument, therefore, locked into the agreement that negotiations would start, as a matter of priority, on a "subsequent agreement" as soon as possible after the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the Union, the parties using "their best endeavours to conclude, by 31 December 2020, an agreement which supersedes this Protocol in whole or in part".

Then along came the buffoon Johnson who turned the backstop into a frontstop and signed up to make it mandatory, without any prospect of relief. The Strasbourg Instrument fell by the wayside and the very thing Johnson thought he had got, he had given away.

With the passage of time, the prime minister, says the Guardian is being forced to reveal what he stands for. "And the sight of incompetent and dysfunctional government has not been an appealing one", it concludes.

The degree to which Johnson has messed this up almost beggars belief and now that his "fantastic deal" is unravelling – as it always would – he is thrashing around trying to extricate himself from a mess of his own making.

Yet this is the man who, today, will lay down the law on Covid-19, expecting us dutifully to obey his instructions, while – no doubt – he goes in search of another dressing-up opportunity, in order to get his picture in the papers again – while he trashes the UK's international reputation.

But there must eventually be a limit to the number of times and ways that this man can stretch the tolerance of a nation that needs and deserves grown-up government. When it comes, one just hopes that the necessary outcome will be swift.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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