A general election is now the PMs only hope of Getting Brexit Done, says Guardian columnist Martin Kettle
Boris Johnsons speech to the Conservative party conference was of a piece with his brief and tawdry prime ministership so far. The speech was a scam, an attempt to pretend that inconvenient realities can be wished out of existence by putting on a crowd-pleasing act. Yet these inconvenient realities include such things as the law of the land, the elected parliament, the European Union and the island of Ireland. Between them, these realities have enough clout to foil him.
Todays speech was hardly designed to reassure the undecided. Most prime ministers devote weeks to honing their message to their party conference. They probably take the occasion too seriously. Johnson is the precise opposite. He seemed to have cobbled together his speech over breakfast. There was no architecture or narrative to it.
Considering that this is a man who, until a year ago, was Britains foreign secretary, there was amazingly little attempt to paint a vision of the 21st-century world and Brexit Britains place in it. The United States, China and Russia went almost without mention. There was a weird claim that the Tory party loves Europe, which unsurprisingly didnt go down well in the hall. But of climate crisis, migration pressures and terrorism was there barely a word.
There were, it should be noted, some slight grounds for thinking that Johnson is aware of at least some of the limits to which his denial of the real world can be stretched. Compared with the way in which his repainted Brexit proposals had been briefed on Tuesday, the version that Johnson served up in the Manchester conference hall was a few notches less noxious. There were no phrases like the overnight take it or leave it headlines. There wasnt an explicit claim that this was the UKs final offer. Even the lines about customs checks in Ireland could arguably be read as being a tad more emollient than the earlier leaked version. Eternal optimists may have been tempted to conclude that there was room here to make a deal.
Such nuances were more apparent than real. Yes, Johnson wants to get his post-Manchester follow-up conversations with to use that patronisingly hypocritical Johnsonian phrase his European friends and partners off on the right foot. Yes, he needs to be able to say he tried his best to make an 11th-hour effort to strike a deal. But this misses the main point. The reality, and the logic of his approach, is that there will surely not be a deal under Johnson. This so-called renegotiation is much more about winning the post-31 October blame game than about agreeing terms for withdrawal.