Politics

Like Pyrrhus, Johnson loves to lay claim to victories, all of which are at our expense | Jonathan Powell


As a classicist, Boris Johnson will be all too aware of the fate of Pyrrhus of Epirus in the third century BC. He enjoyed a series of victories against the Romans but at such a cost of casualties on his own side that he lost the war, supposedly saying after battle: “One more such victory and Pyrrhus is undone.”

This makes it all the more surprising that Johnson appears to be following Pyrrhus down the same track in his approach to negotiations, seeking victories at any cost. And that cost is going to fall on us as a nation, particularly as we enter the endgame of negotiations on an EU free trade agreement.

No 10 – presumably Dominic Cummings – briefed the Spectator last week on its approach to negotiations, claiming modestly that its aim in every case is to increase tension because “it stays calm while others panic”, allowing it to get its way. Those at No 10 clearly think they are very clever but what they don’t seem to grasp is that the result of this strategy is that their success in these battles has been purely Pyrrhic.

In October 2019, following lots of tough talk, Johnson provoked a crisis by declaring the Brexit negotiations over. He returned to the table shortly afterwards, however, desperate to conclude an agreement before an election and capitulated to the EU’s demands on the Irish border, which he had repeatedly rejected. He declared the outcome a great success at the time, a result of the robust stance he had adopted. Now he is trying to reopen the agreement because he and his allies say they have discovered it is a threat to the very existence of the United Kingdom. The vaunted victory turned out to be a failure.

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This spring, Johnson refused to fire Cummings despite his clear breach of the government’s own lockdown rules. He did so, No 10 claimed, because he refused to give the press a scalp. He was victorious and Cummings is still in place. But the cost of the victory was horrendous for the government. The public had rallied to Johnson in the face of the coronavirus threat, but his defence of Cummings led to a precipitous collapse in support, which has turned out to be lasting. The notorious eye test trip to Barnard Castle is likely to be one of the main things anyone remembers about this government.

Last week, No 10 embarked on a negotiation with Andy Burnham over financial support for Greater Manchester in the face of new Covid restrictions. Again it provoked a crisis by walking away from the table over the relatively trivial amount of £5m. Johnson claimed victory by imposing restrictions without the agreement of local authority leaders. Again, it was a Pyrrhic victory because the chancellor ended up giving Manchester even more than the £65m they were asking for. In the process, Johnson turned Burnham into the “king of the north” with a good shot at becoming next leader of the Labour party and holed the Conservative northern strategy below the water line.

Most importantly, No 10 is trying the same gambit again in the current negotiations with the EU on a new free trade agreement and it is likely to end equally badly. Those at No 10 have deliberately provoked a crisis with the EU by passing a bill that contradicts the Brexit agreement, in the process endangering the Good Friday agreement and Britain’s reputation for respecting international law, and then walked away from the table. Now they have walked back in, without the EU making any substantive concessions, in a desperate effort to conclude an agreement. There is no sign of the EU negotiators panicking but rather calmly proceeding on the path they had already set out on. All the ludicrous tough guy posturing is designed to do is to allow Johnson to claim after the event that the EU surrendered in the face of his patriotic stance, just like last time.

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But the consequence will be yet another Pyrrhic victory. Successful negotiations are based on building trust. A piece of paper is only worth something if both sides can be trusted to implement their undertakings. By breaching that trust with their juvenile antics, Cummings and Johnson have increased the risk of Britain being plunged into an even deeper economic crisis by convincing our European partners that they cannot sign an agreement with a government that deliberately fails to implement an agreement it signed just a year ago.

Even if the EU does in the end decide to conclude an agreement, it will be a very anaemic one, as close to a no-deal as an agreement can be, and almost certainly requiring a further transitional period beyond the end of the year to avoid chaos in Kent, although no doubt the transition will be called something else. The costs for the country of this unattractive combination of arrogance and incompetence in the approach to negotiations will far outweigh any short-term political benefits for Johnson from his music hall posturing.

In the end, Pyrrhus, for all his victories, was never able to hold territory or build an empire. Far from becoming a new Alexander, as he had hoped, he died a failure. The same will be true of Johnson if he enjoys any more victories like these.

Jonathan Powell was Downing Street chief of staff from 1997-2007



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