The cost of Boris Johnson invoking cartoons and a feud with France

The British Prime Minister senses an opportunity – at least among Brexit voters

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron at the Cop26 summit earlier this month. AFP

Cartoon characters are commonly referenced nowadays in British politics. Delivering a speech to sober-minded business leaders, Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked if they had visited a theme park based on the cartoon Peppa Pig (they hadn’t).

In a poll for The Times newspaper, less than a third of voters said Boris Johnson was competent and only a fifth thought he was decisive. When asked which cartoon character the prime minister was most like, Homer Simpson was one name that came up. The Labour party leader, Keir Starmer, says Boris Johnson is a “trivial” man. Certainly Mr Johnson’s lack of seriousness repeatedly jars with the profound seriousness of so many problems his government and the country faces; from a new variant of coronavirus to the deaths of those risking their lives at sea to come to the UK.

The resulting row with France over who is to blame for those deaths is counter-productive and yet also confirmation of Mr Johnson’s lack of seriousness. He sent a letter to the French president but released the contents on Twitter before Emmanuel Macron had a chance to read it.

Peter Ricketts, the UK’s former ambassador to France has been a steady hand advising British governments for many decades. Ricketts remarked that this was “terribly bad handling” by Mr Johnson and the letter’s content was even worse. “To publish it with a swaggering tone of ‘I’ve been right all along’ is pretty much guaranteed to get this response from the French,” he said.

By “this response” Ricketts meant French government anger and the cancellation of a trip for the British Home Secretary Priti Patel to go to France to discuss with European leaders, led by Mr Macron, how best to stop the criminal gangs behind people trafficking.

There are many intertwined problems here. Even some of his own Conservative party colleagues have noted that the British prime minister lacks attention to detail, although he has plenty of advisers who do understand the common courtesies due to friendly foreign leaders. Mr Johnson seems to have ignored them.

People gathered on Folkestone beach to honour the migrants whose boat sank as they tried to get to Britain from France

The key – but often unspoken – issue is that the Johnson administration is desperate to prove to British voters that, despite all the evidence, leaving the EU is a success. That means every failure – on border controls, migration, trade, investment or Northern Ireland – must be blamed on the EU. This has soured Britain’s relationships with its neighbours. Since Brexit was based on “taking back control” of Britain’s borders, it is odd that France should now be held responsible for policing them.

Quote
The Johnson administration is desperate to prove to British voters that, despite all the evidence, leaving the EU is a success

In the middle of a difficult re-election campaign, Mr Macron has been given political gold – the opportunity to position himself as standing up to a British prime minister, who is not generally respected outside his own Conservative party faithful – and not always even by them either. Mr Johnson, however, seems to sense his own opportunity, at least among Brexit voters.

In English politics, rows with France and Ireland have often been useful for some politicians to encourage flag-waving chauvinistic newspaper articles. Historically Scotland and Ireland, unlike England, have often had a much warmer relationship with France. Scots at times refer to the “Auld Alliance” (the Old Alliance), which often brought Scotland and its monarchs, including Mary Queen of Scots, to side with France in its many struggles against England.

For a flavour of this bizarre end of English politics, readers may recall the Conservative MP and British government minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, comparing Brexit to ancient Anglo-French wars: “We need to be reiterating the benefits of Brexit!,” Mr Rees Mogg said in October 2017. “Oh, this is so important in the history of our country… It’s Waterloo! It’s Crécy! It’s Agincourt! We win all these things!” Crecy (a battle in 1346) and Agincourt (1415) were English-only affairs against France in a conflict and occupation, which ended when English troops were finally defeated and expelled from French soil. The Battle of Waterloo (1815) was won by the Duke of Wellington, who was born in Ireland. His victory came, as he admitted, only after Prussian troops from north Germany turned the battle in Britain’s favour.

It is difficult to fathom why any English politician would compare these battles to the loss in the 21st century of 4 per cent of British Gross Domestic Product caused by Brexit. Perhaps it strikes a chord among paleo-conservatives, through constantly referencing the once-glorious past, yet this does not appear to encourage rational thought about our problems in the present nor clarity about a better future. There are no easy answers to the migration and asylum question, but two things are obvious. First, worldwide problems such as asylum require international solutions. Second, poor people or those displaced by conflict, repression or climate change inevitably will want to move to a better, safer life, be it via the US border with Mexico or to Europe or Australia.

As for me, I have, over the years, watched several TV episodes of Peppa Pig. What I remember is a chubby, good-natured cartoon character who understands the value of empathy and co-operation. Our children are taught that these are virtues.

Published: November 30th 2021, 5:00 AM
Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National