Old problems haunted Boris Johnson at the G7

Brexit and the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are not going away
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a news conference at the end of the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Britain, June 13, 2021. Ben Stansall/Pool via REUTERS

British prime minister Boris Johnson is a journalist-politician. He is also a superb headline writer, even if the substance of the stories he tells often does not match the headlines. As he prepared to meet president Joe Biden, Mr Johnson rewrote the old story of the UK’s “special relationship” with the US as an “indestructible relationship”.

His recent headline grabbing phrases also include the idea that the UK is now in some way “Global Britain,” despite the fact the UK has been determinedly “global” for 400 years.

Then there is the idea that he is committed to social change by “levelling up” Britain. This headline has been undermined by the announcement last week that “extra” money to help school children in the UK catch up on their studies interrupted by coronavirus will be £50 per pupil per year, or one pound a week. The US President Joe Biden is offering American school children an extra £1600 a year, and the Netherlands £2500.

But as any headline writer will tell you, the trick is not to tell the whole story, but to grab attention. Mr Johnson’s most famous headline, one which helped win him his enormous election victory in December 2019, was to “Get Brexit Done”. The trouble is, he hasn’t, and repeatedly Brexit returns like a ghost to haunt him and the UK.

Those of us who warned that Brexit would always be a process rather than an event – and therefore take years – also warned that the Irish border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic would be a very significant problem. Watching Mr Johnson in the west of England hosting one of the most important G7 meetings for many years has therefore seen such predictions return to haunt him.

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The lack of trust in Boris Johnson has left him like this G7's Donald Trump

The G7 is a semi-formal chat between leaders of seven rich democracies, each with their own agenda. Mr Biden wanted to show the world that American leadership is back, after four years of Donald Trump.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have, inevitably, been discussing the EU, specifically its “British problem”. And – to write a headline for Mr Johnson – this has also been the Sausage Summit, if only because prepared meats are just the latest part of Brexit’s unfinished business, among threats of a “trade war” between the UK and EU. Put simply, EU leaders do not trust Mr Johnson. They have good reason.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, France's President Emmanuel Macron with Britain's Queen Elizabeth, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,  Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi, U.S. President Joe Biden and European Council President Charles Michel prepare for a group photo during a drinks reception on the sidelines of the G7 summit, at the Eden Project in Cornwall, Britain June 11, 2021. Jack Hill/Pool via REUTERS

In 2019 to get a Brexit deal, Mr Johnson conceded something no British prime minister would ever have contemplated. He agreed that almost 2 million people in Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK but in customs terms would be considered as if they were in the EU. This deal was described as “excellent” by Britain’s chief negotiator Lord Frost in December 2020.

Six months later, Mr Johnson and Mr Frost say their “excellent” and binding deal is now terrible. It is. In a few short months the prime minister of the UK has de-stabilised Northern Ireland’s place within the UK, while simultaneously annoying the government of the Irish Republic, the EU and Mr Biden’s US administration.

That is because Mr Johnson is now trying to unpick an international agreement less than a year old while still desperately searching for evidence of a renewed “Global Britain”.

Mr Macron dismissed rewriting the Brexit agreement in his own short headline: “nothing is negotiable”. Mr Macron suggested Mr Johnson is simply “not serious” in trying to re-work in July something finalised the previous December, after years of work.

As for America’s “indestructible relationship” with the UK, Mr Biden repeatedly makes clear he is proud of his Irish heritage and that the UK must do nothing to upset peace on the island of Ireland.

The London Times reported that a US diplomat delivered an astonishing private "demarche" to the British government on the subject. A demarche is a formal protest about another government's behaviour, and for the US to criticise the UK in such a manner would be quite extraordinary.

All this has happened in a week when Mr Johnson’s supporters have boasted about his “leadership” at the G7 summit. But leadership demands followership, and none of the other leaders appear to be following Mr Johnson. Rather, the lack of trust in Mr Johnson has left him like this G7's Donald Trump. He is present in the room but not really listened to.

Brexit supporters in Britain now complain that the UK signed the troublesome Brexit deal “under duress”. But since Brexit was supposed to be about restoring Britain’s freedom to take its own decisions, admitting that the country has been made weaker is an admission of profound failure. For all the good things that emerge from the G7, Mr Johnson’s Britain is diminished at this big moment on the world stage.

Perhaps as we consider how Brexit works in reality, the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw may help. “There are two great tragedies in life,” Shaw wrote. “One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it.”

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National