Here’s hoping the EU negotiations can be fixed with a little psychopathic machismo. Because the Tories are awash with it
Barely two weeks after Russian phone pranksters taped him being indiscreet, I see Boris Johnson’s been the victim of another leaked recording. Speaking at a private dinner for Conservative Way Forward, the foreign secretary asked his audience not to panic during the coming Brexit “meltdown”, warned we may not get the Brexit we want, and implied the UK needed more “guts” in EU talks.
Secret recordings are the Westminster equivalent of sex tapes. A violation and a betrayal and all that jazz – but if you play your cards right, you can clean up on the royalties and parlay the notoriety into serious power. In five years’ time, everyone could be Keeping Up With the Johnsons. I’m gutted for the foreign secretary that someone took a moment that should have been so intimate and personal, and gave it to Buzzfeed. I’m sure it feels very exposing. But as a tenuously devastated Tommy Lee reflected after his sex tape with then wife Pamela Anderson went viral: now everyone knew he had the biggest dick in rock.
So, yes, I suspect the foreign secretary will somehow get over this invasion of privacy, which is, after all, only his latest attempt to distance himself from a collapsing building of which he was one of the leading architects.
There is something mesmerically psychopathic about the way Boris talks about Brexit betrayal when he is the holder of a great office of state in the government that is – right now – delivering it. His laments recall one of those police TV appeals where the weeping boyfriend of a missing woman looks straight into the camera and pleads for any information as to her whereabouts. I shan’t insult your intelligence by stating who the cops eventually pick up for it.
Boris also revealed he was warming strongly to Donald Trump, who’d be great at negotiating Brexit because “he’d go in bloody hard”. There’s always a slight frisson among the self-styled alphas, isn’t there – the momentary whiff of the beach volleyball scene in Top Gun. Brexit just needs a Kenny Loggins soundtrack, and Trump could be its wingman anytime.
Still, tell you who else goes in bloody hard: David Davis. Don’t take my word for it – take Nadine Dorries’, even if she hasn’t been playing with a full set of patio furniture since the MPs’ expenses scandal. “David Davis is ex SAS,” thundered the member for Mid Bedfordshire this week. “He’s trained to survive. He’s also trained to take people out.” Actually, don’t take Nadine’s word for it, take David’s himself. Here’s the DExEU secretary on the joker who ambushed Theresa May during her conference speech last September: “He’s lucky I didn’t hit him. He’d have been down for a long time.” Ooh. Diet Coke break, girls!
Reading this faintly excruciating comment at the time, I went back to the footage from the conference hall, and could see the main reason why David Davis doesn’t take down the potential security threat to the prime minister is that David Davis stays sitting in his chair the whole time. So all we’re really left with is his timeworn yen for self-dramatisation. When Colombian criminals kidnapped a British defence attache in Bogotá in 1995, Davis was the foreign office duty minister, and inspired a Cobra meeting with the declaration: “Failure is not an option.” Personally I think it’s fine to quote Apollo 13, which was in cinemas at the time – but it is poor form not to attribute.
He was back on the theatrics on Wednesday over this backstop business. Are you on top of the “backstop”, which the EU has predictably rejected? It feels apt that the UK has chosen to invoke the not-even-a-sport of rounders. There’s a reason why rounders is what people play on their office awaydays – it’s because you don’t have to be any good at it, or know the rules, or even know what’s going on. Unfortunately, these are not the criteria for handling complex negotiations with the EU. For them, the UK twatting around with backstops is just not cricket. They don’t really deal in backstops. What they really need to hear is that the UK is going to have four slips and a gully, and a forward short leg. Or, given our increasingly defensive needs, everyone on the boundary, including a third man and a deep fine leg.
Instead, we’re trying to play rounders. And David Davis spent much of Wednesday hinting he was going to take his bat home. He was on the brink, then he was stepping back from it, then he was back on it, and so on. David Davis has threatened more farewells than Barbra Streisand. Do they give VCs for being a diva in the territorials?
Incidentally, when I was writing this newspaper’s Diary column – some time in the early cretaceous period – I solicited reminiscences of Davis’s time in the SAS (territorial). A couple of his former brothers-in-arms got in touch with memories of TA 21-SAS (V). I had two favourite anecdotes. The first was when Davis was required to coordinate an ambush, and opted to position his men on either side of the road so that – had the exercise been real – the soldiers would have opened fire on each other. The Sun Tzu of DExEU, there. The second story saw Davis charged with managing an “escape and evasion” mission. “It was supposed to last five days,” recalled one of his men. “But he accidentally led us through a choke point – a kind of bottleneck where trackers always wait – and got us captured inside 36 hours. So we were put in a truck, blindfolded, driven around, and dropped at night on an undisclosed remote hill to start all over again.” I mean … the jokes are too easy, aren’t they?
As for Brexit’s other hardmen, don’t forget those who’d have been picked last for sport at school, but in the arse-about-tit world of Westminster have reinvented themselves as players whose rhetorical currency is “passion” and “hardball”. The likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg – a sort of monocled Sergio Ramos, who’s going to do this thing by any means necessary.
All in all, I haven’t felt this sarcastically aroused by Brexit virility since that week when one of Ukip’s MEPs lamped one of its other MEPs, causing him to collapse at the European parliament. We were then treated to the spectacle of Ukip’s Neil Hamilton – a man who dresses as his wife’s ventriloquist’s dummy – swaggering on to the news like he was Jason Statham and growling that the punched one had “picked a fight and come off worse”. Defending his own decision to punch his business partner, Brexit financier Arron Banks then told a Twitter user: “You wouldn’t understand. It’s called a competitive spirit. It’s why some people are winners.” Damn straight. Shirts versus skins. Go big or go home. Loggins on the boombox. Or as Nigel Farage whined last week: “I never said it would be a beneficial thing to leave and everyone would be better off.”
Ukip’s sojourn in Brussels always felt like a two-decade stag weekend. But if you ever doubt how fully the Conservative party has imported their hold-my-beer culture, just look at how leading Tory Brexiteers keep acting now. I know we’re all men of the world, but honestly – how much more Brexit machismo can we handle before the swooning becomes a coma?
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian staff columnist