It is hard to mistake the scruffy figure of Boris Johnson bounding about the political stage like an excited old English sheepdog, and when the UK Prime Minister visited Europe this week Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron certainly saw him coming.
The German and French leaders knew their new British counterpart was planning to cast them as the bad guys of Brexit; the unreasonable foreigners who are vindictively refusing to grant the UK an easy exit from the European Union.
Johnson has indeed approached the growing threat of a harsh “no deal” exit as a blame game, in which the main aim is to ensure that somebody else will be held responsible for the national self-harm that virtually every business leader and independent analyst says is about to hit the UK.
Just like his Labour opponent Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson is not concentrating on minimising the impact of Brexit. Instead he is posturing and dissembling as part of a political strategy that may soon include a general election, a new referendum, a constitutional clash with parliament or heaven knows what.
That explains Johnson’s extraordinary claim last week that members of his own party who want to avoid a hard Brexit are “collaborating” with the EU, a provocative choice of words that escaped neither the French nor the Germans.
And that is why Merkel and Macron both refused to give Johnson the confrontational headlines he was hoping for when he visited Berlin and Paris.
Instead they politely challenged him to put up or shut up on his claims that he wants to avoid a no-deal exit and that “goodwill and creativity” can miraculously and quickly find a solution to the Northern Ireland conundrum that has eluded both sides during the three years since the Brexit referendum.
WATCH: Here’s the Reuters video of Boris Johnson putting his foot on the Elysee furniture. It seems President Macron was making small talk suggesting the table would work equally well as a footstool should the PM want to recline, which Johnson then jokingly does pic.twitter.com/dnv37t9mS4
— Tom Rayner (@RaynerSkyNews) August 22, 2019
The focus right now is the “backstop”, the deal that Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May reached with the EU to ensure that even if trade talks do not go smoothly after Brexit there will be no return to the hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland that was swept away by the Good Friday peace agreement.
Having voted in Parliament to accept that backstop Johnson has now declared that it is undemocratic and totally unacceptable, even adding that it would somehow undermine the peace agreement it is designed to protect.
Under the backstop Northern Ireland would retain many EU rules until there was a full trade deal that avoided the introduction of a hard border.
Instead Johnson and his fellow “do or die” Brexiters claim a hard border can somehow be avoided with the use of untested technological solutions and “trusted trader” schemes that would mean a light touch on tax and customs checks and the sort of food import inspections the EU insists on to avoid things like foot-and-mouth and “mad cow” infections and horse meat substitution rackets.
A leak last week of the UK government’s own no-deal Brexit plans revealed the government’s own assessment is that its plans for handling the Irish border without the backstop “are unsustainable” and would see a return to ugly border tensions.
With Johnson still failing to produce details about how his backstop alternative might work Merkel and Macron both smiled alongside him at their press conferences this week and calmly invited him yet again to come forward with a solution, with Macron warning the backstop remained “indispensable” and it would be impossible to find a new withdrawal agreement “very different from the existing one”.
Macron was so determined not to be cast as the enemy of a smooth Brexit that he declared the 2016 vote to leave must be honoured, warning that ignoring it would mean “democracies suffering lack of efficiency and lack of clarity”.
Merkel added a touch mischievously that as time is running short before the October 31 Brexit deadline, Johnson’s hoped-for alternative to the backstop could perhaps be found “in the next 30 days to come”.
Both sides know if the British had such a solution it would have been produced long before now.
Johnson’s response was to massively misrepresent Macron and Merkel’s comments about replacing the backstop.
“Clearly Angela Merkel thinks that the solutions can be found within 30 days,” he claimed with a straight face, while one of his ministers Jake Berry told the BBC “we (have) started to see a crack or a chink of light with Europe softening its stance”.
Today I travelled to Berlin to meet with Chancellor Merkel. This is a relationship that is so important for the UK, there are so many areas in which we work powerfully together. We in the UK want a deal and I believe that we can get one. 🇬🇧🇩🇪 pic.twitter.com/tbDgbhhuc6
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) August 21, 2019
The post-truth Brexit-supporting media fell straight into line, with the Telegraph reporting “Macron says withdrawal agreement can be amended” and the Express describing Johnson as “winning over hardliner Macron”.
With Labour hoping to bring down Johnson’s government in early September and Tory dissidents plotting to find other ways to block a no-deal exit, Johnson may now try to buy time by claiming the EU is about to buckle and drop the backstop, even though there are no signs at all of that happening.
Respected analyst Robin Niblett, the director of the international affairs think-tank Chatham House, has come to the blunt conclusion that “Johnson’s talk of re-negotiating the withdrawal agreement with the EU27 is a charade”.
The truth, Dr Niblett says, is the EU has neither the will nor the time to come up with the new deal that Johnson claims to want, and the clock is ticking down to a no-deal Brexit on October 31.
“The EU27 are refusing to yield and are all the less likely to do so for a person many of them they regard as an opportunist populist, precisely the type of leader they do not want to encourage across continental Europe,” Dr Niblett said.
Dr Niblett believes Johnson’s real plan could be to engineer his own election or some other political game based on “blaming the EU for having ‘refused to negotiate’ and for ‘forcing’ Britain” into a no-deal exit.
Many Brexit supporters will be only too happy to see the Germans and French as the culprits behind a debacle that has really been “made in Britain” but Merkel and Macron are at least making it harder for Johnson to credibly blame them.