Boris Johnson’s resignation speech in the House of Commons last week has been compared to that of Geoffrey Howe. There are clear parallels between the respective parting shots of the foreign secretary and the Thatcher-era deputy prime minister.
Both dramatically quit high office after quarrelling with their prime minister over Europe. And Johnson addressed MPs from the exact place on the green benches as Howe did in 1990. But there are crucial differences, too. One is that Howe was out to destroy Thatcher, issuing a rallying call for fellow Tories to topple her that ultimately did bring her demise.
Johnson, in contrast, while vehemently disagreeing with the Brexit strategy Theresa May outlined at Chequers earlier this month, held back from delivering the killer blow.
Another difference is that Howe, while his speech was widely admired among the chattering classes, when it came to the substance of his dispute with Thatcher could not have been more wrong. Johnson, in contrast, while derided by much of the media class, is already demonstrably right.
Howe fell out with Thatcher over the Exchange Rate Mechanism, having pushed her into accepting British membership against her better judgment. For all his undoubted intellect, this was a very bad call. The ERM was a disaster, with the UK crashing out within two years – hammering countless firms and households, as sterling crashed and interest rates soared.
Other EU members stayed in, of course, eventually forming the single currency. That’s been a disaster too.
Since monetary union was launched in 1999, growth across the eurozone has been slow and grotesquely uneven – with Germany doing well, but the likes of Spain, Italy and Greece suffering long periods of stagnation. Youth unemployment among these nations is a heart breaking 30-50pc – sparking the rise of dangerously radical populism.
It was Thatcher’s statement that Britain should never join the euro that finally snapped Howe’s patience, triggering his Commons attack. But who now thinks the UK should be part of monetary union? Only the most starry-eyed and economically illiterate Europhiles.
Howe, for all his political poise and decency, was utterly mistaken. And Johnson, for all his shambolic demeanour and annoying character traits, has history and logic on his side.
For it is demonstrably true, as Johnson said in the Commons, that this Brexit white paper has changed very significantly from May’s Lancaster House speech of January 2017, delivering “Brino”, or Brexit in name only. It is true that while Lancaster House made clear that it would be wrong to “comply with EU rules and regulations without having a vote on what those rules and regulations are”, May now proposes we align with EU rules on goods.
It is true the “Chequers strategy” would leave the UK in a state of “vassalage” and “miserable permanent limbo”, with May’s flaccid white paper making a nonsense of her previously declared “red lines” and UK-EU trade disputes “referred to the European Court of Justice for interpretation” – an EU-dominated court.
It is true, as Johnson noted, that the pound surged after May delivered the ringing clarity of the Lancaster House strategy – with the UK pursuing a “clean Brexit”, outside the single market and customs union. Sterling rose from $1.20 to $1.24 that day.
And it is true that since Lancaster House, Downing Street has “dithered” and “burned through negotiating capital” as “the fog of self-doubt has descended”, with May “allowing the question of the Northern Irish border, which had hitherto been assumed on all sides to be readily soluble, to become so politically charged as to dominate the debate”.
The Irish land border already copes with differing currencies, duties and other tax rates. There is absolutely no need for physical hard border posts that might inflame sectarian sensitivities if we leave the customs union. The EU won’t erect them – and nor will Dublin or London. Yet May, spooked by uber-Remain advisers, has allowed Irish border falsehoods to warp her entire Brexit strategy.
Thatcher, it is fair to say, was an abrasive, divisive and controversial prime minister. Howe delivered a resignation speech that masterfully wounded her – and polite society cheered. Yet, when it came to ERM and the single currency, Thatcher was right and Howe was wrong.
Johnson, similarly, riles much of the bien pensant. But, again, he is right that “far from making laws in Westminster”, May’s new strategy means there will be “large sectors in which ministers will have no power to initiate, innovate or even deviate”.
And he is on to something vital when he warns the political classes to stop “saying one thing to the EU about what we are doing and then saying another thing to the electorate”. That would, as Johnson rightly says, “make the fatal mistake of underestimating the intelligence of the public”.
The Government should restate Lancaster House – vowing to leave the single market and the customs union entirely. We should offer the EU zero-tariff trade and, if they reject that, we should trade under WTO rules.
“We have changed tack once and we can change again,” as Johnson says. And, believe it or not, preparations to trade under WTO rules with the EU, as we do successfully with much of the rest of the world, are well under way.
There is nothing to fear – and that’s where Johnson expresses the feelings of, I would judge, the multitude of British voters. “Take one decision now,” he implores MPs, civil servants and the whole sorry shower of characters who have, so far, made such a mess of these negotiations. “Believe in this country and what it can do.”
To read Liam Halligan’s piece for The Telegraph in full, click here.