“After nine months on the launch pad,” wrote Boris Johnson in the Telegraph earlier this week, “Britain has finally engaged the most famous ignition sequence in diplomatic history”.
The Foreign Secretary was referring, of course, to Theresa May’s triggering last Wednesday of Article 50. The UK now has two years to agree the terms under which it will leave the EU, while trying to determine the nature of our future relationship with the remaining 27 member states.
Brexit is “a historic mistake” and the costs of the leaving the European Union will be “substantial” and “very unpalatable”, said Former Prime Minister Sir John Major last week. “Come off it sunshine!” was Boris Johnson’s reply.
“It’s most important, as we set out on this journey, to be positive about the outcome,” said Britain’s mop-haired Foreign Secretary. The UK has a “fantastic future” outside the EU, Johnson argued, telling Major to stop “moaning and droning”.
Boris Johnson famously said Winston Churchill would have voted for Brexit. The wartime leader’s grandson – staunch Remainer and Tory grandee Nicholas Soames – dismissed such claims as “appalling” and “totally wrong”.
This bad-tempered referendum rift between two traditionalist, Etonian Conservatives symbolizes, somewhat incongruously perhaps, the broader state of the nation. Deep and traumatic divisions have emerged between friends and families everywhere – and, of course, within political parties.
Since the Conservative party conference in Manchester, much ink has been spent and airtime filled poring over the speeches of Messrs Cameron, Osborne and Johnson. Among the Westminster cognoscenti, some relatively clear conclusions have emerged.
The Prime Minister is “at the height of his powers”, we read, his speech “shifting his party to the centre-ground, like Blair but from the opposite direction”. The Chancellor is “a safe pair of hands” and “assured”, the political sketch-writers tell us, clearly “the leader-in-waiting”. As for the London Mayor, he remains “good at telling jokes” but “will have to show more than humour if he’s to launch a genuine bid for Number 10”.
“There’s a strong sense the Airports Commission began life three or so years ago with a conclusion – and then spent £20m backing up that conclusion,” boomed Zac Goldsmith, during Prime Minister’s questions. “What assurance can the Prime Minister give … that he will engage in the real arguments in a way Sir Howard Davies has not,” said the MP for Richmond Park.
The Airports Commission’s unequivocal backing for a third runway at Heathrow means that a decision on extra airport capacity in the UK’s southeast – dodged by politicians for half a century – can no longer be avoided. Appointed by David Cameron’s coalition government in order to shelve the issue until after the 2015 general election, the Commission confirmed its verdict last Wednesday, with the Prime Minister promising a final decision “by the end of the year”.
The media consensus was that Alistair Darling scored a convincing win last week, in the first “televised” debate on Scottish independence. I’m not so sure. Yes, the Former Chancellor, now leading the Better Together campaign to keep Scotland in the UK, did well. Conversely, First Minister Alex Salmond, who’s spent a lifetime campaigning for independence, was often on the ropes. This was a surprise, given the SNP Leader’s usually razor-sharp debating skills.
Yet, with less than six weeks to go before Scotland votes, the ballot could still go either way. While Darling indeed appeared to fare better in the debate, a pair of Ipsos Mori polls found the No-vote remained static before and after the verbal tussle, while support for the pro-independence Yes-camp rose four percentage points to 40pc. A post-debate ICM poll put the two sides even closer, with 42pc signaling they’d vote to break-up the union, compared to 47pc against.
This week marks the start of the media “silly season”. It’s during the dog days of August, when so many of us are away on holiday, that the economic and political agenda tends to slow and newspapers and broadcasters become desperate for anything of interest to report.
With Parliament in recess, and business leaders at the beach, this is the time of year when grown-up journalism takes a back seat, making way for offbeat, bizarre news stories, the weirder the better, anything that will make a splash.
August 2014 won’t be like that. Its strikes me that this year the silly season is cancelled. We’re in for a singularly un-relaxed high summer on the news-front instead, an August of urgent headlines, political intrigue and financial angst.
For a start, global equity markets are on a knife-edge. Throughout 2014, Western share indices, fuelled by central bank “funny money”, have ratcheted up and up. Stock valuations are now historically high, despite weak corporate earnings and the failure of the large Western economies to stage a convincing recovery.
The party conference season is over for another year. While it was uninspiring mid-term fare for the most part, I offer some observations. Thanks to Labour’s Manchester set-piece, we now know that party leader Ed Miliband wants to steal Disraeli’s “one nation” mantle. We learnt in Brighton that maybe, possibly, the Liberal Democrat’s Nick Clegg won’t back the Conservatives’ plans to find another £10bn of welfare savings, but he definitely wants to increase taxes on the rich.
In Birmingham, we were reminded of Boris Johnson’s oratorical skills and the affection he generates among his own party faithful. But it was also apparent that much of the Tory rank-and-file still see “Bozza” (for now at least) as an amusing rabble-rouser, rather than a future party leader.