By this time next week the Johnson era will surely have begun. ‘We can, we will, we must now escape the giant hamster wheel of doom,’ our new Dear Leader will have declared in Downing Street. Or something like it. He will be rewarded with headlines such as ‘BoJo gives us back our mojo’. We will all have been urged to believe in Britain again. Then the questions will begin. With the same deadlocked parliament, the same deeply divided party and country and the same intransigence, what will the new prime minister be able to achieve that Theresa May hasn’t? I’ve been examining the past three years of failed Brexit negotiations for a BBC One documentary called Britain’s Brexit Crisis. What’s clear is that Britain never had a plan for Brexit. David Cameron didn’t have a Plan B in case he lost the referendum, Boris didn’t have a Plan A for when he won it. May didn’t have one when she fulfilled her childhood dream of reaching No. 10. Let’s hope her successor hasn’t just been dreaming about how to follow her there.
In contrast, the EU did have a plan — for its own survival — and it proved remarkably good at sticking to it. That, in no small part, is down to the suave Frenchman who has been the EU’s public face. On camera Michel Barnier is the disciplined master of the line to take — ‘the clock is ticking’ and ‘there will be no cherry-picking’. In private he can be witty. Returning to his office half an hour after my interview, he found my crew still de-rigging. ‘Aha,’ he said with a broad Gallic grin. ‘The Brits still haven’t left!’
One of many misunderstandings the Brits had which explains this whole sorry saga was to treat Barnier as the EU’s negotiator. Diplomats tell me that his real job was — in a phrase only they use — ‘to manage his authorising environment’, i.e. keep the EU 27 informed and on side. All the real negotiating was done by his deputies and masterminded by Jean-Claude Juncker’s right-hand man. When I interviewed Martin Selmayr, he skilfully parried my questions — as you would expect from a German lawyer — until I asked him what his nickname is. Ever so reluctantly he admitted ‘They call me “The Monster”,’ swiftly adding this was because of his capacity for hard work. I put it to him that it may be because people are scared of him. No one, he insisted, was scared of him. So, what would he like his nickname to be? ‘Martin, the friend of Britain,’ he replied with a trace of a smile. We’ll see.
Nick Robinson is a presenter on Today on BBC Radio 4. His Spectator Diary appeared in this week’s magazine.