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Westlake Legal Group > Boris Johnson MP

Good luck, Tim Montgomerie

Warmest wishes to the founder of ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie, in his new role as Boris Johnson’s social justice adviser.  He is completing his first week in the post.  Tim is out of the Cabinet Office, and reporting both to the Prime Minister and to Sajid Javid.

In one sense, this is the culmination of a life’s work.  Isaiah Berlin once wrote that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  Most of us are foxes, but Tim is a hedgehog: he knows one big thing.  You might call it social justice conservatism.  You might call it “strong and compassionate”, to use one of his own terms.  You might say it’s “conservatism for the little guy”, to borrow another. At any rate, you know it when you hear about it.

Tim now hopes that you will soon know it when you see it.  Hr first started bringing it into life when he founded the Conservative Christian fellowship, and this is his first real chance to put it into action from near the centre of government – this Anglicanised Christian Democracy, as his successor thinks of it.

We hope he’s right, although there are at least two major obstacles to putting it into practice: one is very obvious, the other less so.  That first is that Johnson and his term could be forced out of Downing Street at almost any time.  The second applies if this doesn’t happen.  The Prime Minister is assembling a team of many talents in Number Ten, and not all of its members will see eye to eye with others.  It isn’t obvious how, say, the new, hard-nosed, Priti Patel-led law and order approach sits naturally with the recent Tory stress on rehabilitation and lower prison numbers.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Nick Hargrave: As a Tory moderate, I’ve been tempted to give up on Johnson’s Conservatives. But here’s why I’m sticking with them.

Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.

For all the talk of a new age of populism, many senior Conservatives seem to have fallen for that very Westminster myth of a binary culture war. That the British people fall into two neat camps of Leave and Remain. That both sides foam at the mouth with passionate intensity for these causes. That the country is fraying through this division. That we’re angry and we all hate each other. And that no political party in this country can ever win power again unless it squarely picks a side and tells the other to get stuffed.

Now, of course there is a values divide in our country today on the issue of identity. But if you really think that this trumps everything else in the daily lives of the British people then, frankly, you need to get out a bit more. There is a reason why Holly Willoughby, Gareth Bale and Ed Sheeran have much bigger social media followings than Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson. Only a few years ago, we used to say that the average voter spent just a few minutes each week thinking about politics. Now we argue that it is all-consuming.

Go to any focus group right now, or better still talk to an ordinary voter, and you will find that bemusement trumps bellicosity almost every time. Westminster has gone mad, but most people in the country just want this nightmare to be over – and for politicians to get back to tangible, relatable, deliverable, aspirational, outcomes-based policies that help them and their families live a better life.

We won an election on this platform in 2015 a mere 13 months before that supposed turning point referendum. It is crackers that Conservative MPs are spending more time now talking about free ports and SPS checks on agri-foods – than they are about making childcare cheaper for the parents of zero to two-year olds.

If you are a Tory – an anti-No Deal MP, a Cameron-era member or a wavering Lib-Dem switcher – who yearns for a return to this moderate normality then there are more reasons to be optimistic about the future of the party than you might think. The party leadership has done a good job of trying to alienate you since the summer with their words and deeds. But for people still weighing up whether to stay or go elsewhere, I still believe there is a clear case for sticking with the Conservative Party in the years ahead.

First of all, contrary to appearances, the Prime Minster is actually on your side of the argument. He backed Leave in 2016 because he wanted to position himself with the party membership for the future – rather than because of a neuralgic obsession about our customs relationship with the EU. He ran a leadership campaign aimed squarely at the party’s Brexit-centric voting shareholders because he knew that was the only route to Number 10. But as well as being a political opportunist, Boris Johnson has always had an intuitive grasp of the public mood. As said recently, once we leave the European Union he wants to focus with “an absolute laser like precision on the domestic agenda”.

These are not the words of a man who is looking to spend the next decade grappling with dramatic divergence or Government by Operation Yellowhammer. He knows there aren’t very many votes in it. He patently wants to get a withdrawal deal done, go to the country with a sensible retail domestic platform, win a decent majority  – and then use that mandate to put trade talks in the second tier, minimally divergent in the short-term box they belong.

All the while he will focus on schools, hospitals, housing and crime as domestic priorities instead. For those who say this is impossible given the pressure from his backbenchers – Canada good, Norway bad – I would only say that it is amazing what a healthy majority can do for your powers as Prime Minister. And who knows what the EU itself will look like in five years’ time.

Second, the prospect of leaving the European Union with a deal by October 31 – or shortly after with a brief technical extension- is under-priced at the moment.  It is the least politically difficult for Johnson of all of his options now.

The UK and the EU27 are also less far apart on the substance than suits either side to say. There is a way through on the much obsessed backstop that puts lipstick on the original proposal of limited future divergence in the Irish Sea. So much of the reason that this was a non-starter for Theresa May was that she knew she would never fight another election and her future was bound with the favour of the DUP. That is not true for Boris Johnson in quite the same way. That is before you get to the logical argument that Northern Ireland’s history since its construction in 1921 has been based on evolving and imaginative constitutional flex – that recognises the profoundly unique circumstances of the past.

Third, with a bit of strategic direction in the 2020s, it is perfectly possible to make the Conservative Party’s membership more reflective of the country at large. This in turn has an impact on what front rank politicians in the party end up saying and doing. Boris Johnson beat Jeremy Hunt by a margin of 45,497 votes in the last leadership election. The numbers involved are not enormous. If you want the next candidate of moderation to overturn that deficit then that is the equivalent of recruiting 70 odd supporters per constituency in England, Scotland and Wales in the intervening period. At £2.09 a month by direct debit, with minimal obligations for boots on the ground activism, that is a pretty sellable insurance policy for the future of your country.

Finally – and simply – the perfect should never be the enemy of the just about bearable in a first-past-the-post electoral system. This is not a time to take any chances. If you don’t think Jeremy Corbyn running the fifth largest economy in the world is a good idea then your vote at the next election should be exercised wisely.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that I agree with everything the Conservative leadership have said and done in recent weeks. It would also be dishonest to claim that the thought of voting Liberal Democrat did not flicker momentarily as we’ve veered towards knuckle-head, pound-shop Orbanism – rather than the finest traditions of Conservatism. But for all that noise, I am not sure the task of recapturing those traditions is as out of grasp as commonly supposed. That’s why I’ll be voting Conservative at the next general election and retaining my membership; I’d thoroughly recommend you do too.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Henry Hill: Belief that DUP are softening their position raise hopes of Brexit deal

Are the DUP preparing to fold on the backstop – provided it’s called something else?

The Irish Government have confirmed that they are engaged in “secret Brexit talks” with London, today’s Daily Mail reports, amidst mounting speculation that a deal might yet be struck.

Simon Coveney, the Irish deputy prime minister, put this on the record as other EU leaders, led by Finland, revived the prospect of a no-deal exit at the end of next month by threatening to veto a further extension of the negotiations.

At the same time, the Democratic Unionists have fuelled fresh speculation that they are softening their opposition to Northern Ireland-only solutions to the challenges posed by the Irish border. Having previously insisted that the Province must depart on exactly the same terms as the mainland, Arlene Foster is now saying that the DUP will merely oppose anything which challenges Ulster’s ‘constitutional status’ inside the UK.

Such vague language could cover all manner of sins. Whilst it is almost certain that any deal reached won’t be called the backstop – the EU would need to make any retreat by Foster or Johnson look like a victory so they could sell it – we may yet see the Government fold on what has been the biggest sticking point to passing the Withdrawal Agreement.

Meanwhile Stephen Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, has urged Brussels to “take risks” and abandon its “rigid” approach to the border issue in a speech today.

Yet it hasn’t all been good news for Irish nationalism this week. A new study by two “top Irish economists” has concluded that any annexation of Northern Ireland by the Republic could be economically catastrophic. The Sun reports that: “a 32 county Ireland would cause a complete collapse of the Northern Ireland economy and hammer the standard of living in the Republic.”

This fits with earlier analysis by Irish legislators which suggested ‘unification’ would only be economically viable if the UK continued to pay its full present-day subsidy to Northern Ireland to the Republic for three decades after the event. As one self-aware Irish commentator put it at the time: “This could be a hard one to sell to the British.”

Meanwhile the Prime Minister continues to be enthusiastic about building a road and rail bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland – a suitably Johnsonian grand projet which would make a big statement on the Union, deepen the Province’s physical link to the mainland, and could reportedly be done for much less than the cost of HS2’s London to Birmingham section.

Poll suggests SNP still have a mountain to climb

Nor has Scottish nationalism had a great week. After a flurry of priors-finally-confirmed excitement in recent weeks about a couple of polls showing support for independence at near-level pegging with opposition, this week saw the publication of a new poll showing that six-in-ten Scots back staying in the UK.

Even worse for Nicola Sturgeon, fewer than one in three support her policy of staging a re-run of the 2014 referendum within the next 18 months. More remarkably still:

“More than a third (36 per cent) of Yes voters in the 2014 vote now want to stay in the UK, the poll said, with protecting public services, Brexit and Ms Sturgeon’s performance as First Minister cited as the most important reasons behind their change of heart.”

This ought to serve as a welcome antidote to unionism’s omnipresent fatalism, a feature of which is the tendency to assume that a voter lost once is lost forever.

One feature highlighted by the poll is the importance of the question – a lesson well-learned by Brexiteers in 2016. Whilst in 2014 David Cameron’s policy was to make maximal concessions to the Nationalists in the hope of giving them no space to wriggle out of defeat (a policy he entirely undercut with ‘The Vow’), this time the pro-UK side appear completely alive to the importance of this particular battle.

It is therefore significant that the Electoral Commission have this week publicly slapped down Mike Russell, the SNP’s constitution secretary, for suggesting that the Scottish Government has the right to unilaterally decide what question gets put to the electorate in any second vote.

The SNP are understandably keen to lock in 2014’s question, which allowed them to run a campaign based on a naturally positive ‘Yes’ frame. ‘Yes’ has since become part of the separatist identity, and it’s loss in favour of a fairer question would be a palpable blow.

(Unionists ought also to ensure that the question references both what Scotland stands to lose as well as again, so ‘..leave the United Kingdom and become an independent country’ rather than merely ‘…become an independent country’, and so on.)

Meanwhile David Cameron has revealed in his new memoir that he asked the Queen to make her famous intervention in the closing stretch of the 2014 referendum. The former Prime Minister says he asked if Her Majesty could “raise an eyebrow” at the prospect of independence.

Commentary

A few pieces of relevant comment which stood out for me this week:

  • I contributed to Bright Blue’s new series on Johnson’s next steps to set out what the new ‘Minister for the Union’ needs to do to make good on his title.
  • Lord Trimble wrote on this very site about why the backstop breaches the terms of the Belfast Agreement. He ought to know, as he won the Nobel Prize for negotiating the latter.
  • Stephen Daisley has a great piece at the Spectator about taking a tough new line to curb Scottish nationalism. Attracted a vicious, vacuous, and now-deleted response from Alex Massie.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Holly Whitbread: The experience of doorstep campaigning for the Conservatives has dramatically improved

Cllr Holly Whitbread is the Housing and Property Services Portfolio Holder on Epping Forest District Council. She is also the Deputy Chairman Political of Conservative Young Women.

As a local councillor and an enthusiastic political activist, I spend most weekends knocking on doors on behalf of the Conservative Party.

The past year hasn’t been easy. In May, during the local elections, I experienced more animosity on the doorstep than ever before. Despite attempting to focus solely on local issues – ‘Bins not Brexit’ – the national picture covered the campaign with a dark, and sometimes stormy cloud.

Essex is a traditionally strong territory for the Conservatives and the county voted convincingly to leave. It was interesting to observe that in local elections, particularly during the European elections, a significant number of people put their Brexit position above traditional party allegiances.

In the election period and the weeks immediately following it, most people I spoke to in my local area, and beyond, demonstrated a deep frustration that Brexit had not been delivered as promised. I would go so far to say that many of the electorate were losing hope in democracy and had certainly have lost faith in politicians, of all colours.

Many voters placed all politicians under the same umbrella. The blue rosette I wore became symbolic of the ‘political class’ who are working to undermine Brexit. I was accused of being a “traitor” on more than one occasion, despite making it clear that I voted and campaigned to leave the EU and I shared people’s frustration with the state of Brexit paralyse.

Far from taking back control, people who voted leave felt that their voice has been silenced. This led to people seeking an alternative in protest or becoming apathetic with the entire political process.

Whilst, the Conservatives limped on through the local elections bruised but not too wounded, it was clear that there was much work for the Conservative Party to do to rebuild trust in democracy and win back the support of a disenfranchised electorate.

This summer, following the election of a new Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, things have changed.  With the party’s new ‘Captain’ at the helm our relationship with the electorate appears to have dramatically improved.

Although there is still a tangible sense of anger that Brexit is yet to be delivered, this is not directed at the Conservatives. People are backing Johnson to get Brexit done and move our great nation forward.

Last week, one lady who I remembered from earlier this year decrying the past administration’s Brexit policy, enthusiastically declared, “Tell Boris to keep going!”  Her reaction was replicated by many.

Outside of the ‘remainer bubble’, in Westminster, at universities, middle-class London dinner parties, and on the twitter-sphere, people are giving Johnson a chance and like what they see. From my discussions whilst out on the campaign trail, it is clear that people can see that Johnson is doing everything he can to deliver the outcome of the European Referendum. They acknowledge the difficulties he is experiencing with a significant number of parliamentarians working against the wishes of the wider public.  However, they are impressed with his tenacity, in pursuit of his do or die Brexit approach.

Although the Government may have lost a series of legislative battles in Parliament, with the support of the people Johnson’s Conservatives will win the war, unconditionally delivering Brexit, as promised. There is widespread condemnation over of recent parliamentary manoeuvres which are aimed at undermining the Prime Minister, preventing Brexit, prolonging uncertainty and undermining democracy. The snobbish assertion that “people didn’t know what they voted for”, continues to arouse fury in those, who instructed our politicians to leave the European Union. A huge number of pragmatic remain voters say its time to move forward, deliver Brexit and then move beyond it.

A general election is now required to move beyond the current political impasse. the election will be fought along the lines of the People vs Parliament. Johnson has become the “People’s Prime Minister” fighting the corner of ordinary people. He is leading the charge against a petulant Parliament, the majority of which do not want to see Brexit delivered and have failed to provide any solutions, just dither and delay. Johnson will be fighting an election on behalf of the people, seeking to fulfil the Brexit promise and then moving our great country forward.

Johnson is talking about the domestic priorities that people care about and resonate on the doorstep, cutting beyond the Brexit divide; investing in police and giving them the powers they require to keep people safe and putting more money into schools to ensure every child gets the best education possible. In addition to ensuring people keep more of their own hard-earned money. This strong one-nation Conservative agenda will help this great country unite.

From a grassroots political perspective, Johnson’s leadership has re-energised party members. We are canvassing with clear messages which are resonating. Local membership is growing, activists are far more engaged and proud to pound the streets for the Conservatives.

So when the election comes, the Conservatives are ready. My conversions with people in recent weeks make me confident that people will back us to deliver Brexit and lead an optimistic and patriotic post Brexit Britain.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Daniel Hannan: Cameron maligns Brexiteers because he misunderstands them

Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.

Everyone agrees that David Cameron made a terrible blunder when he called the referendum. Everyone, that is, except the country at large.

Journalists and politicians, civil servants and diplomats, subscribers to the Economist and the Financial Times, half-clever readers who get their opinions downstream from the Davos schmoozefest – all these people tell each other that the Brexit referendum was the worst mistake any British leader has made since the loss of the Americas. All forget how widespread the desire for a referendum was in 2015.

The Liberal Democrats, who now say that Cameron’s decision was “unforgiveable”, were demanding an In/Out referendum long before he was. Jo Swinson, along with the rest, told us as long ago as 2008 that only “a referendum on the major issue of in or out of Europe” would do. By 2013, plenty of Labour and Conservative MPs were taking the same line, largely in response to pressure from their constituents. There is no dishonour here: it is how a democracy is supposed to work.

Oddly, Cameron appears to have adopted the world-view of his critics. He defends his decision to call a referendum, but he does so…well, defensively. The line he takes in his memoirs is, in effect, that the referendum was forced on him by a combination of public demand and EU inflexibility. He had no choice but to go to the country, though he bitterly regrets the result. He reveals that he phoned EU leaders, as well as Barack Obama, to apologise for the way people voted. He still beats himself up about the whole thing.

For what it’s worth, I have always felt the former Prime Minister gets a tough rap. We forget the state the country was in when he took over: Gordon Brown had left us with a higher deficit than Greece’s. Cameron brought us back from the brink calmly and unfussily. Since stepping down, he has behaved with dignity – unlike, it must be said, every other living former Prime Minister. True, the timing of his memoirs is unfortunate, but that is hardly his fault: Brexit was supposed to have been done and dusted by now.

One thing, though, leaps out of Cameron’s book. He never really got Euroscepticism or Eurosceptics. He sees opposition to European amalgamation as an eccentricity verging on a mild mental disorder. The idea that it might matter to people more than, say, party loyalty leaves him genuinely nonplussed: “Michael [Gove] had backed something he did perhaps believe in, but in the process had broken with his friends and supporters,” he writes, in unfeigned bewilderment.

Gove did indeed pay a high price, because he was convinced that Britain would be better off outside the EU. He acted, in other words, from principle. But Cameron can’t understand how anyone could feel that way, and so puts it down to some sort of character flaw.

Similarly, he writes of the present Prime Minister: “Boris had become fixated on whether we could pass legislation that said UK law was ultimately supreme over EU law.”

It doesn’t seem to occur to him that this question – the essence of what it means to be an independent country – might genuinely matter. Johnson, we are invited to assume, cannot truly have cared about what Cameron describes as the “bugbear of the most evangelical Eurosceptics”. The only explanation for his behaviour, the former leader implies, is careerism.

In fact, Johnson – a long-standing critic of Euro-federalism – was tortured by the sovereignty question. I know, because I spent much of 2015 trying to persuade him to come out for Leave. Never once did he give any indication that he was weighing up which side would win. On the contrary, he kept coming back to the issue of legal primacy. If we could settle that then, as far as he was concerned, we could put up with the rest. But if we couldn’t, then staying in the EU would mean, over time, becoming a European province.

I am pretty sure that, if Cameron had been able to address this issue – the issue that had been the sticking point for Tony Benn, Enoch Powell, Hugh Gaitskell and the other Eurosceptic Long Marchers – he would have won the support, not just of Johnson and Gove, but of the majority of the electorate. But he could never see the problem. He couldn’t – and he still can’t – believe that anyone is genuinely bothered by what he sees as an absurd and abstruse abstraction. No wonder he feels hurt.

Sadly, in his annoyance, he reruns the referendum campaign, angrily accusing the other side of dishonesty. And here, I’m afraid, he diminishes himself. After all, we can all remember that, right up until February 2016, he was solemnly declaring that, if he didn’t get the reforms he wanted, he would recommend a Leave vote. Now he says that will always blame himself for the “enormity” of withdrawal. At least he uses that word correctly, to mean dreadfulness rather than enormousness. But how are we to square that maudlin statement with his previous assurances that he would lead us out if he couldn’t tweak our membership terms? One of the two statements must be untrue.

We all have self-serving biases, of course. We all give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. When Cameron looks back at his previous promises, he doubtless sees them, not as lies, but as part of a standard political campaign. Here, for example, is how he explains his decision to resign as Prime Minister: “Why had I promised I would stay on if we lost? If I had admitted that there was any chance of my stepping down if remain lost, I would have jeopardised the referendum entirely.”

To which I say, “fair enough”. There is a difference between putting the best spin on your intentions during a campaign and calculated mendacity. The word “lie” should, in my view, be reserved for bigger offences than Cameron’s. It’s just that, with such a record, he should think twice before using the word “lie” about what was very obviously an honest mistake in one interview by Penny Mordaunt about whether Britain could veto Turkish accession.

More significant is the question of why he didn’t manage to get a better deal from the EU. This is the question that Remainers almost invariably avoid.

Had Cameron come back with any retrieval of power or, indeed, with a sovereignty amendment of the sort that Gove and Johnson had wanted, he would have won the referendum. But the EU was readier to lose its second financial contributor than to allow any diminution of its federal aspirations.

That inflexibility was the proximate cause of Brexit. It helps explain why, after the vote, it proved so hard for the two sides to agree on a common-market-not-common-government type of association. It remains the biggest barrier to a deal. Yet, bizarrely, it is hardly ever discussed. Even now, many Remainers would rather rail against the other side than face up to the reality of what the EU is turning into. The electorate as a whole, though, knows better.

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Andrew Gimson’s Supreme Court sketch: Lord Pannick tries to throw the Prime Minister out of respectable society

Lord Pannick versus Boris Johnson. Here in the antiseptic calm of the Supreme Court Gina Miller’s barrister set about impugning the Prime Minister’s motives.

Outside in the sunshine the demonstrators shouted and waved their placards. In court, the more deadly weapon of polite insinuation was deployed.

Johnson, Lord Pannick contended, had exercised his power to prorogue Parliament for “an improper purpose”. Miller sat behind Lord Pannick, looking a model of propriety.

The forces of propriety – metropolitan propriety, at least – were intent on destroying Johnson. The majesty of the law was to be used to trample this improper figure under foot.

The Prime Minister would be thrown out of respectable society. The Dinner Party, as the late, great Frank Johnson (no relation) used to call it, would never again allow this scoundrel to darken the fashionable repasts over which it exchanges received opinions.

For the Prime Minister’s motive, according to Lord Pannick, is “to silence Parliament”, and “it is an improper purpose for him to be motivated by a wish to avoid parliamentary control”.

It was also “an invalid purpose”. Jacob Rees-Mogg had gone to Balmoral where the Queen had no choice but to give her formal approval to this abuse of power.

Lord Pannick referred to page 373 in the trial bundle, where we would find “Mr John Humphrys interviewing Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg”.

Those of us who are not lawyers hoped this exchange would clarify the issues. But the 11 judges, sitting behind a curved modern wooden desk, could not find it, because the numbering on their bundles did not correspond to the numbering on Lord Pannick’s.

Lady Hale, the President of the Supreme Court, said there was “always trouble” with the bundles. After a period of confusion, it emerged that by adding 63, the numbers in the judges’ bundles could be made to correspond to those in Lord Pannick’s.

No trace of panic appeared on Lord Pannick’s features. He looked quite pleased with himself as he said in a smooth tone, “I don’t know why the numbering is different and I’m very sorry.”

He called in evidence “a Sky News interview with Boris Johnson by the journalist Sam Coates”, in which the Prime Minister had said it would be harder to achieve Brexit “if our friends and partners on the continent” thought Brexit could be blocked by Parliament.

This, Lord Pannick said, was “strong evidence as to the Prime Minister’s motive”. He added with a satisfied air that it was “a remarkable feature of these proceedings that the Prime Minister has not made a witness statement”.

It was possible to “draw an inference” from this failure to make a statement.

Lord Pannick and his client want us to believe the worst of the Prime Minister. They are convinced he wants to drive through Brexit in accordance with the referendum result.

They think there should be a law against this, or at least a judgment that hinders it. Such a desperado has no place in polite society.

Lady Hale said at the start of the hearing that “we are not concerned with the wider political issues”. The judges are just there to decide “a serious and difficult question of law”.

This being so, it seemed strange to hear Lord Pannick laying such stress on the Prime Minister’s motives. Is a court of law really the place for these to be determined? Might not the court of public opinion be more suitable?

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War and peace – with Iran, Trump-style

For Donald Trump, politics is personal.  Hence his G7 invitation to Vladimir Putin; his meeting with Kim Jong Un; even his take on Boris Johnson, which was as follows: “They’re saying Britain Trump. They call him Britain Trump. People are saying that’s a good thing. They like me over there, that’s what they wanted. That’s what they need.”

Which is not to say that he has no consistent policies at all.  He does: or rather, perhaps, he has attitudes, prejudices, reflexes.  One of these is to keep the United States out of wars abroad, or at least conflicts in which ground troops are committed: America First has succeeded neo-conservatism.

This isn’t to say that Trump won’t take military action abroad – he will.  But it tends to be undertaken either through proxies, as against ISIS, or via ordnance: consider his deployment of a Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb in Afghanistan two years ago.  Theodore Roosevelt summed up his foreign policy as: “Speak softly but carry a big stick”.  Trump’s is: “Do diplomacy via Twitter, and carry the mother of all bombs”.

Iran is being hit hard by sanctions, and will be watching Trump closely.  On the one hand, it has seen him tear up Barack Obama’s nuclear deal and turn the sanctions screw.  On the other, it will have watched him declare that he has “good feelings” about a possible successor deal of his own, and there has been talk of a Jong-On type summit with Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s President.  After all, Trump sees himself as master of the Art of the Deal.

Furthermore, he has recently sacked John Bolton, a veteran of the neo-con years, who the President brought back as his National Security Adviser.  Trump came to distrust Bolton’s martial approach to Iran (and elsewhere).  In June, he backed off an airstrike against Iran as “not proportionate”, having been told that it would leave 150 dead, after declaring that America was “cocked and loaded for action”.

Iran’s asymetric drone attack against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia should be viewed against the context of this background.  Power in the country is peculiarly distributed: it is very for outsiders to work out exactly how much power is held by Rouhani; by Ali Khamenei, the country’s Supreme Leader; by the Majlis, military, clergy or the Revolutionary Guard at any one time.

The consensus at present is that the last is in the driving seat.  The attack may have been intended to help head off an American-Iranian rapprochment, complete with Trump-Rouhani summit; or it may actually have been crafted to help achieve the opposite, by reminding America of the consequences of war in the Gulf – including a destabilising rise in the oil price.  Or the truth may lie in between; there is no way of knowing.

All we can be sure of is that those sanctions are indeed hurting, that America has been turning the screw, and that Iran is striking out – whether through detaining western citizens or seizing British ships.  Trump is stepping back and letting the Saudis decide the scale of response to this latest Iranian ploy, or so it seems.

The President will be damned for whatever he does.  If America intervenes directly, he will be denounced as a warmonger; if he makes diplomatic overtures to Tehran, he will be condemned as an appeaser.  If he pursues his present course, he will be damned as a hands-off President who is prepared to let the region burn.

You may be alarmed by Trump conducting foreign policy by Twitter, deplore the frequency of his Apprentice-style firings, and worry about the intertwining of personal and political.  But there has been a queer core of prudence, even restraint, in the President’s foreign policy to date.  When it comes to his next steps on Iran, almost anything could happen.

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WATCH: Johnson in Luxembourg 1) He cancels a press conference. Luxembourg’s Prime Minister empty-podiums him

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WATCH: Johnson in Luxembourg 2) “I don’t think it would have been fair to its Prime Minister”, he says

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