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What Boris can learn from Barnier Conservatives need to start keeping their promises

Barnier's humiliation is a warning to Conservatives everywhere. Credit: PASCAL GUYOT/AFP via Getty Images

Barnier's humiliation is a warning to Conservatives everywhere. Credit: PASCAL GUYOT/AFP via Getty Images


September 15, 2021   5 mins

Unlike the clownish Jean-Claude Juncker or the hapless Ursula von der Leyen, Michel Barnier used to cut an impressive figure. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, an immaculately-coiffed Frenchman, oozed authority.

Way back on day two of those negotiations, a photo opportunity was staged around the negotiating table: there was Barnier with his team, each holding a thick sheaf of briefing papers; opposite him was David Davis, literally empty-handed. The symbolism was painfully obvious. Even those of us who supported Brexit were appalled.

But they say if you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by. Four years on, Brexit is done — and so is Barnier. After the Brexit gig, he had his eye on the Presidency of the European Commission, but was beaten to it by von der Leyen. Now, he is having to run for President of France, a regrettably democratic process. He’s already floundering.

One of many possible candidates for Les Républicains — the biggest French conservative party — Barnier is by no means the favourite. To stand out from the pack, he has tried to strike a Eurosceptic note. He has called for a three-to-five year freeze on immigration into the EU; changes to the Schengen Agreement on movement of people within the EU; an assertion of French national sovereignty against European courts; and, best of all, a referendum to provide a “constitutional shield” against EU interference.

Of course, it won’t work. Mr Europe doesn’t get to play Eurosceptic and retain his credibility. And even if his flabbergasting hypocrisy were to win him his party’s nomination, what would it be for? No centre-Right candidate — from the frontrunners such as Xavier Bertrand to the also-rans such as Barnier — comes close to matching the first-round support of Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.

The last Presidential election, in 2017, was the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic that a candidate of the centre-Right failed to make it through to the second round. In 2022, the best that the French conservatives can hope for is that Le Pen loses enough votes to a rival populist — most likely the polemicist Éric Zemmour — to let their candidate through. But not only is this a long shot, it’s a humiliation. The centre-Right — the inheritors of Charles de Gaulle — shouldn’t have to depend on the in-fighting of the radical Right.

Michel Barnier is not only an embarrassment to his party, then, but also a symbol of its impotence.

Yet British Tories shouldn’t take too pleasure from his downfall. What’s happening to the centre-Right in France is happening across the West. We have become so used to hearing about the decline of the traditional parties of the centre-Left that we have failed to notice the rot setting in on the centre-Right too. Conservatism is in crisis.

On Monday, Norwegian voters went to polls — and kicked out the ruling centre-Right coalition after eight years. Later this month, German voters are likely to bid farewell to the Christian Democrats after 16 years. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia — the governing party as recently as 2011 — is now a mere appendage to the populist Right. In the Netherlands, the once dominant Christian Democrats are in deep trouble, their support bleeding away in all directions — including the Farmers’ Party which is now ahead of them in the polls. And finally, in the Republic of Ireland, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael — both vaguely conservative — once commanded over 80% of the vote between them. But their joint share is now only half that — and Sinn Fein is the largest party.

It’s not just Europe. In Australia, Labor have opened up a big lead over the Liberal-led coalition government. In New Zealand, the Nationals, who won 44% of the vote as recently as 2017, now languish in opposition on a poll rating of about 25%. And then there’s America — whose two-party system ought to mean that the main party of the Right can’t fall too far. And yet the Republicans have only won the popular vote once in the last eight Presidential elections.

Of course, there are exceptions to the general trend — Spain, for instance; and, until recently, England — but the bigger picture looks dire for the centre-Right.

It’s not that the centre-Left is back, exactly: in Norway the big winners were the parties of hard Left and the agrarian Centre Party. In Germany, the Social Democrats will enjoy gains — but only because their conservative and Green opponents made catastrophically bad leadership choices. In France, the socialists are even less likely to win the presidency than the conservatives. And in Canada, voters would dearly love to see the back of Justin Trudeau. But the Conservatives are unable to unite Canadians behind them. The latest polls show them stuck in the low thirties.

Looking at the decline of the mainstream parties of the centre-Left, it’s easy to identify one over-riding cause: the demographic decline and political alienation of the traditional working class. But for the mainstream parties of the centre-Right, the causes are more complicated and country-specific — the sudden rise of Emmanuel Macron in France, for instance, or the rapid decline of religiosity in the Republic of Ireland. Still, beyond these local factors, there are two threads that are common to the international crisis of conservatism.

The first is reform — or rather the lack of it. In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, many pundits expected electorates to turn sharply leftwards. That didn’t generally happen. Instead, the immediate demand was for security — and for that voters generally look to the conservative Right.

Something similar happened during the Seventies. A decade of constant crisis paved the way for the decade of Thatcher and Reagan. But there’s a crucial difference between the Eighties and the 2010s. For good or ill, the Eighties brought change — there was a new paradigm for economics (neoliberalism) and for international relations (the end of the Cold War).

The same can’t be said for the 2010s, during which very little changed. There was no new era of capitalism, just the same model of globalisation plus a few sticking plasters. The only real exception anywhere in the West was Brexit — which no government actually wanted to happen.

The second thing that has gone wrong is that, in place of reform, conservative parties have offered something emptier: the politics of sensation. Instead of working quietly and cautiously towards change, conservatives now offer the feeling of change.

For instance, there’s never been a more performative presidency than that of Donald Trump. Even though he achieved very little in the way of concrete reform, he gave the impression that a revolution was underway — ably assisted by the outrage of his enemies. He even tried to perform his way to winning an election he had just lost.

Of course, Trump is proof that performance can only get you so far — if unsupported by underlying reality. And this is why Michel Barnier’s performative Euroscepticism won’t get him very far. Everyone knows that within the unreconstructed framework of the European Union, the policies he’s proposing are pointless.

There’s an obvious lesson here for Boris Johnson. Though he’s delivered Brexit, he now has to deliver all the other things he said would happen after Brexit. He can’t just promise to control our borders, our borders must be controlled. He can’t just talk about “building back better”, he must build better things. He can’t just sell the feeling of “levelling up”, he must actually narrow the gap between North and South.

If he doesn’t then he’ll find himself going the same way as poor Michel.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

peterfranklin_

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Paddy Taylor
PT
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago

” ….there was Barnier with his team, each holding a thick sheaf of briefing papers; opposite him was David Davis, literally empty-handed. The symbolism was painfully obvious. Even those of us who supported Brexit were appalled.”
Really? You’re going to trot that line out … AGAIN?
The Guardian ran the “empty table” picture of Mr Davis & team on almost every article about the negotiations for months, it was their favourite Brexit leitmotif.
It was a cheap shot and, frankly, sub-tabloid journalism for the Guardian to keep pretending what that picture implied because they knew full well that David Davis had issued strict instructions to everyone on his staff – whether in Brussels, Strasbourg or the UK – that all documents were to be kept in cases and never carried in front of the press to avoid any unfortunate snippets of information being caught on camera. Davis had even taken to carrying all his briefing notes and position papers in a “Faraday Cage” briefcase – such was his concern to maintain their security.
The Guardian had already sneered at Mr Davis carrying all his documents in a “silver spy-proof briefcase“ in print – so were well aware of his security edicts – yet still decided to spin it by endlessly comparing a bare table in front of the UK team and a sheaf of notes in front of the EU side as somehow evidence of their lack of seriousness.
It was sub-standard journalism and fake news then – don’t try and breathe life into that dead donkey now.

Last edited 2 years ago by Paddy Taylor
Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

I do so agree. It was cheap propaganda, which wouldn’t have worked without the flood of comment by those who dominate news in the UK and were rooting for the EU over the UK. It was surely obvious that it was a quick photo-opportunity rather than an actual negotiation, and the fact that such a prop was in shot illustrates for me the gamesmanship of the EC compared with the naivety of the UK side. I suspect that the UK team were led in and sat down, and that on realising they had been set up, the man furthest on the right whipped a notebook out of his pocket and set it on the table.
Anyone who has attended meetings will know that a thick bundle of papers is useless. Those attending will possess brief summaries to support what is in one’s head, including those produced by the opposing negotiators.

Last edited 2 years ago by Colin Elliott
Paddy Taylor
PT
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Colin,
It’s standard operating procedure for the Guardian – they do it all the time. They claimed that Boris was embarrassing the country with his behaviour towards European leaders, highlighting his arrogance by putting his foot up on Emmanuel Macron’s table, when they met at the Élysée Palace.
The truth was a little more prosaic. Macron had made a joke in front of the press photographers about the tiny table between him and the PM being more the size of a footstool. Johnson went along with the joke, putting his foot against it for a second. The Guardian then printed that photo and predictably whipped their readers into a flurry of confected outrage.
The only reason media manipulation is so effective is because too many people are happy to be herded into such choreographed indignation.

Last edited 2 years ago by Paddy Taylor
Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Fair point but media awareness might have helped. All they had to was give him a binder with some paper in as a prop. Tiresome but every little helps. After all we never got to see inside Barnier’s folder of course.

Paddy Taylor
PT
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Honest question: Do you think it should be the Politician who is forced to carry a prop to avoid the optics of a bad-faith “gotcha” picture, or do you think the media outlets should be expected not to print bad-faith “gotcha” pictures and then extrapolate stories from them that they KNOW to be false?
This is, remember, from the media outlet that emblazons its every page with “Facts are sacred”. …. Perhaps they should be forced to retract that and change it to “Facts are scarce”

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Just being a bit PR aware. Of course it shouldn’t matter but it pays to think and use every tool you can. Teachers on strike used to naturally smile for the camera but looks like ‘Teachers Enjoy Strikes’ etc. Rees Mogg languishing on a bench- body language said ‘dilettante snob’. Symbolism is a factor. It’s why we think clothing styles matter for many jobs

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

For the record, David Davis said from day one that the EU wouldn’t negotiate seriously until the 11th hour. He was proved right. If May had trusted him and held her nerve, we would have been out in 2019 with minimal drama. The EU’s staged photos and exasperated press conferences were always red herrings.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Not even one of these wan* ers running, or in office, are anything but a disaster. That these worms should have the power to run their nations into the ground is appalling. What is wrong with our political systems in the West that the scum, rather than the cream, rises to the top?

Iris C
IC
Iris C
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Because governments are run by the press which feeds on sensationalism.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Strange. I clicked on the thumbs down, and the thumbs up increased.
But let’s deal with your point. David Davis was elected, but most of the UK government is composed of civil servants, who appoint and pay themselves, moving sideways those who fail and are noticed to do so.
I cannot say who appointed Barnier, but I guess it was Juncker, and I guess Barnier appointed his assistants. I don’t know who appointed Juncker, but we know that Cameron didn’t want him.
I agree, our political systems are bad at making the right decisions, especially in the UK, although I think ‘scum’ is unfair.

Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
2 years ago

It all read well until the end where it’s asserted that Boris must ‘deliver’ That’s where it entered the world of fantasy.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

Am I the only one who thinks Michel Barnier might not have come over all euroskeptic just because it’s politically opportune but because he might have actually changed his personal opinions after having witnessed the internal workings of the EU and – now he’s free of his professional duties towards the Commission – be pushing an agenda which he thinks is the right one?

Laura Creighton
LC
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

No, I think that is quite likely. Also, sometimes the point of running for political office is not to win — though that would be nice if it happened — but to influence the direction of political discourse and aspirations. Euroscepticism in France can no longer be immediately dismissed as ‘lunatic hate mongering of Le Pen supporters’.

Last edited 2 years ago by Laura Creighton
Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Probably.

Will R
Will R
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

You may be right: if so, its a shame he didn’t do the decent thing and resign from his rather cushy number in protest