Belfast Telegraph

Michael Kelly: House of Cards' Francis Urquhart couldn't hold a candle to drama playing out in House of Commons

Phillip Lee (centre standing right) takes his seat among Liberal Democrat MPs as Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a statement to MPs (House of Commons/PA)
Phillip Lee (centre standing right) takes his seat among Liberal Democrat MPs as Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a statement to MPs (House of Commons/PA)

By Michael Kelly

Long before Netflix and Kevin Spacey, the BBC thrilled audiences in the early 1990s with the television adaptation of Michael Dobbs' novel House of Cards. Mr Dobbs, a one-time adviser to Margaret Thatcher, introduced the world to the Machiavellian Francis Urquhart. The "FU" initials were no accident and epitomised Urquhart's attitude to foe and one-time friend alike.

In the BBC finale, The Final Cut, there is a masterful scene in which the erstwhile Foreign Secretary, Tom Makepeace, delivers a thundering takedown of Urquhart's hardline policies before dramatically crossing the House and sitting on the Opposition benches.

It is rousing stuff, but perhaps a bit over the top? Not for a minute. House of Cards can barely hold a candle to the drama playing out in the House of Commons at the moment.

Boris Johnson even had the indignity of looking up from the despatch box on Tuesday to see Conservative MP Phillip Lee ostentatiously led to the Opposition benches by his new pals in the Liberal Democrats.

The Prime Minister tried not to look ruffled, but he clearly was. Dr Lee's defection marked the end of the Tories' working majority in Parliament and, in the days that followed, all of Mr Johnson's plans have been going up in smoke as he has lost vote after vote.

Mr Johnson was, we were assured by his cheerleaders, a man of action and not mere words. When he triumphantly romped home in the Conservative leadership race, he was supposed to be a new Wellington leading Britain to victory against the pesky Continentals.

No longer would London face the indignity of the weak Theresa May trotting off to Brussels, cap in hand. To the Brexiteers, compromise was a dirty word and the only thing the EU would understand would be a smack of firm leadership from Mr Johnson.

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Trump-like, Mr Johnson drew a line in the sand and said he would not negotiate with EU leaders. He changed his mind, of course, and within days was off to Berlin and Paris to see Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. They would budge, the Boris-supporting Press announced; they didn't.

Against many predictions, EU leaders have remained impressively steadfast in their defence of the backstop to prevent a hard border in Ireland. Mr Johnson said he detected a softening. He was the only one.

But, in the mind of the hard Brexiteers, Mr Johnson is fighting a noble battle, prepared to stand alone if need be in the face of unrelenting aggression from Europe.

We've been here before. It is a well-worn script and part of the founding myth of modern English identity as an island nation.

To the teary-eyed Brexiteers, Britain remains this small country battling gallantly against foes from the Continent. Conflict with Napoleon and Nazi Germany only served to copper-fasten Britain's self-conscious identity as plucky and buccaneering.

More than a few Brexit hardliners have invoked the so-called "spirit of the Blitz"; the vital role of the US in liberating Europe from Nazi tyranny is lost in the nostalgia.

But British people deserve more than wistful affection for past glories. They also deserve more than the spectacle of their Parliament being turned into a schoolboy debating society, with over-privileged toffs like Mr Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg competing for cheap laughs from the back benches.

Mr Rees-Mogg faced a barrage of criticism this week for lounging on the front bench, while MPs made impassioned speeches both for and against Brexit. More worryingly - to some, at any rate - he betrayed a deeper sense that, for him, this is little more than a game.

Mr Rees-Mogg, a multi-millionaire, won't really be affected by Brexit, however it goes. People in vulnerable employment, whose livelihoods will be affected by an economic downturn, have no such luxury.

People are right to be frightened. If Mr Johnson and his reckless chums get their way, we'll all be a lot worse off.

Michael Kelly is editor of The Irish Catholic

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