Comeback kids collide

Messrs Trump and Johnson are both treading the comeback trail, the former overtly, the latter coyly. However, since their pathways are laid 2,500 miles apart, one would think they’d do a Euclid by not crossing.

Yet cross they did, on neutral grounds, the Ukraine. Donald, as is his wont, shot from the lip and Boris deflected his verbal bullet.

When both were at the helm in their respective countries, they enjoyed a cordial relationship. Donald even called Boris “Britain’s Trump”, which in his book was praise like no other. Boris suppressed a wince, thanked Donald for that accolade but refrained from calling him “America’s Johnson”.

The two men do have much in common: both are inveterate narcissists. But the ways they express that trait are skewed by their cultural backgrounds.

Johnson is an Englishman pretending to be an Englishman, a type quite widespread in the upper reaches of British society. He is all golly, gripes, crikey and stuttering meiotic qualifiers (as in, for example, “Gripes, crikey, Hitler was quite an unpleasant fellow, wasn’t he, in a rather Hunnish sort of way, what?”).

In the same hypothetical situation, Trump would call Hitler a motherfucker and then try to make a deal with him (“Yo Adolf, you rub my back, I’ll rub yours, know what I mean?”) Donald is a perfect caricature of a brash, go-getting, straight-shooting American wheeler-dealer. Hence his variety of narcissism is so in your face that it often crosses the border into megalomania.

As it did the other day, when Trump repeated his stock claim that, had he been elected president in 2020, his friend Vlad wouldn’t have dared attack the Ukraine. That’s the beauty of the subjunctive mood: it affords enough latitude to make any claim whatsoever. As long as it stays in the subjunctive, we’ll never know, will we?

“But even now, if I were president,” continued Donald, “I’d be able to negotiate an end to this horrible and rapidly escalating war within 24 hours. It can be done. You have to say the right things, not the wrong things.”

The reference to the wrong things was a dig at President Biden, who days before the war started said that Putin would only ever launch “a minor incursion”. US intelligence already knew that Putin was about to push a button for a full-scale offensive, but Biden chose to sit on the fence.

Had Putin’s plan to capture Kiev in three days succeeded, Biden could have shrugged and uttered the Delaware equivalent of fait accompli. He would have been secure in the knowledge that he hadn’t committed his country to any decisive response, and who said that occupying Kiev didn’t qualify as a minor excursion?

Whether Biden’s fudging encouraged Putin more than he was already encouraged is a moot point. It’s possible that Vlad would have marched whatever the US response could have been – it’s that subjunctive again.

What’s clear is that the West in general and the USA in particular pursued a policy of Munich-style appeasement throughout the years of Putin’s stepped-up pouncing on Russia’s neighbours. At fault there isn’t just Biden but all the Western leaders over the past 23 years, including Trump.

But, subjunctively speaking, perhaps he could have persuaded Putin to stay put. The two men did enjoy a relationship, some (most?) of which was concealed from prying eyes.

That might have included some leeway for Donald to put into action his self-vaunted talent for a deal. I shan’t speculate on what the American part of it could have been, but it certainly wouldn’t have been anything minor.

But Trump’s claim he could still stop the war within 24 hours by saying the right things is where narcissism stops and megalomania begins. Saying the right things may secure a deal only if both parties want it. At a pinch, one party agog and the other lukewarm may still work.

But in this case the Ukrainians would rather die than accept that sum total of Trump’s being, a deal. They won’t stop fighting until Russia withdraws from every inch of the occupied territory and agrees to pay adequate reparations for the calamitous damages caused.

For Putin such an outcome would be tantamount to suicide, and I don’t just mean the political kind. So he is prepared to continue throwing piles of young Russian flesh into the meatgrinder of his bandit raid.

And even if Putin offered or accepted a truce, everyone knows he’d only use it to catch his breath before restarting the hostilities with renewed vigour. Since 1917 Russia has broken every treaty she has ever signed, and it takes most refreshing ignorance to think that the current KGB dynasty will reverse this trend.

That’s what our Boris meant when he said: “The former president, Donald, is a great dealmaker, but I don’t think there is a deal here.”

Johnson, I must admit, has come close to making me believe that his unwavering support for the Ukraine is sincere and almost disinterested. This is shameful naivety on my part, I know. It’s just something I sense, as I sense that Trump’s unwavering support is owed only to Trump.

I wonder if anyone will try to probe beyond his braggadocio and ask that tactless ‘how’ question. How, if he were president today, would he stop the war tomorrow? What kind of deal does he have in mind, what kind of right things would he say?

It’s impossible to conclude any deal without some kind of leverage. It could be positive (“If you sign, I’ll do this for you…”) or negative (“If you don’t sign, I’ll do this to you…”) or a combination of the two. But there has to be some.

So what kind of levers would be at Donald’s disposal? He could promise Russia an instant end to all sanctions and a huge aid package for Putin to withdraw, say, to the 23 February, 2022, borders. The Crimea could be declared a demilitarised zone, with the Russian troops leaving but the Ukrainian troops not coming in.

The Ukraine could be promised a regeneration package to make the Marshall Plan look like Monopoly money. This could be accompanied by a US guarantee of protection against another round of Russian aggression.

Yet the Ukrainians would laugh in Trump’s face. They wouldn’t trade their land for any amount of money, not after what the Russians have done. And as to American guarantees, Zelensky would wave the Budapest Memorandum as proof of their negligible worth.

You may think all this is conjecture, but it’s hard to imagine any other scenario. Trump certainly knows it – and yet he says he could end the war within 24 hours.

If it isn’t just talk, which is possible, he must have something else in mind. And that has to be some negative leverage of sufficient blackmail value to make Zelensky comply.

I can only think of one such: a threat to cut off all American supplies, including armaments. That would leave the Ukraine on her own and eventually disarmed in the face of a Russian onslaught. Zelensky would either have to sign Trump’s peace treaty or commit his people to decades of hopeless guerrilla warfare.

On balance, I’d rather hope this isn’t the basis for Trump’s otherwise insanely megalomaniac claim. It’s more comforting to think this is another empty campaign promise, an attempt to pat his own back with one hand and blow his own Trumpet with the other.

Looking at the two comeback kids from the Ukraine’s standpoint, I think she’d have a more reliable supporter in Prime Minister Johnson than in President Trump. But that may be because I have quite a few friends who resemble the former and none at all who resemble the latter.

A wrong basis for judgement, I know. It’s just that I’ve got tangled up in all those subjunctives.

Watch yourself, minister

None dare call it a general strike, but let’s not quibble about terms. Britain has been brought to a standstill by a massive strike involving 500,000 public sector workers.

The offensive item

Since 300,000 of them are teachers, it stands to reason the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan had to share her thoughts with BBC Breakfast. Nor was it out of order that The Mail had to comment on Mrs Keegan’s statements.

Those sounded sensible, and I don’t think any serious economist would find fault with what she said.

Having accepted the validity of the teachers’ complaints, and expressed the requisite sympathy, Mrs Keegan added: “What is not realistic is for us to be looking at inflation or inflation-busting pay rises. We cannot risk fuelling inflation with inflation-busting pay rises. We have to look after everybody in the economy.”

Actually, I assume she meant ‘inflation-boosting’, not ‘inflation-busting’, but then Mrs Keegan had to work her way up from very modest beginnings that didn’t include expensive education. Hence I’m not sure about her qualifications for her particular post, but nevertheless, assuming she did mean ‘inflation-boosting pay rises’, her statement bespoke a sound grasp of economics.

The above should give you an idea of how I would begin an account of Mrs Keegan’s BBC appearance – and also provide a hint at how I would continue. I’d probably talk about the deadly perils of a high inflation rate, an enemy more destructive than even a recession. If recession is the price to pay for lowering the inflation rate, then even that is worth paying.

At a weak moment I might even have proposed a way out of the deadlock, such as the government’s ironclad commitment to ratchet up its current 5 per cent offer once inflation has been brought under control. But I wasn’t the one writing that Mail piece.

Whoever did write it led with this paragraph: “Education Secretary Gillian Keegan wears her £10,000 Rolex watch as she tells striking teachers to be ‘realistic’ with their pay demands on a day of industrial action bringing the UK to a halt.”

One gets the impression that Mrs Keegan’s ownership of that timepiece disqualifies her from discussing the strike and the potentially detrimental consequences of inflation-boosting (not ‘busting’) pay rises. This faulty assumption in no way diminishes my admiration for the author’s eagle eye, capable of making out the brand and price of the watch from a distance.

This is a recurrent theme of our politics, and it isn’t hard to identify its moral provenance: envy, one of the seven cardinal sins. It seems to have become one of the cardinal virtues.

It’s impossible to open the papers these days, even conservative ones, without reading things like “health secretary used a private clinic 12 years ago” or “education minister sent his children to a public school” or “housing minister owns a property in France and a flat in Westminster” or “prime minister doesn’t understand the plight of common folk because his wife is rich.”

(So far I haven’t seen a lament that a justice secretary isn’t qualified to discuss prison reform because he has never served time for a felony, but I’m sure that’s still to come.)

What are government ministers supposed to do? Appear on TV wearing burlap sackcloth and shoes with holes big enough for their toes to stick out? Try to flog a copy of The Big Issue while they are at it?

One is amazed how Britain became one of the most successful countries in history and managed to build the greatest empire ever at a time when she was almost exclusively governed by wealthy aristocrats.

When the Spencers, Cadogans and Cavendishes ran England, French visitors were astounded how wealthy English peasants were. While in France most peasants lived in mud cottages at the time, their 18th century English counterparts had brick houses with tiled roofs and glass windows.

So fine, most ministers of the crown lived in sumptuous mansions. But they still did their best for the country.

One doesn’t have to be destitute to understand the plight of the poor; moribund to relate to the needs of patients; illiterate to tackle the miserable education provided by our schools. One does have to possess the ability to govern a great country, and that commodity doesn’t depend one way or the other on what our ministers wear on their wrists.

This isn’t the first time that Mrs Keegan has been brought to account for displaying that offensive item, which was her husband’s gift for her 50th birthday. In December, she had to defend herself in a radio interview: “I guess I’m supposed to never have made anything of myself, never have made any money… I don’t know. It’s like an inverted snobbery or something.”

Actually, it’s much worse than that. It’s envy, and the politics based on it, elevated to the status of orthodoxy. No wonder socialism has emerged victorious in British politics, with the main parties only quibbling about the extent of it.

While few politicians today can boast noble lineage, most of them are successful people. Let’s not hold that against them, shall we? Let’s criticise them for venality, incompetence, sleaziness, not knowing the difference between boosting and busting. These are in sufficient supply to provide enough targets for our venom.

Let’s not even criticise them for the poor taste of displaying oversized status symbols. It’s as if Mrs Keegan’s watch were reciting the popular ditty: “The working class can kiss my arse, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.” But hey, she’s entitled – as long as she is a good education secretary.