Richard North, 06/11/2019  

Not since 4 June 1945 when Winston Churchill unwisely compared the Labour Party with the Gestapo (one of the factors which led to the Tory defeat in 1945) has a political leader launched such an ill-considered attack on his opposition in a general election campaign.

But, if had to be anybody, it was going to be Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson who today launches the Conservative Party Campaign "exclusively in the Telegraph" with a quote that takes the lead spot on the front page.

"The tragedy of the modern Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn", Johnson says, "is that they detest the profit motive so viscerally… they point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks".

Whatever the manifest and very evident faults of the Labour Leader, to compare him with the genocidal Stalin and his extermination of the Kulaks is huge misstep. Through enforced famine and executions, Stalin was responsible for millions of deaths, marking a terrible period in history which cannot begin to be linked with the activities or motives of UK politicians.

Yet, so far gone is the Telegraph in its adoration of its favourite son that it frames an approving news story, reporting that Johnson "has compared Jeremy Corbyn to Stalin over his 'hatred' of wealth creators as he says the Tories will 'cheer, not sneer' entrepreneurs if they are returned to power".

Earlier yesterday, Jacob Rees-Mogg had been criticised for his "insensitive remarks" about the Grenfell Tower fire, the nature of which was considered to be damaging to the Tories. And, although this grabs its share of the morning's headlines. Johnson's intervention is in another league altogether. Yet the Telegraph isn't even aware of the implications or the outrage which must surely follow.

Perversely, on the first official day of the general election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn was reported as looking to switch the election focus away from Brexit, with the Financial Times noting that Labour's election campaign plan features Brexit on only two days out of 27. The Labour leader, the paper says, wants his party to campaign on issues such as rail fares, animal welfare, the high street, dentistry, NHS funding, social care and "cycling and walking".

The strategy was considered a gamble, "given that Britain remains convulsed by strong feelings on both sides of the Brexit debate", leading one sceptical Labour MP to remark that, "It's like we want to seal Brexit in 10 metres of concrete and bury it under the seabed", adding wryly: "Good luck with that".

Johnson's comments, though, may play straight into Corbyn's hands, as the highly inappropriate comparison is bound to deflect attention from Brexit and, if a sense of outrage does build, it could deflect the parties' campaigns into personality politics and bitter recriminations.

It may be, of course, that this is a deliberate strategy on the part of Johnson who, yesterday, took a serious "hit" from Michel Barnier who took it upon himself to deliver a corrective to the "fantasy Brexit" offered by the prime minister in office.

Speaking at the annual Web Summit in Lisbon, Barnier directly contradicted Johnson's claims that the post-exit future relationship talks would be "straightforward". Warning that they would be "difficult and demanding", he said that the UK and the EU in the summer of 2020 faced "a moment of truth" on whether to extend the transitional period.

Approval of Johnson's withdrawal agreement by the UK parliament was only the prelude to years more negotiations, Barnier said, making the obvious point that: "As long as we have not completed both negotiations [the withdrawal agreement and future talks] with the UK the risk of a cliff edge remains and we should all remain vigilant".

Stating that the current withdrawal agreement was "a necessary step" but not the "final destination", Barnier stressed that an agreement on zero quotas and zero tariffs on trade would be linked to respecting EU norms on environment, worker protection and state aid, in order to maintain a level playing field between EU and British companies. "The EU will not tolerate unfair competitive advantage", he added.

With the prime minister's official spokesman adamant that there will be no extension of the transition period, this has the makings of a front-page controversy, especially as we are reminded that MPs were promised an opportunity to vote on whether the transitional period should be extended. Johnson's spokesman now says that no such vote would go ahead because the government will have reached a trade deal by then.

So fragile is this assertion that Johnson has as much reason as Corbyn to take Brexit off the agenda, if not more so. Although Corbyn's Brexit policy continues to be incoherent, despite attempts yesterday to clarify it, Johnson has nothing to gain from having his withdrawal agreement subject to intense scrutiny through the election campaign.

Such thoughts have even attracted the attention of the great sage, Rafael Behr, who adds a typical Guardian spin to the issue, writing:
With a sustained display of incompetence, cowardice, delusion and ideological mania, British politics has created a situation so monstrous and writhing with venom that the public cannot bear to look at it. Brexit is like the mythical Gorgon that turns to stone all who meet its gaze. It must instead be stalked indirectly, using the monster’s reflection in their polished shield.

That is why the election will be only obliquely about Brexit. It will not feature rational evaluation of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. These campaigns never do. The referendum drove big red and blue buses down every social fault line in the country without arriving at a functional definition of Brexit. The 2017 election was more animated by fox-hunting and dementia care than customs unions and regulatory alignment. Even when politics appears to be about Brexit, it conspires to be about something else: jostling for position in a Tory leadership race; pro-remain guerrilla manoeuvres in the remote hills of Commons procedure.

With parliament dissolved, anything relating to the substance of negotiation in Brussels will fall off the agenda because it is a boring subject for most voters and always has been. Meanwhile, neither of the two candidates to be prime minister is going to offer an honest appraisal of why leaving has been so difficult and why it brings no material benefit to the country.
Of course, while Behr neglects to point out that it is actually his fellow hacks and commentators who find Brexit so boring – not least because they lack the competence and knowledge to report it properly - we will see the legacy media conspiring to assist the politicians in lobotomising Brexit. And Johnson's "Stalin" remarks may give them the opportunity they have been looking for.

The only thing is that, in 1945, Clement Attlee had been rather miscast. The voters looked at him, the timid, correct, undemonstrative, unaggressive ex-public-schoolboy, ex-major, and couldn't see an Adolf Hitler in him. Yet, he managed to handle Churchill's intemperance rather deftly, pointing out that the then prime minister had wanted to draw a clear distinction between Winston Churchill, the great War leader, and Mr Churchill, the leader of the Tories.

In this case, we have only the tawdry leader of the Tories, but then I suspect that Corbyn is not the match for Attlee – at an intellectual level, at any rate – while the mud sticks easier to Corbyn, a man who is on the extreme left wing of his party.

Nevertheless, it too early to judge whether this misstep is going to take off. The main newspapers had already gone to bed by the time the Telegraph dropped its bombshell, leaving no time to react. We will see today how things develop but, if this is not the excuse to drop Brexit and go personal, there will be another one not far behind.

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