Watching Boris Johnson’s exuberant ‘tidings of great joy’ Christmas Eve video celebration of the trade deal, it’s easy to forget the shambles he inherited from Theresa May.
How people laughed – and not just arch Remainers – when he led the Tories into last December’s general election promising to get Brexit done by the end of January, and secure a trade deal by the end of 2020.
How could this buffoon of a man, an ex-journalist with a ramshackle personal life and mixed record in the strictly limited role of London mayor, possibly aspire to lead the nation through constitutionally critical times?
How could this buffoon of a man, Boris Johnson, an ex-journalist with a ramshackle personal life and mixed record in the strictly limited role of London mayor, possibly aspire to lead the nation through constitutionally critical times?
That landslide election victory a year ago curbed the laughter a little – but the pressure of Covid and the shambles his Government has made of PPE, its care homes policy, test and trace and one of the highest death rates in the world, secured those rictus grins in place.
There was no way, his critics said, that he could possibly deliver on a trade deal before the transition period ended and we left the EU on December 31.
But he did and while, no doubt, there will be those who cavil at what EU negotiators have implanted in the small print of the trade deal, no one should underestimate the extraordinary scale of the Prime Minister’s achievement.
Since he entered Downing Street 17 months ago, he has faced down the contempt of the liberal establishment, the civil service, some smug party grandees, the BBC, and many of the MPs who sit behind him in the House of Commons.
The big cheeses from organised business joined forces with the Clarkes, the Heseltines and the Blairs, and with failed ambassadors and Eurocrats, to patronise him and predict disaster if he failed to climb down before the all-powerful EU.
But for all the PM’s well-documented foibles, his many critics must now acknowledge that no other British politician of his generation could have achieved what he has.
Since he entered Downing Street 17 months ago, he has faced down the contempt of the liberal establishment, the civil service, some smug party grandees, the BBC, and many of the MPs who sit behind him in the House of Commons
As someone who has known Boris for more than 30 years – as a journalistic colleague – I wish I could claim I never doubted his ability to deliver this deal.
In truth I have often despaired over the past few months watching his faltering, cowed reaction to the pandemic.
He has tolerated the ineptitude of clueless light-weights in his Cabinet – there only because of their Brexiteer loyalty – that he would not trust to mend a puncture on his bicycle.
And his familiar cheer and self-confidence vanished as he has bowed before ‘the science’, Left-wing academic ‘modellers’ and prophets of doom and gloom.
He seems to have refused to deploy his immense intelligence to question the consensual drift to a dystopian national lockdown and economic collapse.
So, yes, there have been moments I have feared that many of the people who predicted his failure as a leader would turn out to be right, that managing this crisis and the complexities of his personal life – a divorce, an engagement and a new baby amid reports of family rifts – were too much.
And of course he almost died himself after contracting the virus. A sudden brush with mortality affects everyone in different ways, and it certainly seemed to poleaxe him.
The running joke at a newspaper where we both worked was: ‘You can rely on Boris because he will always let you down.’
It is true that he was maddening and selfish, often idle, and he was never a team player. It was always all about him, and advancing his national celebrity.
But this rabbit out-of-a-hat trade deal reminds me of many late nights at the office waiting for him to file in his column far past the deadline.
His routine lateness played havoc with the personal lives of others as we had to hang around for the prince to deliver, knowing that whatever he was doing, it wasn’t writing his column and might quite possibly involve one or other of his various mistresses.
We would plot formal rebukes and sanctions – and then, at last, the column would arrive. By a mile it would be the best thing in the next day’s paper.
All would be forgiven, and Boris would live to fight another day.
He has tolerated the ineptitude of clueless light-weights in his Cabinet – there only because of their Brexiteer loyalty – that he would not trust to mend a puncture on his bicycle
This laxity, this moral weakness which enrages so many, is actually his greatest political strength. He does not think like the rest of us or obey the humdrum rules.
He is blithe to others’ disapproval, sceptical of consensus, unburdened by middle class restraint. He is also physically brave, reckless even, as anyone who has seen him on a bicycle or a horse can attest.
Much less admirably, he is a man who didn’t just cheat on his accomplished, long-suffering second wife, but did so brazenly and unapologetically as though it was his entitlement.
This behaviour would seem to have been learned during an unhappy childhood, from a philandering father with a monstrous ego, who, according to a new biography, even assaulted the mother of his children.
If you can get through that as a child, you can laugh off the snide complaints of critics you regard, as a younger Boris might have put it, as big girls’ blouses.
In the end, it was his intelligence and single-mindedness that has got him through.
Having worked in Brussels, he understood the EU would have to punish the British for having the temerity to leave, to discourage other nations.
But he also understood that given the Covid pandemic and the structural weaknesses of the EU economic order, it could not withstand a cold war with Britain.
All the other journalists based in Brussels missed this central point, most obviously and embarrassingly the BBC’s Katya Adler, who has sounded more like an EU spokeswoman than a journalist.
Through his knowledge of history and by writing a biography of Churchill, Johnson understood one other key point.
As Conservative leader, he could survive a No Deal Brexit, but he would not be forgiven for a Brexit sell-out, certainly not by his Red Wall admirers in Northern cities.
Boris Johnson never wavered in his understanding of those realities, which is why today he deserves all the plaudits of a blessedly relieved nation.