Boris Johnson bragged before his meetings with EU negotiators in Luxembourg that he would be The Incredible Hulk on Brexit. After the first day, Johnson instead became the Invisible Man. Facing protests outside the building, Johnson walked away from a joint conference with Luxembourg’s prime minister Xavier Bettel, who proceeded to give Johnson the empty-chair treatment:
Sky News reports that Johnson had thought the presser would be canceled if he declined to participate. The protests outside would make it impossible for their discussion to be heard:
His no-show, he claimed, was because he didn’t want his points or that of Prime Minister Bettel to be drowned out by the noisy crowd.
Number 10 sources claim they repeatedly asked for the press conference to be moved inside. Luxembourg said no.
Why so? Did Mr Bettel see an opportunity? He certainly got one. …
Mr Johnson was not there to challenge, to retort, to hit back or proffer a positive spin. The optics for the British were miserable.
Tom Newton Dunn, the political editor for the Tory-friendly Sun, also couldn’t believe the optics. He also noted that Johnson had asked for the presser to be moved inside, and offered a more sympathetic take than the also-Tory-friendly Sky News:
Haven’t ever seen this before. Hard to think of anything more provocative by Xavier Bettel than pressing ahead with a press conference with two lecterns that you know Boris Johnson has pulled out of. pic.twitter.com/74Dh9N9y3k
— Tom Newton Dunn (@tnewtondunn) September 16, 2019
Maybe Johnson should have confirmed that cancellation, eh? Bettel looked genuinely bemused to be out there by himself, but even if Bettel snookered him, that was an amateurish mistake on the British PM’s part. Never cede the optics, especially if one wants to look Hulk-ish in front of foes like Bettel:
The British leader told the Mail on Sunday that Britain would be like Bruce Banner, the mild-mannered physicist who can transform into the Hulk when angered.
“Banner might be bound in manacles, but when provoked he would explode out of them,” Johnson said. “Hulk always escaped, no matter how tightly bound in he seemed to be — and that is the case for this country. We will come out on 31 October and we will get it done.”
“The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets,” he said.
The less-friendly Daily Mirror has a new nickname for Johnson: “The Incredible Sulk.” They gave sharply critical report of Johnson’s withdrawal and his overall mien at the EU meetings:
Bottler Boris Johnson was ’empty chaired’ today at a humiliating Brexit press conference amid noisy protests following meetings with EU chiefs in Luxembourg.
Protesters cheered and applauded as Luxembourg’s PM Xavier Bettel challenged the absent Johnson over the UK’s failure to produce practical solutions to the Irish border.
Cowardly Johnson, who just yesterday compared himself to the Incredible Hulk, abruptly withdrew from the planned outdoor press conference, complaining it would be “too noisy.”
Earlier, Johnson’s motorcade was forced to crawl away from the PM’s meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker, amid a hail of boos from protesters lining the narrow streets of Luxembourg.
Regardless of how it came about, the optics of the empty podium were terrible for Johnson, especially given the rhetoric he used before the meetings began. He came to Luxembourg bragging about his ability to go toe-to-toe with the EU’s assembled leadership. Instead, he got outboxed by Luxembourg, perhaps the first major world leader to have done so in a very long time, if ever.
The substance of the meetings weren’t much better, either. Bettel ripped Johnson for demanding agreement on ideas without any actual proposals on the table, and insisted that the Theresa May Withdrawal Agreement is still the only formal proposal on the table. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker seconded that sentiment, warning Johnson that the Irish backstop would remain until the UK solved the Irish border problem:
Juncker told Johnson over lunch that he must present workable proposals to replace the Brexit backstop.
“President Juncker recalled that it is the UK’s responsibility to come forward with legally operational solutions that are compatible with the Withdrawal Agreement,” the European Commission said in a statement, referring to the deal struck by May.
“President Juncker underlined the Commission’s continued willingness and openness to examine whether such proposals meet the objectives of the backstop. Such proposals have not yet been made.”
As a parting shot, Bettel advised Johnson to emulate his hero Hulk. A little less talk and a little more action might be a better way to go, Bettel scolded:
E.U. leaders have been sensitive to the idea that Johnson is laying the groundwork to blame them for the failure of Brexit. Bettel preemptively pushed back: “Now it’s on Mr. Johnson — he holds the future of all U.K. citizens and every E.U. citizen living in the U.K. in his hands. It’s his responsibility.”
“We need written proposals and time is ticking. So stop speaking and act,” Bettel said.
It’s been well over three years since the Brexit referendum, and the Tories still don’t have a plan to execute it, other than May’s WA and crashing out. Despite all of Johnson’s talk, it appears he doesn’t have any other firm ideas about how to proceed either except to default to a no-deal Brexit and blame everyone else for it. Now that Parliament appears to have precluded the default, Johnson has walked himself into a trap of his own making.