If any New Zealand Government ministers of the 1970s had been around to greet the visit of a British Foreign Secretary this week they would scarcely believe the turn of events. Back then it was New Zealand emissaries who were constantly talking up the ties that bind us and invoking the memory of standing together in two world wars, while Britain looked to its future in Europe. This week Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been busily stoking the old flames of empire at Wellington's National War Memorial while the New Zealand Government looks to this country's future in direct dealings with Europe post Brexit.

A trade deal with Britain after Brexit can be taken for granted. Indeed Britain is probably anxious to make all its Commonwealth trading partnership prospects as clear as they can be at this stage, for whatever leverage they might give its Brexit negotiators. Right now those negotiators need any leverage they can find. They represent a government very much weaker than it was four months ago when Prime Minister Theresa May gave the required two years' notice of Britain's departure.

Since then she has called a needless election, lost the Conservatives majority in the Commons, made her own continued leadership unlikely and lost any mandate she thought she had for driving a hard bargain in Brussels. Over-confident of public support for both her and her hard line on Europe ("no deal is better than a bad deal") she called the election expressly in the expectation it would strengthen her negotiators' hands.

Last week they were pictured sitting across the table in Brussels with empty hands, facing a European Union team with binders of papers. It is the EU that is taking hard opening positions on Britain's parting financial obligations and the British who now have more to fear if no deal can be done before March 2019.


Johnson, one of the prime movers of this mess, was having a much easier time in Wellington. After meeting the Government he reported, "a total failure to disagree on any point of substance", including the question of New Zealanders' access to Britain after Brexit. He maintains last year's referendum was not about hostility to immigrants or foreign workers, which ignores the efforts of the UK Independence Party on his side of the debate.

If the hostility tapped by that party applies only to some foreigners, it might be to the advantage of others. But when asked whether New Zealanders could get improved access post Brexit, Johnson would say only it "would not make life more difficult for Kiwis".

Quite obviously, he has no idea what is going to happen. Having persuaded the English (mainly) to make the most fateful decision of their generation, he is no closer to giving them or anyone a clear indication of what happens next. Once touted as a future PM, he seems no longer quite so solid a contender to replace May when, inevitably, she goes. It is possible the Government will fall first, depending as it now does on a Northern Ireland party that does not want an EU customs border with the Republic. What a mess.