PITY Boris Johnson. The fabled bon vivant has not had many opportunities to entertain in recent months. The pandemic has meant that foreign visitors have been thin on the ground. That changed on Friday when Johnson hosted Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban.

Orban is just the second EU leader Johnson has invited to Downing Street since Brexit – and he’s not exactly an obvious choice. A fierce critic of Joe Biden, an ally of China, Russia and Belarus and a proponent of the far-right “great replacement” theory, Orban is hardly a mainstream ­European leader. The party he leads, Fidesz, has been kicked out of the centre-right grouping in the European Parliament.

So why invite Orban to Downing Street? Some suggested Johnson hoped to learn some populist tricks from an old hand. The latter has described migrants as “a poison” and waged a lengthy, high-profile campaign against George Soros that reeks of anti-Semitism.

There are uncomfortable parallels with Britain’s own party of government. This week, Muslim members of the Conservatives dismissed as a whitewash a long-awaited review that found no evidence of institutional racism in the party.

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But the real story of the Hungarian’s trip to Downing Street is less about Johnsonian populism and more about the reality of Brexit Britain. Almost five years on from the 2016 referendum, what Global Britain means is starting to become apparent. And it isn’t pretty.

Behind the bromides about “opening up to the world”, Britain is left cosying up to autocrats and scrambling to sign trade deals that look set to improve life for the rich with little benefit for the rest of us. That, folks, is taking back control.

Even Downing Street struggled to ­justify Orban’s invitation to do what so many ­Eastern Europe oligarchs have done ­before him: launder his reputation in a swanky London postcode. On ­Thursday, a ­British Government spokesperson ­criticised previous comments the Hungarian prime minister had made about “Muslim ­invaders”– but also said that the visit was “vital” for the UK’s security and prosperity.

Welcome to the near future, where a state of fewer than 10 million people led by a kleptocrat is “vital” to British prosperity. It was briefed that the main reason for the invite was because Orban asked to come, but that only underscores the weakness of Britain’s international standing.

Of course, there is more than a whiff of Orbanism about Johnson’s rule. Like his truculent Hungarian counterpart, Johnson has reversed electoral reform to ­cement his party’s grip on power – English mayoralties will soon be decided by first-past-the-post – and whips up distracting culture wars. (A naval battle with France, anyone?). Johnson would baulk at Orban’s language about building an “illiberal democracy” but will ­happily attack academic freedom in British ­universities.

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Orban might even look enviously at the leeway that Britain’s “good chaps” system of parliamentary governance gives Johnson. Shortly after the two leaders grinned for the photographers on Friday afternoon, the prime minister’s independent advisor on ministerial standards reported that there was no conflict of interest in a Tory donor paying for the renovation of Johnson’s Downing Street flat.

Lord Geidt, who made the ruling, was appointed by the prime minister. He can only authorise an investigation with the Johnson’s say-so. That’s a pretty generous definition of the “independent” in the good Lord’s job title.

There are plenty of Tories who see much to emulate in Orban’s Hungary. Figures on the Conservative right, such as the decidedly authoritarian-curious MP Daniel Kawczynski have long expressed their admiration for his regime.

The links go beyond just mutual admiration. A group of pro-Brexit libertarians have even lobbied for the establishment of a Museum of Communist Terror in ­London inspired by the similarly-titled Budapest attraction. Thatcher’s former speech writer John O’Sullivan runs the Orbán-friendly Danube Institute think tank in Budapest.

In December 2019, shortly after the last general election, Tim Montgomerie, an adviser on social justice to Boris ­Johnson, addressed a Danube Institute ­meeting in Budapest. Montgomerie praised ­Hungary’s “interesting early thinking” on “the limits of liberalism.” “I think we are seeing that in the UK as well,” he said, adding that Britain should forge a ­“special relationship” with Orbán’s ­Hungary after Brexit.

Orbán is a wily autocrat. While he has talked up Brexit, he demurred when his long-time ally Nigel Farage called on him to block the European Union’s ­extension to Brexit in September 2019. For all his railing against the EU, Orban has no ­intention of taking Hungary out of ­Europe – indeed, his system of political patronage relies on doling out EU funds to his cronies.

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Such are the characters that Global Britain is choosing as its bedfellows. ­Orban’s visit capped a week that started with news that Britain is set to sign a free trade deal with Australia in time for next month’s G7 summit in Cornwall. The agreement, which will allow ­Australian farmers tariff-free access to British ­markets, could see Scottish sheep farmers pushed out of business.

But such pain would be worth it for ­wider gain, right? Well, the ­Australian deal is set to increase UK growth by just 0.02% over 15 years. Hardly a game changer – except for Australia, whose negotiators are reportedly cock-a-hoop.

In the name of ideology, international trade secretary Liz Truss seems happy to see British farmers go to the wall. There is likely to be worse to come, too. Other countries – most significantly the US – will demand the same access as Australia to British markets. Hormone beef here we come.

This will all be great news to the libertarians who invented the Global Britain concept. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, a raft of corporate-funded think tanks reimagined the UK as “Global Britain” striking deals around the Anglophone world. At the root of this shared ­vision was a heavily ­deregulated ­economic ­model with low taxes and ­minimal state intervention.

TALK of “Global Britain” increased markedly after Johnson became prime minister. Truss toured the world with a red, white and blue umbrella (and a ­personal photographer at the taxpayer’s expense). John Bew was appointed to the influential Downing Street Policy Unit. Bew, a distinguished historian, had ­previously led a project called Britain in the World at Policy Exchange, another London think tank funded by anonymous corporate donors.

Now our leaders are left furiously spinning Global Britain’s diaphanous ­benefits. Before parliament recently, Lord Frost announced that he was creating a new unit to look at the deregulatory advantages of Brexit. (Maybe this could have been done a bit earlier, no?) Frost, our chief Brexit negotiator, talked up how cheese exports to Egypt had risen by 240% since we left the EU, to around £1m. He didn’t mention that exports of cheddar and stilton to Europe are down over £20m.

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It isn’t all about cheese – despite what Liz Truss has said in the past. The ­British government has announced the ­creation of eight freeports across England, with more set to follow. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is a big fan. Back in late 2016 he even produced a report on freeports ­trumpeting the virtues of tariff-free zones for the Centre for Policy Studies, yet ­another Thatcherite think tank which does not declare its donors.

But, once again, there is a long distance between Global Britain’s rhetoric and its reality. Freeports have been phased out by the EU – in part because of concerns about money laundering – and it now emerges that tariffs on goods to some 23 countries, including Switzerland and Canada, will actually increase if they go through a British free port.

Viktor Orban won’t be the last unsavoury character that Global Britain washes up on Downing Street’s door. Everyone from hedge funds to asset strippers will see an opportunity to make a quick buck in the great British firesale. Worst of all, Boris Johnson will be only too happy to facilitate them in the name of his own vainglorious boosterism.