A portrait of the new UK prime minister
Roderick Matthews | 26 Jul, 2019
Boris Johnson outside 10 Downing Street, July 24, 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)
SO FINALLY IT’S official. After weeks of public debate, and a great deal of public dismay, 55-year-old Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has won the contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Just under two-thirds of the party’s members voted for him, and he now moves on to become Her Britannic Majesty’s new prime minister.
No great surprise, because internal polling suggested very early on that he would be the clear winner in the two- horse race with Jeremy Hunt, the former foreign secretary.
Boris oozes confidence and charm, and has long been the darling of grassroots Tories. They didn’t choose him for his principles though, because he has never claimed to have any. His popularity rests on his proven ability to connect with a live audience. He tells jokes and strives to entertain, which set him apart from all his main rivals—Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid—who might have impeccable conservative credentials, but are strangers to the art of projecting warmth. And his skill as a communicator is real. Those who know him say that he is actually much more comfortable in front of a crowd than one-to-one.
Boris litters his speeches with references to the classical world he studied at Oxford, and if he hesitates when looking for a word, he is quite likely to come out with a well-turned Latin phrase. Coupled with his crumpled appearance and eccentric speech patterns, this gives him an air of mysterious intelligence which the party faithful lap up.
He is indubitably good with words, prima facie. He spent a long career as a journalist, and served six years as editor of the right-of- centre Spectator magazine, though that stint also highlighted one of his recurrent vulnerabilities; his public pronouncements, both oral and written, are a goldmine of gaffes. While at the Spectator, he had to apologise to the entire population of the city of Liverpool for making unkind comments about them. Someone once observed that he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.
Nevertheless, his literary and journalistic output is phenomenal, with a steady flow of political columns, two books on Rome, one on the history of Islam (his grandfather was a Turkish Muslim immigrant), a collection of children’s poetry, an unadmired novel and, most recently, a best-selling retrospective on his personal hero, Sir Winston Churchill. Books come easily and quickly, but Boris’ true talent is for provocative journalism. He doesn’t do boring, and no one really knows how that is going to play out in Downing Street. Or Clowning Street, as a hostile Scottish newspaper has just re-christened it.
To his supporters, Boris seems ebullient and self-assured, with impeccable Eurosceptic credentials. They see him as the man to galvanise his fractured party and to lead Britain out of its current, dismal political crisis. To his many detractors, however, he is the embodiment of elite entitlement, an over-privileged product of Eton and Oxford who has repeatedly failed to exhibit either moral fibre, work ethic or basic competence in the jobs the public has bestowed on him.
For instance, his record as foreign secretary from 2016 to 2018 is decidedly patchy. It is not a job in which it is easy to shine, but he managed to foul up on at least one important occasion, making a casual comment to a Parliamentary Committee that a British citizen accused of anti-government activity in Iran was in the country to train journalists. She was actually a charity worker on a family holiday, and Johnson’s comments were used as evidence at her trial. The unfortunate Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is still serving a five-year prison sentence.
That fiasco aside, Boris earned a reputation among diplomats for showing no enthusiasm for the details of his brief. One of his immediate Foreign Office underlings, Sir Alan Duncan, described himself as Boris’ ‘pooper scooper’, perpetually doomed to clearing up his master’s messes.
Johnson’s tenure of one of the great offices of state eventually came to an end not because of incompetence but because he chose to resign over Theresa May’s Brexit policy, declaring that her ‘Chequers Plan’ would reduce Britain to ‘a vassal state’ of the EU.
Understandably, his supporters tend not to dwell on his time at the Foreign Office. Instead they tend to emphasise how he served two successful terms as mayor of London, from 2008 to 2016, which certainly remains his most significant achievement. He pulled off the extraordinary feat of beating a genuine working class socialist, Ken Livingstone, not once, but twice in his own backyard. This gave him two ineradicable tags—brilliant campaigner and serial winner. Here was a posh boy who could win elections in a Labour city. Surely, they say, he is the man to see off the current Labour leadership, who are even redder than ‘Red Ken’.
But Boris’ years as mayor are not without their controversies. He put together an effective team and the city seemed to thrive, but he has since talked up many achievements that were not his to boast of. For instance, he claims credit for the triumphant London Olympics of 2012, but the games were a cross-party project, secured under the leadership of Ken Livingstone in 2005. Similarly, ‘Boris’ bikes’, the ubiquitous red two-wheelers that can be hired all over London, were also the idea of his predecessor.
Boris Johnson’s literary and journalistic output is phenomenal, with a steady flow of political columns, two books on Rome, one on the history of Islam (his grandfather was a Turkish Muslim immigrant), a collection of children’s poetry, an unadmired novel and, most recently, a best-selling retrospective on his personal hero, Sir Winston Churchill. Books come easily and quickly, but Boris’ true talent is for provocative journalism. He doesn’t do boring, and no one really knows how that is going to play out in Downing Street. Or Clowning Street, as a hostile Scottish newspaper has just re-christened it
This brings us to the main drawback with Boris, which is his loose allegiance to the truth. Last weekend the national press was dominated by pictures of Boris on a podium, energetically waving a kipper, while denouncing unelected bureaucrats in Brussels for introducing new regulations which require the manufacturer of said kipper to send his product through the post on an ice pillow. Cue outrage among the assembled Tory members, who can’t get enough of this sort of Euro-bashing, which Boris has been serving up since he was Brussels correspondent for a major newspaper twenty years ago.
He was eventually sacked from that posting for making up stories about kooky EU rules, and the kipper-waving routine, too, was less than accurate. The regulations he was railing against were in fact imposed by the British authorities, not Eurocrats, and the manufacturer is located in the Isle of Man, which isn’t in the EU. He pulled off a similar trick on the first night of the leadership hustings when he claimed that as London’s mayor he won a great victory over the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels by securing traditional, open platforms on the back of the new London buses he had commissioned. Again, a problem. There are no such platforms; the new double-decker ‘Routemaster’ buses have a door at the rear, which any London bus user would know. But Boris was in Birmingham that night, and his audience shared his alleged triumph with him.
Currently it is fashionable to compare Johnson to Donald Trump—the US president himself has somewhat clumsily dubbed him “Britain Trump”—and there is a degree of truth in the parallel. Both are theatrical, often chaotic, elastic with the truth, and driven by enormous self-confidence.
But there are two major differences.
First, there is only one Donald Trump: crude, confrontational and divisive, whereas there are at least two Boris Johnsons. Boris 1 is a socially liberal, immigration-friendly one-nation Tory who can reach out to Labour voters in the south. Boris 2 is a nationalistic, hard-hitting Europhobe, who writes chauvinist jibes at religious, sexual and ethnic minorities, and appeals principally to the Tory party membership.
Secondly, both of these Borises are desperate to be liked, in a way that Donald Trump isn’t. Close colleagues and admirers of Margaret Thatcher regularly observe that her greatest political strength was her ability to do what she thought was right, whether it made her popular or not. In this sense, Thatcher is Trump’s twin, not Boris.
First, there is only one Donald Trump: crude, confrontational and divisive, whereas there are at least two Boris Johnsons. BORIS 1 is a socially liberal, immigration-friendly one-nation Tory who can reach out to Labour voters in the south. BORIS 2 is a nationalistic, hard-hitting Europhobe, who writes chauvinist jibes at religious, sexual and ethnic minorities, and appeals principally to the Tory party membership
HE EMOLLIENT, empathic Boris 1 can be charming as well as amusing in a way that the passionate, patriotic Boris 2 rarely is. And here we can detect the canny strategist within him. His short-term need to capture the votes of the Tory grassroots has driven him to his current hard position on Brexit, making him the first mainstream politician to positively embrace the ‘no deal’ option. He has nailed his colours defiantly to the mast, and has declared that Britain will leave the European Union on 31st of October 2019 under all circumstances, with or without a deal, “do or die”. This kind of no-nonsense leadership assured his victory in the two-man run-off before the seats were set out in the first hall.
But is his passionate “belief in Britain” really enough? Will boldness be enough to make his premiership a success? The signs are that he believes it is.
The strongest card in the Brexiteers’ hand has always been to ignore, downplay or flatly deny that there are any problems with the Brexit process at all, and he has quadrupled down on this strategy. Last Monday he disposed of the thorniest of Brexit snags, the Irish ‘backstop’, with a flick of the wrist. In his weekly Daily Telegraph column, he asked: If the Americans could put a man on the moon fifty years ago, why can’t we solve the Irish border problem?
Vintage Boris. Superficially plausible, but hiding serious flaws that emerge with more leisurely reflection. We might object, inter alia, that the British in 2019 are not the Americans in 1969; Ireland is not the moon, and the difficulties now are about people and perceptions more than technology.
Yet he surely knows that making points in the print media is not enough. His main problem will be with the EU negotiators, who are notoriously hard-nosed.
All through the recent leadership contest, commentators have been asking what he can actually do between now and the end of October—about one hundred days—that Theresa May could not do in three years. Can he revive proposals already rejected from others, as if they are magically now acceptable from him?
Boris has not been specific about his strategy, but perhaps that is all part of it, to keep the Europeans guessing. Some suggest that Johnson will simply shout louder than May, either physically or metaphorically, in an attempt to be believed about the possibility of leaving without a deal. This new intensity is supposed to shock the hitherto stubborn EU into remorseful cooperation, and somehow the circle of the Irish question can be squared.
Because the Irish border is such a central issue, perhaps it is worth unpicking it a little. The basic problem is that, following any kind of Brexit, the north of Ireland will be out of the EU, and the south will be in it. Tariffs and standards will be different on either side of that border. But any attempt to harden the border, meaning to give it more legal significance, or to re-install any kind of physical infrastructure surrounding it, runs counter to the Belfast Agreement of 1998, commonly called the Good Friday Agreement.
The version of Brexit contained in Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement takes full account of all the sensitivities involved, and creates a temporary customs union between the United Kingdom and the EU, to ensure that the political consequences of separating Northern Ireland from the mainland UK, however temporarily, are avoided, while trade is still facilitated. The downside is that, although temporary, this transition phase— the backstop—is not time-limited, and the British government cannot unilaterally withdraw from it without EU consent.
The EU see the Withdrawal Agreement as a deal between institutions, not persons, and they have never said anything other than that the deal is closed. That Agreement was highly offensive to the hardest Brexiteers within the Conservative Party, and it failed to pass through Parliament, despite Prime Minister May’s repeated efforts to persuade opponents (and some colleagues) of its merits. Boris was unable to stomach it and resigned from the cabinet. Yet, despite this principled stand, he later voted for this same charter of vassalage on its third and last appearance on the floor of the Commons last February.
Critics frequently couple this apparent inconsistency with a long-standing story that, in 2016, before announcing his support for Leave in the referendum, Boris drafted two articles, one pro-Leave and one pro-Remain, and only published the former after due reflection. The received wisdom about this is that he wished to triangulate a position, not so much on the issue of Leave or Remain, but on the next Tory leadership contest. He expected Remain to win, but he saw the referendum campaign as a way to woo the Tory members, with a view to mopping up their support when David Cameron finally stepped down.
These manoeuvrings have lent a certain air of duplicity to Johnson’s actions regarding Europe. Some purists are prepared to label him as less than a true Brexiteer, and Nigel Farage, the high priest of Leave, has publicly stated that he does not trust Boris to deliver. The wider public are not sanguine either. A recent poll shows that only 26 per cent of the public expect him to lead Britain out of the EU on 31st October, as promised.
Whatever his personal convictions, Prime Minister Johnson now has to find a way through some very tricky political terrain. His government has a working majority of two. This includes the support of the ten-member Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), but the ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with them is currently up for review. Meanwhile, one Conservative MP has just been charged with a criminal offence and has lost the party whip, and there is a by-election in August, which the sitting Tory is unlikely to win, having been forced to seek re- election over an expenses fraud. There are also strong rumours that perhaps eight Conservative MPs will defect to the Liberal Democrats if Boris continues his hard line.
Despite the prevarication, the ambiguity and the polysyllabic classicisms, the TORIES adore him, and applaud him to the rafters. Despite the infidelities and bed-hopping, the party of family values forgives him endlessly
All this calls into question Johnson’s ability to command a majority in the House of Commons. So how should he proceed? Take on the recalcitrant MPs and persuade or cow them into supporting something like Theresa May’s deal with the backstop removed? But the EU wouldn’t accept any such ‘tweaked’ proposal. Alternatively, it has been suggested that he could prorogue Parliament—stand it down temporarily—which is the sort of thing that cost King Charles I his head. It would be legal, as part of the prerogative powers of the Crown, but it wouldn’t be popular to use such a device as leader of a minority government on a controversial matter of such national importance.
And he might not even get the opportunity. Last week the Commons, by a majority of over forty, passed an amendment to a bill relating to Northern Ireland, adding a clause requiring that Parliament sit in September.
Boris is therefore in the unusual, and highly unfortunate, position of finding himself boxed in by both his friends and his enemies. His friends have managed to extract very strict, unambiguous promises about delivering Brexit by Halloween. His enemies have removed almost any way he can do this with the support of Parliament.
Most Conservatives want Boris to succeed, and even some of his Tory opponents will give him a little time. But the clock is ticking and he has put his neck on a very public block.
The obvious way to deal with a Parliament that won’t oblige is to change it by calling a snap election. There is scarcely time to do this before the October deadline, though it might be possible, if the writs were sent out in the next week or so. But many Tories consider such a gambit as suicidal. For a government to throw itself on the mercy of the electorate to try to get the power to deliver Brexit, while claiming that its inability to do so is someone else’s fault, would invite inescapable derision and contumely on itself.
Nigel Farage has a political party, or at least a very large pressure group calling itself a party, which threatens to make mincemeat of any Tory who is not an ultra. Farage’s Brexit Party swept the Euro elections in May, and nearly won a parliamentary by-election shortly afterwards. Wiser heads consider that Boris will try to get the best deal he can before October, and will delay calling an election till the middle of next year.
But there is no guarantee that he will last that long. He may well become the shortest-serving prime minister of all time, if the adverse circumstances surrounding him conspire even slightly. He is sure to face a motion of no-confidence from the leader of the Labour Party, the increasingly isolated and ineffective Jeremy Corbyn, if not immediately, then in September. At that point, Boris can only hope that more Labour MPs defy the whip than Tories. And if he loses, an acting prime minister might well be tempted to apply to the EU for yet another extension to Article 50, and the whole rigmarole will begin again, with more talk of cliff edges, crashing out, treachery and the threat of civil disorder.
But Boris is a politician rather than an ideologue, so perhaps we will see a tilt towards pragmatism. He needed one set of people to get him into No 10, and they were duly recruited. Shortly he will need another, much larger set of people, to keep him there. Cue a pivot to a softer line, more compatible with all his rhetoric about uniting the nation. And cue accusations from Brexit purists about betrayal.
Which brings us to the issue of trust. Boris remains unwilling to be pinned down by anyone other than himself, and he comes into office with a pile of unanswered questions behind him. He has a long track record of avoiding interviews and dodging questions. Most recently, he refused to comment publicly when a row with his girlfriend behind closed doors became a national news story. What was it about? Who threw what at whom? Why was his girlfriend shouting “Leave me alone”? Answer came there none, for he has always held the line against intrusion into his private life. Twice divorced, and many times paired up, we don’t even know how many children he has. Perhaps he doesn’t either.
Yet despite the prevarication, the ambiguity and the polysyllabic classicisms, the Tories adore him, and applaud him to the rafters. Despite the infidelities and bed-hopping, the party of family values forgives him endlessly.
Boris Johnson is the most charismatic politician of his generation, but possibly the most unreliable too. He likes to model himself on Churchill, but he seems as likely to serve up a Gallipoli as a D-Day. He is, in the estimation of some, the very embodiment of a ‘cake and eat it’ attitude, though recently he has slimmed down by a noticeable amount. Yet he remains a political heavyweight, a fountain of energy and optimism who cuts a very different figure from his lacklustre predecessor.
But which Boris will turn up to kiss the Queen’s hand? The moderate, reassuring ex-Mayor of London—the uniter? Or the insouciant cynic, the arrogant provocateur—the divider? Will it be healing balm and jokes, or more defiance and Churchillian quantities of ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’? Will he be collegiate, and restore the cabinet government which vanished under Theresa May? Or will he unleash his inner Trump and try to run the whole show himself, while communing with his base via public media? Will he knuckle down and deliver? Nobody knows.
As it stands, the looming election is scheduled to be Corbyn versus Johnson. To many this is Scylla versus Charybdis. Or perhaps just mild-mannered Laurel versus bumptious Hardy. In the Ukraine, they have elected a professional comedian as their leader, but we in Britain prefer to stick with amateurs.
Oh Britannia-semper in excreta.