Britain’s New Prime Minister Remains a Mystery—Even to Himself

Frank Augstein/AP Photo

Incoming British Prime Minister Boris Johnson answers questions in London. 

The problem with Boris Johnson, the 20th Old Etonian to run Britain, is that we know everything about the man and yet nothing.

Donald Trump called him a “Britain Trump” as he hailed the win for a fellow traveller of Trumpism across the Atlantic. Trump told a right-wing Turning Point USA rally in Washington on Tuesday that Johnson was a “good man. ... They like me over there. That’s what they wanted. That’s what they need.”

In 2016, Brexit and Trump arrived together. Brexit was the consummation of a 25-year campaign against Europe in which Johnson was the main propagandist since he became The Daily Telegraph’s first fiction-writing resident correspondent in Brussels.

Trump, as he burbled his congratulations to Johnson, kept mentioning Nigel Farage, the loudmouth anti-European British politician who Trump seemed to think was in the hall. 

Farage is a curious phenomenon and a major contributor to Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street. Farage commands attention when the European Union is on the agenda or on a ballot paper. But despite being the best-known politician in England he has failed in seven parliamentary elections to be chosen by voters as an MP.

The public likes his populist anti-Europeanism, but no one is interested in Farage running the country.

Most Tory MPs distrust Farage and his self-aggrandizing braggadocio, but the big question now is whether Johnson wishes to be the Trump-Farage man in Downing Street or revert to traditional Tory centrism. 

The problem is, we don’t yet know. No other British politician has had so many biographies written about him—even before Johnson won his first elected office as an unsuccessful mayor of London, from 2008 to 2016.           

Johnson has written his first autobiography, lightly disguised as a book about Winston Churchill. In it, Johnson-Churchill is a swash-buckling outsider, a drunk, permanently in debt, hated by the buttocks-clenched, boring Tory Party establishment, a dollar-a-word journalist, writing or speaking anything for anyone who will pay him hard cash to cover his gambling and champagne debts.

In his Churchill book, Johnson writes that “Gestapo-controlled Nazi European Union” was proposed in 1942 with “a single currency, a central bank, a common agricultural policy, and other familiar ideas.”

The underlying logic is as breath-taking as it is preposterous: Just as Churchill had to defeat Nazi Germany, his reincarnation, Boris Johnson, has to slay the “Gestapo-controlled Nazi EU.”

His hostility to the EU is one of the few issues to which Johnson has remained faithful during his ascent to Downing Street. In all other respects he has been seriously unfaithful to colleagues, to positions he holds and abandons with insouciance, and above all women.

Unlike Gary Hart whose career was destroyed by reports of a liaison with a younger woman in 1987, Johnson’s notorious womanizing has had little impact on his popularity with the Tory rank-and-file, the 90,000 mainly elderly white English men and women who elected him as party leader.

That he is popular with a Conservative Party membership who hate Europe is not in question. But with a wider public? The atmosphere in London on the day of his becoming Tory Party leader was full of uncertainty and apprehension.

French President Emmanuel Macron notably praised Theresa May and curtly said he would call Johnson once installed in Downing Street. The new prime minister last month called the French “turds,” one of the many racist epithets he sprays around. Muslim women in Britain are “letter boxes,” from the burkas a small number wear. He has called African children “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles,” and described gay men as “bumboys”. 

Johnson says these are just satirical remarks, and he will give a number of cabinet jobs to right-wingers of Pakistani, Indian or Afro-Caribbean heritage.     

He now has a summer break before he has to face the House of Commons. A British Prime Minister sinks or swims by his or her ability to master the Commons. In his new role, he will have to go on for lengthy periods to deliver precise, technocratic-sounding answers to difficult questions. Jokes won’t do. I observed Johnson over years in the Commons, and he is a very poor Commons performer. His jokes and exaggerations fall flat. He has endlessly insulted others MPs—Labour, Liberal, Scottish Nationalist—so he will find no broad support in the Commons.

He has no majority in the House of Commons for the Conservative Party. Tory cabinet ministers have resigned already saying they cannot serve under such a prime minister. They can be replaced by the endless queue of the ambitious. But the men and women who will not serve under Jonson remain as MPs and have made clear they will not vote for the immediate amputation from the European Union on October 31, as Johnson repeatedly told the Tory Party electorate he could deliver.

The European Union’s leadership team, including the new president of the European Commission, the Stanford-educated Ursula von der Leyen, has made clear that the EU will offer no concessions on the Brexit deal agreed with Theresa May, which she failed to win a majority for in the Commons, leading to her resignation.

If Johnson tells the EU to “go whistle,” as he put it in the Commons, then Britain leaps off the cliffs of Dover into the gravest economic crisis in its history. Japanese auto firms have said they cannot stay in a U.K. without access to the giant European market of 450 million middle-class consumers. U.K. trade with the continent will become subject to long queues to check customs. Trucks will be waiting on highways 50 miles or more into England and France to bring their produce to supermarkets.

There will have to be customs checks on the border between Ireland inside the EU and northern Ireland outside the EU. That is the end of the Good Friday Agreement, as a new generation of hardline Irish nationalists have said they will attack any physical return of the British state in the form of customs control posts on the border.

British capitalism has made clear it will resist such a No Deal Brexit scenario. For 300 years the business of the Tory Party has been business. Now a Johnson administration risks a rupture with its core support in the economic world.

That leaves Johnson with a choice. Does he insist on being the Robespierre of the Brexit revolution? Tory Party members chose him as prime minister with the expectation that Boris will be the Brexit revolutionary they have been waiting for.

But Johnson knows his history and the iron law that all revolutions devour their children. Thus, if he insists on Brexit revolutionary purity, he risks that his own head will soon be on the execution block.

Or does Johnson do what he loves to do—which is to turn on his heels, be as unfaithful to the hardline haters of Europe and decide to be the Talleyrand of sensible Tory centrist restoration.

That is what the majority of his MPs want. The nation as a whole is tired of Brexit. All its promises have turned out to be false. The divisions it has caused will not heal, and Johnson is no healer.

If he were able to make his peace with Europe, he would leave Jeremy Corbyn and the Corbynized Labour Party badly exposed. Corbyn joins with Nigel Farage in demanding an instant general election—Corbyn because he believes it will put him in Downing Street, Farage because he believes the nation’s electors want a full-scale repudiation of any British involvement in the European Union.

I have yet to meet any Tory MPs in favor of an early election. Farage and Corbyn cannot both be right but no Tory MPs feel safe in their seats right now.  

Johnson has to choose between Brexit revolutionary zeal and keeping as many of his Tory MPs safely in the Commons. To achieve the latter would require Johnson to re-center his Conservative party. It’s not impossible. Remember that the Tories were once the party of empire but then learned to be post-imperial. They were the anti-Catholic and anti-gay party but gave way to reality.

For 25 years, the Conservatives have been the anti-European party. Can they turn that page? Does Johnson’s serial infidelity allow him his last great betrayal—that of betraying the anti-Europeans of England—in order to stay in Downing Street and defeat Jeremy Corbyn?

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