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15 February 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 8:59am

No, we don’t hate Boris Johnson just for winning

There are so many better reasons.

By Jonn Elledge

There’s a meme doing the rounds in the conserva-sphere, in the wake of Boris Johnson’s big Brexit speech: the idea that the only reason Remainers dislike the blond bombshell is because they’re incoherently bitter that he beat them in the referendum.

I’ve seen versions of this meme doing the rounds for years, since before Brexit was even a gleam in Nigel Farage’s eye. When it began, it wasn’t Remainers who were bitter, but the left, and the thing they were bitter about was having lost the London mayoralty.

It might even have been true, back then. In 2008, Labour had spent a decade in power, while the Tories thought they were the rebel alliance, and saw Boris Johnson’s victory in London as their first strike back against the evil empire. The night of that election, I was incandescent with impotent rage. Losing the London mayoralty to a Tory – to that Tory – really did feel like a perversion of the natural order of things.

So perhaps, back then, we did hate Boris Johnson for beating us. Thing is, though, 2008 was a long, long time ago, and in the ten years since those of us on the liberal left bit of the political spectrum have got pretty used to losing elections. So the fact that he beat us again back in 2016 is probably not why we have a problem with him now.

Perhaps the real reason we have a problem with Boris Johnson is that, after that stunning political upset in May 2008, it rapidly became clear he had no earthly idea for what to do with the mayoralty now that he actually had it. He swiftly scrapped an assortment of Ken Livingstone-era plans, but failed to replace them with ideas of his own, and he spent the next eight years focused on the fun, TV-friendly bits of the job, while having no apparent interest in the harder, more boring work of actually governing the capital.

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Perhaps we’re annoyed that, when he did finally start using the powers of the mayoralty, it was not to address the housing crisis that even then was beginning to cripple this city, but to throw money at highly visible but highly impractical projects designed by his mates – a suspiciously high number of which, it must be noted, began with the letter “B”.

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Perhaps we were irritated by the way that, having claimed more than 17 times that he had no interest in returning to parliament, and having been elected to the mayoralty for a second term on that basis, he broke his word the moment a safe West London seat popped up. Perhaps we found it annoying to discover we were not even slightly surprised.

Or perhaps we hate him for his actions since he returned to the House of Commons. For choosing which side he would take in the most important argument this country has seen in generations based, not on national interest, but on which side would do most to boost his own prospects of attaining high office. For being prepared to abandon the liberal Toryism he had claimed to espouse at City Hall, and to sow discord and stand alongside those who used racially divisive language, simply to forward his own career.

Perhaps we doubt his competence. We’re annoyed that he’s screwed up the job of foreign secretary so badly that he’s become a joke on the world stage: a symbol and self-parody of everything that has gone wrong with this country. We’re positively enraged that, when he misspoke and endangered the freedom of a British citizen, he did not have the guts or the honour to apologise, let alone to resign.

Perhaps we dislike Boris Johnson because he is, ultimately, empty. All that intellect, all that hunger, attached to no idea more solid or wide-reaching an ambition than his own desire to be prime minister. Perhaps we’re infuriated by Johnson’s continuing belief that “pro-having cake and also pro-eating it” is a clever piece of political wordplay, not a sign of a fundamental lack of seriousness that should prevent him from attaining the leadership role that he so clearly craves.

Or perhaps it’s simpler. Perhaps we’re annoyed that yesterday’s speech, which we were told would be an olive branch to Remainers, was so completely devoid of content that he started waffling on about carrots.

I can get over being on the losing side of an election. I’ve been on the losing side of many, and don’t expect that to stop any time soon. There are so many better reasons to dislike Boris Johnson.