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10 July 2018

As a calculating buffoon, Boris Johnson fits perfectly into the post-Brexit Tory party

To Boris, politics is not about service but about survival, and the British people a tool to manipulate to settle internal party scores.

By Nesrine Malik

Writing about Boris Johnson sometimes feels like adding to a very long thesaurus entry. Buffoon, creep, liar, adulterer, reckless adventurer, lazy opportunist. He has spawned his own genre of articles, in which various authors tear their hair out in eloquence born of frustration that a man with such a long proven record of mendacity, duplicity, dishonesty and careerism can survive and indeed, thrive. The chorus of the castigation of the Boris became a protest song, comforting in its catharsis but plaintive in its despair that despite the blatant injustice of the occupation under his dysfunctional regime, we could not shake off his yoke.

And now he is gone, and the celebrations are muted, because he never got his comeuppance. He was not overthrown or punished: he merely saw another opening in his ophidian career and took it. We’ve seen this horror movie before, where the villain is vanquished only to rise again, bloodied and mortally wounded and yet still impossibly alive, racing towards you while gurgling in Latin.

He is not gone, merely resting, calculating. He is a man who survives by harnessing the fumes of others, the momentum of events, never knowingly taking a leap into the abyss. David Davis resigned, and Boris only saw cover for his own rat run out of the trap that he himself had laid by allying himself with a hard Brexit. Without even a consultation with Davis, who sighed with “regret” when informed of Boris’s resignation live on LBC radio, Johnson saw a political crisis looming against the backdrop of a poisoning death and Donald Trump’s arrival in the UK on Friday, and decided that this was the time to go.

What is a man so utterly exposed doing on frontline politics? Long ago, what passed for disarming eccentricity was exposed as cringemaking incompetence. Long ago, it became apparent while he lulled his opponents into the safety of thinking he was a fool, there was no secret flame of intelligence flickering underneath. He is simply a fool. Long ago, it became that the veneer of faux levity and Latin badinage encased no hidden depth. The only thing that lies beneath Boris is just more Boris, each one smaller, stupider and more conniving than the last. He is a gambler whose chips are his voters’ futures. To Boris, the only thread is that which pulls his career onwards, everything else is subplot. The man is a confidence trickster, a political Ponzi scheme, who has survived by staying on the move and managing to convince those he has not burned or thoroughly disillusioned yet into giving him a chance. Do that for long enough and you have tenure, which becomes its own asset in a Conservative party so held hostage by Brexit that it can do little but move tired pawns around the board.

Most politicians only ever receive full appraisal in hindsight, but with Boris it was done in real time. He was splayed, pinned by all limbs under the glaring light of his constant shambolic performances, vivisected by a media that pored over his every organ and declared him unfit, scorned by his international peers since he became foreign secretary. He rambled incoherently in public addresses, endangered the lives of British citizens abroad, ran away from voting with his conscience in parliament and peppered his long career with lies, some serious enough to warrant sacking, and racism. He decomposed before our very eyes, his political credibility diminished to dust and yet he still carried on, a zombie electrified by Brexit, lurching at us like Vera in Superman III after falling into the evil rogue computer wiring and emerging, a robot monster with whitened eyes, to do its bidding.

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And now we now brace for his second (third? fourth? I’ve lost count) coming in year two of Our Brexit, that might see him make a bid for prime minister. And it might happen because this, despite the improbability of it, is the natural conclusion to the Tory timeline of recent years. Ever since David Cameron decided to bring an end to an internal party rift by throwing it open to the British public in a binary referendum, the course was set. The Tory party from that moment onwards ceased to exist as an ideological entity and became a vessel of political careers in a constant night of the long knives.

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As Cameron took the decision to hold a referendum in order to stabilise his position within the party, so are some of the remaining party members using Brexit to position and jostle and secure positions or make reputations. Anachronistic ghouls like Jacob Rees-Mogg are suddenly relevant by feeding populist paranoia, Michael Gove is back in the cabinet and no doubt waiting to make some vertical slither and then coil himself in a dead person’s shoes. Jeremy Hunt is Foreign Secretary.

And so Boris is in fact an appropriate figurehead for today’s Tory party, a man to whom politics is not about service but about survival, for whom the British people are to be manipulated and their will leveraged to settle internal party scores and when necessary, dodge responsibility under the pretence of principle. 

And I welcome it. Bring on Boris’s final act. He will either overplay his hand and in a forced general election lose his seat, or become prime minister and bring about the final Brexit cannibalisation of the Conservative party. Either way, his next move will be one of many played by others in a party inching ever closer to the edge. Finis prope est.