In this week's magazine | The Boris backlash

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26 February - 3 March 2016 issue
The Boris backlash

Cover Story: The Boris backlash.
Andrew Gimson
on David Cameron’s mission to destroy the great pretender.

Stephen Bush: Boris’s conversion to Brexit is political expediency dressed up as principle.

Leading article: The case against Mr Johnson.

George Eaton: As Boris Johnson becomes the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn risks total irrelevance.

The Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, on the left and Israel: Believe me, Israel is not an apartheid state.

Henry Zeffman on anti-Semitism, the hard left and the Oxford University Labour Club.

Bias and Brexit: The former BBC executive Roger Mosey on how the corporation will walk the EU referendum tightrope.

The NS Essay: Philip Bobbitt on the rise of terror and the crumbling of the old international order.

****

Cover story: Andrew Gimson on Boris Johnson.

The ConservativeHome contributing editor and Boris Johnson biographer Andrew Gimson reports on the Tory high command’s mission to ruin the political prospects of the Mayor of London:

Boris Johnson must be destroyed. Or rather, Boris Johnson must be given the opportunity to destroy himself. David Cameron has a gift amounting to genius for disposing of rivals by placing them in a position where they have no good course of action. In a friendly and reasonable tone, he tempts them to take a step that may seem to promise great things, but turns out to be fatal. Anyone who doubts this should think of what happened to Nick Clegg, who had 57 MPs when he accepted Cameron’s “big, open and comprehensive offer” to join the government in 2010, and came out with eight.

A similar ruthlessness is evident in his handling of the Mayor of London. as faced with an unbearable choice. He could, if he wished, become a cog in the Cameron-Osborne machine. In return for backing the Remain side in the EU referendum campaign, he would be made into a very grand cog with a magnificent office, because, it was intimated to him, he could expect to become foreign secretary in the “unity reshuffle” that will follow the vote. But as everyone knows, foreign policy is decided in Downing Street.

In other words, Johnson would become Cameron’s loyal little helper, the role Clegg used to play. That would be a death-in-life, from which it would be impossible to find a satisfactory issue on which to resign. For, as the Lib Dems discovered in the five years of their gilded captivity, Cameron is so tactful and alert that he never allows a difference of opinion to degenerate into open war.

Nor was the alternative to the promise of promotion to (say) foreign secretary, and its life of making “unnecessarily amusing speeches and arranging conferences with Angelina Jolie” – the alternative being to resign over some great issue such as Europe – entirely alluring to Johnson. As Gimson notes:

The problem is that, as everyone knows who has spent five minutes studying his record, Johnson is not by conviction an Outer. His view of Europe is, in fact, very similar to Cameron’s. He believes that if he were prime minister, he would have obtained, thanks to his superior gifts, a better deal than has been struck. But he doesn’t want to leave Brussels. As he says, he loves the place. Before announcing which way he was going to jump, he conceded – a fine example of his technique of pre-emptive self-criticism – that on the issue of Europe he had been “veering all over the place like a shopping trolley”.

In the mayor’s favour, Gimson notes that Eurosceptics want to believe in Johnson:

They know he has the gift of putting things in language that does not sound cranky or obsessive. But once the referendum is over, they will also reach a view about how well he has performed. Between now and June, will he play his natural game and try to place himself at the head of a popular uprising against the establishment? He has such a natural talent for provoking and orchestrating a media scrum, is so fertile in providing good copy for reporters, and has such a relish for the whole absurd business of being at the centre of attention, that he must be tempted to do a bit of this, just as he did when announcing outside his house in Islington that he had plumped for Leave.

This kind of anarchic street theatre is a wonderful way of mobbing up the powers that be, who like to control everything and if possible to speak to very small audiences of reliable people. Cameron, despite various attempts to conceal this, is quite clearly the voice of the establishment, and will always try to do what the establishment considers to be prudent: in this case, to stay inside the EU. Can Gove and Johnson hope to defeat him by being even more prudent?

David Cameron, whom Gimson characterises as a steely pragmatist, has avoided wreckage to his own career from the emotive subject of Europe by choosing to stay In, but offering sops to the Eurosceptics. Can the mayor outflank him?

What room and what role does that leave for Boris Johnson? Unless he makes a surprising success of the reckless venture on which he has just embarked, I am not sure it leaves any room for him at all.

 

Stephen Bush: Boris’s conversion to Brexit is political expediency dressed up as principle.

Stephen Bush, editor of The Staggers, the NS’s politics blog, reflects that beneath a veneer of bonhomie and apparent effortlessness, Boris J0hnson is making a series of calculations more characteristic of a ruthless operator:

Johnson is an “I woke up this way” politician. Think of those celebrities who arrive at a party immaculately dressed, yet claim to have “fallen out of bed”. Just as with them, Johnson’s bumbling and seeming incoherence should not be taken at face value. It takes a great deal of effort to appear so effortless. He is always “thinking of the next move”, in the words of an admirer.

Observers often underestimate Boris Johnson, and then, on noticing their error, overcompensate. The reaction to his conversion to a Leave vote in the forthcoming referendum was overheated. Some said Brexit was inevitable, or compared the inevitable clash between Johnson and David Cameron to the conflict between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Now as in the years of New Labour’s pomp, there is a consensus in Westminster that the opposition is incapable of supplanting the government, so the focus has moved to the jockeying inside the ruling party. But Brown controlled the Treasury and the contents of the budget. Johnson controls the contents of a single column in the Telegraph on Mondays.

Bush notes that Boris’s Brexit conversion has more to do with neutralising the employment minister and Out campaigner Priti Patel – a likely rival for the Conservative leadership. He concludes:

For Boris, the outcome of a referendum remains a secondary matter. The loss of his aura of invincibility is less of a threat than it once was, because what used to be his USP among Tories – that he can win elections – is no longer unique. Tory MPs believe the rise of Jeremy Corbyn has left “the laws of gravity suspended”, as one minister puts it. Even assuming a referendum defeat, Johnson will have traded in a debased currency – the ability to defeat Labour – for something rarer: the ability to say he stood shoulder to shoulder with activists in their great struggle.

 

Leading article: The case against Mr Johnson.

In this week’s Leader, the New Statesman reflects on the real reasons for the mayor’s Brexit conversion and argues that the case for leaving the EU will not be best served if its most prominent advocate is a “politician whose principles are made of wind”:

It is a dismal paradox that Boris Johnson’s decision to support the campaign to leave the European Union simultaneously makes him more likely to become prime minister and demonstrates his profound unsuitability for that office. On 21 February, the Mayor of London ended weeks of well-stoked speculation over his position on the EU referendum by standing before a confected media scrum outside his London house and extemporising his confected ideology: democracy, sovereignty, trade.

The mayor’s true guiding principles can be captured by a different trio of words: Boris, Boris, Boris.

[. . .]

Mr Johnson is a clever and witty man who writes an entertaining newspaper column and middlebrow books. He has long invited us to laugh at him and this has deflected criticism from his character flaws. Now he must be scrutinised. His record as Mayor of London is lacklustre. He has pursued vanity projects, such as the New Routemaster bus and the Garden Bridge, at the cost of grappling with the social problems afflicting many. He has a much longer record of erratic judgement and underhand dealing in his personal life. And now, when the United Kingdom, the country he professes to love, is faced with existential threats at home and abroad, he has opted for expediency over sincerity.

 

Guest column: Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.

As activists at universities across the UK prepare to take part in “Israeli Apartheid Week” (IAW), the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, deplores the parallels being made with racist South Africa and mounts a robust defence of a state he sees as nothing like the oppressive and unjust South Africa of his youth:

It is a comparison that is entirely false; a grave insult to those who suffered under apartheid; and a tragic obstacle to peace.

The difference between the two countries could scarcely be more stark. Under apartheid, a legal structure of racial hierarchy governed all aspects of life. Black South Africans were denied the vote. They were required by law to live, work, study, travel, enjoy leisure activities, receive medical treatment and even go to the lavatory separately from those with a different colour of skin. Interracial relationships and marriages were illegal. It was subjugation in its rawest form.

Contrast that with Israel, a country whose Arab, Druze, Bedouin, Ethiopian, Baha’i, Armenian and other citizens have equal status under the law. Anyone who truly understands what apartheid was cannot possibly look around Israel today and honestly claim there is any kind of parity. They would need only to visit Hand in Hand, an organisation that runs schools where Jewish and Arab pupils learn together, or meet the Israeli-Arab judge Salim Joubran of the Supreme Court of Israel. They might note the appointment last month of Mariam Kabaha as the national commissioner for equal employment opportunities in the economy ministry, or hear that just this month, Jamal Hakrush became the first Muslim Arab to be appointed a deputy commissioner of the Israel Police.

Indeed, the difference is so stark that one might argue there is a good case for ignoring the apartheid slur altogether. Yet the tragic reality is that every time the word is used in the context of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the two sides become polarised yet further and peace becomes ever more distant.

Read the piece in full below or on newstatesman.com.

Also in this week’s issue Henry Zeffman, a former co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club (whose leaders have come under fire after being accused of promoting anti-Semitism), asks if it is possible to be both Jewish and a member of the Labour Party today:

Student politics doesn’t – and probably shouldn’t – make the national news too often, but the resignation of Alex Chalmers was remarkable. On 15 February Chalmers, a co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club, resigned after OULC voted to endorse the pan-national campus campaign Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). In a written statement, Chalmers said that “a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford [has] some kind of problem with Jews”.

[. . .]

I left the Labour Party after the leadership election because I worried about being a member and reporting on it fairly. I don’t think I would have lasted much longer before deciding that being a Labour member was incompatible with being a Jew. It’s been over a week since Chalmers resigned. Corbyn has made no comment. Does he care? Do Labour members?

 

The Politics Column: George Eaton

The NS’s political editor, George Eaton, argues that Boris Johnson’s decision to defy the Prime Minister over Europe – and the battle that will ensue in the coming months – threaten to eclipse an already marginalised Labour Party:

Addressing a newly elected Conservative MP, Winston Churchill explained that while “the opposition occupies the benches in front of you . . . the enemy sits behind you”. After his contretemps with Boris Johnson, David Cameron might agree.

[. . .]

Despite the opposition’s psephological relevance, it has rarely been more marginalised politically. Until 23 June, Corbyn risks appearing to be the leader of the opposition in name only. For practical purposes, the role has been assumed by Boris Johnson. This split should give Labour cause for celebration: voters ordinarily shun divided parties. But as the Conservative drama dominates, Corbyn must struggle to avoid a worse fate: irrelevance.

 

Roger Mosey on the BBC, bias and Brexit.

As the BBC gets on a “war footing” in the lead-up to the EU referendum, and its director of news, James Harding, drills staff on the need for impartiality in all reporting, the former BBC executive Roger Mosey notes that Europe has long been a problem issue for the corporation:

It is the agreed line that in the past, “The BBC was slow to give appropriate prominence to the growing weight of opinion opposing UK membership of the EU,” as one of the BBC Trust’s impartiality reviews noted. This is a fault seemingly located in the early 2000s, when I was head of television news. It is true that we were slow to spot the rise of Ukip but not, I think, Tory Euroscepticism: there was a period of pre-eminence on the airwaves for the Maastricht rebels and the John Redwood/Michael Portillo wing of the party. But it may have been a failing caused by the sense that the harder-line Eurosceptics did appear to be eccentric and obsessive.

John Major wasn’t alone in hearing the flapping of white coats. I once took a senior executive for lunch with a Tory Europe-basher whose monomaniacal tirade made my companion roll his eyes in despair every time the MP looked away. It was a similar experience when colleagues were buttonholed by Lord Pearson of Rannoch, an early supporter of Brexit, and they would emerge from meetings with him grey-faced after a lengthy dissection of their alleged pro-EU bias.

Mosey predicts that the BBC will find it hard to resist the media obsession with the David Cameron v Boris Johnson dynamic, but suggests that “the public is far less interested than journalists are in a Tory leader leadership campaign that could be more than three years away. Jobs, trade and security and a cool analysis of Britain’s place in the world will matter more in Truro and Caithness.”

 

The NS Essay: Philip Bobbitt.

In this week’s essay, the American author and academic Philip Bobbitt argues that, as the global economy transcends borders and Islamic State raises its flag, the old international order is crumbling:

Contemplating the black flag of Islamic State that flies over Fallujah in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, my mind irresistibly returned to an essay in the New York Review of Books in 2008 that archly observed, “It seems more a matter of rhetoric than reality to claim that the epochal struggle of the 21st century concerns whether ‘consent’ or ‘terror’ will form the basis for legitimate governance. Does anyone truly believe that citizens throughout the world are undecided over whether they would prefer to be governed by consent or terror?”

How far we have come since those words were written. The international order that so confidently expanded the G8 to the G20, that continued the enlargement of the European Union to 28 member states, that brought about the first democratic elections in Iraq and Afghanistan despite harrowing terrorist intimidation, that increased the membership of Nato to include not only former members of the Warsaw Pact but even the Baltic states that had been part of the Soviet Union, and that created the Association of South-East Asian Nations and brought China into the World Trade Organisation, is now shuddering and fragmenting.

 

Plus

Laurie Penny on Britain’s conflicted attitude towards
migrants and refugees.

Helen Lewis: When it comes to other people’s bodies,
too many of us are not ethical consumers.

Tim Wigmore: How Britain is failing white working-class children.

In The Critics: Leo Robson on the late memoirs and essays of
Henry James; Mark Lawson finds new poetry in the stage version of Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing at the Young Vic in London; and Rachel Cooke on Tom Hiddleston’s charm offensive in an adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager for BBC1.

Anoosh Chakelian on learning from the past with Jonas Nay,
star of the spy hit series Deutschland 83.

For more press information, please contact Anya Matthews: anya.matthews@newstatesman.co.uk / 020 7936 4029 / 07815 634 396

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