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The con man with the keys to the kingdom

Boris Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street as prime minister signals the end of the UK as a serious country. 

The deed is done. The Conservative Party has imposed upon Britain, at a time of profound national crisis, a prime minister who is spectacularly unfit for the job, both morally and politically. It has installed in an office once held by the likes of Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee a liar, an adulterer and a pedlar of fantasies who is so utterly lacking in principle and integrity that he is willing to sacrifice the nation’s future on the altar of his own ambition. Boris Johnson’s arrival in No 10 is a mortifying development for the once-proud United Kingdom, one that has astonished a world that used to regard Britain as a model of caution and common sense.

Johnson gained access to Downing Street through a travesty of an election that even Vladimir Putin mocked (though both he and President Trump would have cheered the result). The Tory leadership contest was like a slow-motion coup d’état. It had the trappings of democracy – hustings, a televised debate, policy platforms, opinion polls, endorsements. But 99.75 per cent of the electorate was forced to watch impotently from the sidelines, as in a banana republic, while the candidates shamelessly pandered to the tiny, anonymous cabal of 160,000 predominantly older, southern, white, wealthy, male right-wing Conservative Party members that chose the country’s new leader. And many of those 160,000 were recent Ukip infiltrators.

It was an election that conferred little legitimacy on Johnson, for the party had little legitimacy left to confer. In a narrow legal sense the Tories, as the biggest parliamentary party, had the right to choose the prime minister, but not in any wider, moral sense because it is abundantly clear that they no longer command the country’s confidence.

In the 2017 general election Theresa May sought a mandate for pursuing a hard Brexit and was humiliatingly rebuffed: the Conservatives lost their parliamentary majority, and survived in power only through a squalid deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

Since then they have haemorrhaged support to the pop-up Brexit Party on the right, and to the Liberal Democrats on the left. On 2 May this year the Conservatives lost more than 1,300 seats in the local elections. Three weeks after that drubbing they secured a derisory 8.8 per cent of the vote in the European Parliament elections – finishing in fifth place and beaten even by the Greens. They now govern with a level of public support that would be “vanishingly small” were Jeremy Corbyn not so inept.

Johnson might conceivably be able to claim a modicum of validity if he was pursuing policies laid out in the Conservatives’ 2017 election manifesto, but he is doing exactly the opposite. The manifesto promised a “smooth and orderly departure” from the EU, and a “deep and special partnership with our friends and allies across Europe”. That is what Theresa May, for all her faults, laboured to achieve. But Johnson is threatening a bitter, chaotic no-deal Brexit that would poison Britain’s relations with the rest of Europe for a generation. He has no mandate for such a move. The electorate, which was promised a swift, painless have-your-cake-and-eat-it Brexit during the 2016 referendum, has never been asked if it wants no deal. It would surely reject such a catastrophic course of action if it was.

The leadership election had just one redeeming factor. It laid bare, for all to see, some of Johnson’s many defects.

His failure to stand up for Britain’s ambassador to the US showed his subservience to Donald Trump. His row with his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, exposed the nastiness, aggression and sense of entitlement that lurk behind his clownish facade. Those who watched his ITV debate with Jeremy Hunt, and his grilling by Andrew Neil on the BBC, would have noticed his congenital evasiveness: even the broadly sympathetic Sunday Times observed that “his tendency to bluster and not answer questions may be one he shares with many politicians but he has taken the art form to new levels”.

Those viewers must have realised that his use of colourful bluster and groundless optimism – his talk of restoring Britain’s “mojo”, escaping the Brexit “hamster wheel of doom” and getting this “incubus… pitchforked off our backs” – was a substitute for anything remotely resembling serious, detailed policy. He has no more of a plan for delivering Brexit now than he did on 23 June 2016 – just well-honed soundbites and dollops of wishful thinking.

Viewers may also have spotted his proclivity for telling different audiences what they want to hear. Will he take Britain out of the EU on 31 October “do or die”, or is that merely an “eminently feasible target”? Will he, or will he not, suspend parliament to prevent it blocking a no-deal Brexit? Will he, or will he not, prioritise tax cuts for the rich? We still don’t know, because it is easier to nail down jelly than Boris Johnson.

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If the leadership contest revealed our new prime minister’s vacuity, it also revealed the moral collapse of the Conservative Party.

Tory MPs have watched Johnson close up for many years. They detest the man. They know perfectly well what a serially disloyal, untrustworthy, indolent, disorganised and egotistical charlatan he is. Yet a majority of them voted to put him on the parliamentary party’s shortlist of two for reasons that can only be described as venal.

They backed Johnson because they saw him as the best chance of saving their seats by out-Faraging Nigel Farage in demagoguery, or because they craved ministerial jobs in his government, or both. Amber Rudd, Michael Gove, Matt Hancock, Damian Green, Jo Johnson – one by one his erstwhile critics have fallen into line, cravenly putting their careers before country.

The party members chose Johnson over Hunt for a different reason. After three dismal years of Theresa May, they were seduced by a con man’s breezy optimism and invocation of the bulldog spirit, and by the disgracefully sycophantic coverage of Johnson by right-wing so-called newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph – his paymaster. They revere him as a latter-day Churchill who will bring back Britain’s glory days. They are a cult whose belief in Johnson and Brexit cannot be shaken by any number of revelations about his own turpitude, or by the steadily growing mountain of evidence that leaving the EU is actually a monumental act of self-harm.

Their faith cannot be shaken by Britain’s stalled economic growth, sterling’s fall, declining investment and the migration of jobs to continental Europe. Or by the ugliness and social discord that Brexit has unleashed. Or by the howls of anguish from British industry. Or by the bemused pity of our former friends and allies in the EU, or our growing dependence on the goodwill of America’s malign and capricious president.

That Brexit has not delivered the land of milk and honey promised in the 2016 referendum is, in their view, the fault of pusillanimous leadership, a treacherous establishment, perfidious Europeans – of anyone but their mendacious messiah and the undeliverable promises he made in 2016.

After three years of national turmoil, three years in which a Brexit-supporting government has laboured in vain to negotiate a palatable divorce deal, a sane political party might pause to reconsider, but not the Tories.

Their response is to pursue the Holy Grail of Brexit with ever greater zeal, and to entrust that pursuit to the man whose grotesque misrepresentation of the European project as a journalist in Brussels, as a newspaper columnist, and as leader of the 2016 Leave campaign sucked Britain into this mess in the first place. He was still at it last week, falsely claiming that “Brussels bureaucrats” were destroying the kipper business. And the Tories have the gall to accuse Johnson’s critics of suffering from “Boris Derangement Syndrome”.

The inescapable fact is that the old, essentially benign, centre-right Conservative Party, the natural party of government for most of the 20th century, no longer exists – a few brave and honourable “rebels” excepted.

Once the party of pragmatism, it has been hijacked by far-right ideologues ranging from the somewhat sinister Jacob Rees-Mogg to pantomime clowns such as Mark Francois.

Once the party of competence, it has chosen Johnson, whose two years as foreign secretary were so excruciatingly awful that he airbrushed them out of his leadership campaign, over Hunt, who for all his shortcomings could at least boast a respectable decade of cabinet experience.

The party of fiscal rectitude, which so vociferously condemned Labour’s “magic money tree” spending plans in 2017, has installed in Downing Street a man who promises profligate spending on tax cuts, public sector pay increases, schools, the police, infrastructure and social care – all to be miraculously financed by the government’s falling post-Brexit revenues.

The party of family values has installed in N0 10 Britain’s first twice-divorced prime minister – a man with a girlfriend 24 years his junior who seems quite incapable of controlling his lust. “Lock up your willy,” Johnson’s former Telegraph editor, Max Hastings, advised him when he was considering a run at becoming mayor of London, but his extramarital affairs continued un-abated and produced at least one love child.

By choosing Johnson the so-called Conservative and Unionist Party, to give it its full title, has greatly increased the risk of Scottish independence: north of the border, where Johnson’s eccentric Englishman shtick falls flat, he has a net approval rating of minus 37 per cent and is so profoundly unpopular that Ruth Davidson banned him from the Scottish Conservative Party’s annual conference in May.

As for Northern Ireland, Johnson has displayed a shocking disregard for its fragile peace process and stunning ignorance about the province. He has compared the Irish border, that deeply symbolic and contentious century-old scar across the island of Ireland, to the boundaries of London’s congestion charge zone. None of that bothers Tory party’s monomaniacal members: according to a YouGov survey, 63 per cent of them would apparently prefer to lose Scotland from the Union than forego Brexit, and 59 per cent would prefer to jettison Northern Ireland than stay in the EU.

The Conservatives used to be the party of business, but ignore the increasingly desperate warnings about Brexit’s dangers from Airbus, Ford, Nissan, Jaguar Land Rover, Unilever, Sony, Hitachi and other titans of corporate Britain. When did they last have a leader who proclaimed: “Fuck business”?

They used to be the party of the establishment, but not any more. Conservative MPs and members blithely dismiss the Brexit fears of academics, heads of industry, former ambassadors, ex-intelligence chiefs, past prime ministers and anyone else who would previously have been considered an expert. Johnson and his Brexiteer supporters routinely trash the civil service, the judiciary, the BBC, the Bank of England and any other institution that they perceive to be flouting the “will of the people”. Crazed like Tolkien’s Gollum in their pursuit of the “precious” Brexit, they are even prepared to bypass parliament.

The Conservative Party has moved so far to the populist right that it now regards stalwarts such as John Major, Ken Clarke and Chris Patten as heretics for supporting what was party policy for 43 years. It has removed the whip from Michael Heseltine, once deputy prime minister. Its members in True Blue Beaconsfield are seeking to deselect Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general. It views even a soft Brexiteer like Michael Gove with a degree of suspicion. It is a moot point whether the sainted Margaret Thatcher, a pragmatic Eurosceptic, would feel comfortable in today’s Bannonite Tory party.


A real head-scratcher: Boris Johnson’s ascent confirms the Conservatives’ shift to the populist right

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The creed of “Johnsonism” consists only of the promotion of Boris Johnson. He has no core convictions, no ideals, no big ideas. Politics for him is like some glorified Oxford Union debate – a rhetorical exercise.

This is a man who pledged to lie in front of the bulldozers to prevent Heathrow’s expansion, then flew to Afghanistan to avoid a Commons vote on the issue. He used to oppose Britain quitting the EU, but backed Brexit in the 2016 referendum because he considered it politically advantageous. He supported an amnesty for immigrants as London’s mayor, then led the xenophobic Leave campaign. He backed May’s withdrawal deal until it prompted David Davis’s resignation from the cabinet, forcing him to follow suit. He once described Trump as “stupefyingly ignorant” and unfit for office, but now courts him.

Johnson has a long record of betraying those foolish enough to place their trust in him, as his former wives and party leaders can testify. So it is far from clear what course he will pursue now that the political virility test that was the Tory leadership election is over, and now that his promises to the party faithful are about to collide with reality. But for argument’s sake let us take him at his word.

He says he will go back to Brussels and demand a better divorce deal, using Britain’s £39bn severance payment as leverage. If that fails he will go for a no-deal Brexit, which is a bit like threatening to cut one’s own arm off. Once Britain has crashed out of the EU, thereby neutralising Farage’s Brexit Party, he can metamorphose into a more moderate One Nation Tory, start healing his party and country, and prepare to demolish that incorrigible old Marxist, Jeremy Corbyn, at a general election.

But even if Johnson had time to renegotiate May’s deal, which he has not, the notion that EU leaders will give him concessions that they denied to her – notably jettisoning the Northern Ireland backstop – is pure fantasy. They have insisted time and again that they will not renegotiate May’s deal, and that the backstop is sacrosanct. They loathe and profoundly distrust Johnson, whose lies they blame for the Brexit vote. He has repeatedly insulted them, calling the French “turds”, their president Emmanuel Macron a “jumped-up Napoleon” and the EU a latter-day “Third Reich”.

As Ivan Rogers, the former UK permanent representative to the EU, has stated: “There is simply no political upside whatever for the 27 [member states] to offer a new PM, particularly an avid Brexit campaigner and a populist with Trumpite attributes, the basis on which to say that he had delivered some fundamentally different and better deal.”

The idea that Johnson is a formidable negotiator is ridiculous, incidentally. He has never negotiated anything remotely serious. He loves to be loved. As London’s mayor he found it so hard to say no that his aides refused to let him meet Bob Crow, leader of the RMT transport workers’ union.

So would he – or could he – really leave the EU without a deal? Would a politician with no record of political courage dare to invoke the nuclear option leading to what Rogers calls “disruption on a scale and of a length that no-one has experienced in the developed world in the last couple of generations”? Would Johnson dare take the most reckless ideological gamble of modern times – a move that could cost £100bn in lost revenues; destroy tens of thousands of jobs; trigger another run on sterling; generate shortages of food, fuel and medicine; propel Scotland towards independence; wreck Britain’s reputation as a reliable partner; and place us at the mercy of America’s hateful president?

By the same token, would he really dare to suspend parliament if, as seems probable, it sought to prevent Britain crashing out without a deal? That would be a constitutional outrage. It would negate the whole point of Brexit – the restoration of parliamentary sovereignty. It would deny the Tories any cover whatever when the dire consequences of a no-deal Brexit became apparent. It would be the act of a fanatic, not of a dilettante such as Johnson.

But what if Johnson fails to deliver on his solemn pledge to take Britain out of the EU by 31 October?

He could call a second referendum, but there is a fair chance that the country would vote to reverse the result of the first – especially if the fractured opposition can come together. Almost every opinion poll over the last two years has put Remain ahead. Pro-Remain parties matched the Leave parties in the European elections, though the Brexit Party’s performance stole the headlines. More than a million Remainers paraded through London in March – the biggest demonstration the capital has ever seen, and six million signed a petition demanding an end to Brexit.

More likely, Johnson would call a general election. He would hope to gain a workable majority in parliament by campaigning to “keep a Marxist out of Downing Street”. But with the electorate now split four ways, and the Lib Dems vying to supplant Labour as the main oppostion party, that option would also be fraught with risk – and the very real danger of him becoming the shortest-serving prime minister since George Canning, who lasted a mere 119 days before dying in office in 1827.

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The first problem would be that the Tories, having failed to deliver Brexit by Halloween, would probably lose seats to Farage’s party even if they adopted an uncompromising no-deal platform: an analysis of the latest polls by the Electoral Calculus website suggests Labour would win 256 seats, the Conservatives 196 and the Brexit Party 66.

Though he denies it now, Johnson could conceivably seek a formal or informal electoral pact with Farage, perhaps offering him the job of foreign secretary or chancellor. Indeed Trump might well press Johnson to do such a deal with his friend. But it would be a pact with the devil that would drive out the party’s last moderate MPs, and alienate any centrist voters still minded to support the Conservatives.

The second problem is that Johnson is no longer the “Heineken candidate” who can reach parts of the electorate that other Conservative politicians cannot. The sobriquet was based on the fact that he won two mayoral elections in Labour-leaning London, but those victories should be seen in context.

In the first, in 2008, he beat an incumbent, Ken Livingstone, who had been in office eight years, and at a time when Gordon Brown’s Labour government was deeply unpopular. He did so with the gushing support of London’s Evening Standard, and after his shambolic campaign was rescued by Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist. Crosby kept him on the tightest leash, and focused on suburban Tories who had not previously voted in mayoral elections.

Thereafter Johnson could scarcely go wrong. He inherited a dynamic and growing capital. From 2010 the new Conservative government of David Cameron and George Osborne pumped money into London ahead of the 2012 Olympics, so his re-election was no great surprise. He then had the Olympics – a gift for any incumbent.

Since leaving City Hall Johnson has been forced to make the first really hard political choice of his career – to campaign for Leave in 2016. It was a decision that cost him dearly in London, his Remain-supporting power base, and in 2017 he saw his majority in his own constituency, Uxbridge and South Ruislip, cut in half.

It was also a decision that has arguably turned Johnson into Britain’s most divisive politician.

A recent YouGov poll showed that 28 per cent of respondents thought he would make a good prime minister but 54 per cent a bad one – both figures exceeded those of any other Tory politician. A remarkable 59 per cent said they would not buy a used car from him.

Other questions arise. If Johnson is really such a great campaigner why did his handlers go to such lengths to protect him from scrutiny during the leadership election? And why did they manipulate the voting process so that he faced Jeremy Hunt, not the far more formidable Gove, in the run-off?

We are about to see what Johnson is really made of. Is there any substance behind all that bluster? How will he cope under the relentless pressure and exposure that goes with being prime minister? Does he have the guts to stand up to Trump, or will he kowtow to him in a desperate quest for a US-UK trade deal to offset our putative exit from the EU’s single market? Will he finally show the application and mastery of detail required of a serious politician, or will he continue to wing it?

The Conservatives have sold their collective soul because they see Johnson as the man who can restore their electoral fortunes through the sheer force of his exuberant personality, but they may have underestimated just how toxic his – and their – brand has become. They may not have realised how irretrievably they have lost the centrist vote through their pandering to the ideological right, and through their manifest disdain for the 48 per cent that voted Remain. Indeed, some wiser Tories privately admit that in choosing Johnson they have taken an enormous gamble that could well destroy their party. The rest of us can only hope that it does not destroy the country in the process.

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer and a former foreign editor of the Times

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer and a former foreign editor of the Times

This article appears in the 24 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation