The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is about to have a new prime minister chosen by the majority of 160,000 members of the Conservative Party. That electorate is less than one-quarter of one percent of the UK’s population of 66 million. The Conservatives have only 312 seats in the 650-strong parliament (one seat is vacant). The Tories, as the Conservatives are known, have run the government since the election in 2017 with external support from the Democratic Unionist Party, a pro-UK party from Northern Ireland, the part of the UK riven by the sectarian divide.
The election has become necessary because Theresa May, the outgoing prime minister, decided to resign after she failed to secure support from parliament over the terms she had agreed with the European Union (EU) over how the UK should leave the EU, following the contentious “Brexit” referendum of 2016.
That stalemate in the UK over leaving the EU is profound. It seems comically absurd that instead of holding a new general election or calling for a new referendum over how to leave the EU—if at all—the Tories are replacing the prime minister mid-term, as if ruling the nation were like managing a country club—electing a new chair by polling members in good standing, while an overwhelming majority of peasants who are non-members are clamouring for participation. The man likely to take over from May is the 55-year-old Eton- and Oxford-educated former journalist Boris Johnson, a man uniquely unsuited for the role.
Unlikely rise to the top
There is a surreal aspect to Johnson’s rise. His paper qualifications apart, journalists, bureaucrats and politicians who have known him or worked with Johnson are near-unanimous in their horror over his likely selection. Johnson is presumed to be the runaway favourite among party members. He secured the top spot in the final runoff after outpolling his rival MPs in a series of elections held among Conservative MPs. The man who hopes to stop him is Jeremy Hunt, the mild-mannered foreign secretary, who hopes his politeness and the appearance of possessing a pair of steady hands just might sway the Conservative membership, which typically prefers stability over chaos, which Johnson personifies.
But British politics is in uncharted territory. Johnson led the campaign to leave the EU not necessarily because he dislikes the EU—very likely he has no opinion on the EU—but because he astutely concluded that leading the ‘leave’ campaign is likely to boost and hasten his chances of becoming party leader and prime minister. In the process, he made outrageous promises during the referendum campaign and substituted facts and analysis with bluster and brio.
Johnson was loyal to himself, not to any idea. That’s not surprising: at Oxford, he saw nothing wrong in seeking the support of a left-leaning party to become president of the Oxford Union, considered to be a stepping stone to a political career. Toby Young, columnist at Spectator who was Johnson’s Oxford contemporary and supports him, wrote recently, “He has been described as looking like a sheepdog peeping out from under an upturned colander of spaghetti. He has a thick mop of blond hair that Donald Trump would kill for. The striking thing about him as a 19-year-old student is that he was already the finished article, whereas the rest of us were still works in progress. It is not just that he was comfortable in his own skin. He had a Churchillian sense of his own destiny. He gave the impression that at some point in Britain’s future, at a time of national crisis, he would sweep in and save the day. We are about to find out if that was a narcissistic self-delusion or a historical premonition.” Other journalists who have known him are less sanguine. Martin Wolf of Financial Times calls him “a serial fantasist”. George Walden, a former diplomat, calls Johnson “a remorse-free liar”. Johnson’s former editor, Max Hastings, has said he wouldn’t trust Johnson on anything, including something as simple as his response to the question if it was Monday or Tuesday.
As a child, Johnson wanted to be the “world king,” according to Sonia Purnell, his biographer. As James Wood in The London Review of Books has shown, privately-educated elite students like Johnson believe in their “effortless superiority”, taking for granted that high rewards are theirs because of their natural eminence and position in society. Privileged Etonian-Oxonians feel entitled and they rely on Britain’s traditional reverence to the class system to do the rest. In his essay, Wood describes Johnson as one with “the bigfoot stoop (he was known as ‘the Yeti’), the bumbling confidence, the skimmed-milk pallor, the berserk hair, the alarming air of imminent self-harm, which gave the impression that he had been freshly released from some protective institution”.
Johnson is eloquent, can be witty, and has a vocabulary filled with Latin phrases. His frequent appearances on television, in particular, the current affairs comedy show Have I Got News For You, and public speeches where he contrives to look dishevelled and disorganized have boosted his popularity, as if he were a character out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel.
Johnson strenuously stresses his inclusiveness. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson—to go by his full name—had a Turkish great-grandfather, a politician called Ali Kemal, and his former wife Marina Wheeler’s mother is of Indian origin. Johnson has joined gay pride marches in London when he was the city’s mayor and spoken favourably of the city’s cosmopolitanism. But Johnson has also embraced divisive politics, called homosexuals “tank-topped bum boys”, and written a vulgar limerick ridiculing an unnamed Turkish leader in a challenge to provoke President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for which he won a £1,000 prize.
Johnson insists the UK will leave the EU on October 31, come what may, and if parliament prevents him from doing so, he has not ruled out proroguing the parliament—a step which would take the UK into uncharted territory for which there are almost no known precedents. Former prime minister John Major, also of the Conservative Party, has said he would seek judicial review if Johnson suspends parliamentary rights by proroguing the house, and whether his manoeuvre succeeds is uncertain.
But the danger of a “no-deal Brexit” is real and its consequences can be catastrophic politically and economically. For one, it can unravel the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which has brought peace to Northern Ireland, which now has a ‘soft’ border separating it from the Republic of Ireland. If checkpoints and passport controls return there, violence may flare up once again. Equally crucially, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she would call a fresh referendum seeking independence. If Northern Ireland (which voted to remain in the EU) and Scotland (which too voted to remain) separate from the UK, what will remain will be a rump kingdom, comprising England with Wales. But pro-Brexit voters are in no mood to listen. Recent polls among pro-leave voters suggest that they would prefer leaving the EU over preserving the union which keeps the four nations—England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales—together.
Even a cursory glance at Johnson’s record as a journalist causes concern. He was sacked from The Times because he had made up quotes. His supporters disregard his reports from Brussels for the right-leaning Daily Telegraph, where he was the newspaper’s correspondent, as hysterical entertainment. But those reports vitiated the atmosphere, dripping in a sustained way unsubstantiated propaganda which showed European bureaucrats as a bunch of humourless regulators who wanted to decide what the shape should be of a banana, the size of condoms, or whether prawn cocktail crisps should be allowed. (Johnson wrote the crisps would be banned; that was simply not true). When older journalists warned Johnson against making up stuff, he ignored them, saying that the larger truth was more important than mere facts.
As a politician, he was fired from the shadow cabinet by then party leader Michael Howard after Johnson had lied over an affair with another journalist. He has done his best to shun debates with rival Hunt in the lead-up to the current poll, appearing in only a few, to avoid making gaffes, and ducked reasonable questions from journalists (such as how many children he has).
Then, there is his bigotry. He has described Muslim women in hijab as “letter-boxes”. During his inglorious, brief tenure as foreign secretary under May, his carelessness jeopardised Nazanin Zaghari -Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman, who was in Iran on holiday. Iranian officials held her on suspicion that she was a spy and Johnson said she was there only to train journalists—a red rag to the suspicious Iranians. At her sentencing, the judges noted that remark and her family says that made her sentence harsher. (Her family denies she was training journalists.) More recently, he refused to back Sir Kim Darroch, the outgoing British ambassador to the US, after his cables critical of President Donald Trump were leaked.
Explaining his appeal in spite of such a record, former Telegraph editor Charles Moore has said that the Tories are enraged by left-wing sanctimony and they “long for something that is more subversive and different”. Johnson, he says, is “the lord of misrule”, and the party loves it. In an age where politicians have called facts fake news and who speak of fantasies as though those are real, Johnson is the man whose time has come not a day too soon. He is a more articulate and grammatically coherent version of Trump.
Much has been made of Johnson’s time as London’s mayor. London is a liberal city and his success there as a Conservative politician may suggest his cross-party appeal. But London’s mayor has limited powers; he is more of a cheerleader for the city. As mayor, he has claimed credit for predecessor’s ideas (such as the ubiquitous bikes available for rent). He spent £46 million for a garden bridge that wasn’t constructed, £60 million on a severely under-used cable car, and championed a new airport on the Thames Estuary which would have cost £100 billion and devastated the environment had it been built.
As for his diplomatic skills, the less said the better. He has equated the European Union’s plans with Nazi Germany’s ambitions. He praised Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for reclaiming Palmyra while acknowledging that he ‘barrel-bombs’ his own people and tortures opponents. He glibly said that the Libyan coast could turn into Dubai and dismissed China’s great power ambitions. He claimed Barack Obama held a grudge against the British Empire because he was “part-Kenyan”. And he insulted all of the Commonwealth, saying, “It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies.”
Whoever becomes the next prime minister will have a major economic crisis at hand. The UK’s growth is sluggish and several companies, including financial institutions in the City, have decided to shut shop (as have some auto companies) or move operations to Europe. The next prime minister will have to earn the confidence of markets. And yet, when Johnson was told about the impact of Brexit on British business, his pithy response was, “F*** business”. It is the kind of statement you might hear from a left-leaning, Bennite Labour Party politician, not a Conservative. A no-deal Brexit would cost billions of pounds in lost investment, may crash the pound and depress property prices. But either Johnson has not thought about it or he seems to think that such a scenario is improbable or implausible.
If Johnson becomes prime minister, he will assume leadership at a time when the old model of leadership in the UK is lying exposed and devastated and a new one has not yet been born. Many Britons rightfully resented the power of the privileged classes, but instead of replacing privilege with merit—something Thatcherites claimed they would do—the UK is reverting to the older model of amateurish cleverness.
Many of the current Tory leaders have the characteristics of the upper-class aristocrats of the past without their sense of noblesse oblige. They’ve discarded humility and introspection, opting for American-style showmanship, bragging of virtues they don’t possess and seeking intellectual approval by writing books that are ridiculed or unread. (Jacob Rees-Mogg, the clownish Tory MP who is an ardent Brexiteer, has written a laughable account of the Victorian era; Johnson has received undeserving praise for his book on Churchill.)
Johnson’s supporters claim—and hope—that a statesmanlike leader might emerge from his misunderstood persona. Former diplomat Walden is not so sure. He writes: “At 55, few of us change, nor can evolution occur in the mind of a man with no convictions.… For all those who fall for it, Johnson’s appeal relies on two things: patriotic nostalgia and the illusion of effortless ascendancy. His supporters don’t want to live in the world as it is, with its chaotic globalism, market ruthlessness, shifting populations and emergent nations. They want to be somewhere else, preferably the past. Closed Tory minds drift backwards, and Johnson’s showmanship has an old-time, end-of-the-pier feel, with his pseudo-aristocratic persona, replete with eccentricities and Wooster impersonations.”
Johnson has never shown strategic vision and has allowed his oratory to mask his hollowness. He has little time for detail, likes to pretend that everything is easy for him, and expects the bureaucracy to sort out the mess he will undoubtedly create. The UK’s influence is diminishing rapidly. It will be taken even less seriously once he steps into 10 Downing Street.Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London