Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford. An updated edition of his book The Ascent of Money has just been published by Penguin.
“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice,” wrote Karl Marx in a justly famous passage from his essay, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. “He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Marx had in mind the immense discrepancy between Napoleon I and his nephew Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, later Napoleon III. A latter-day Marx might make precisely the same point about Sir Winston Churchill and Boris Johnson, except that Mr. Johnson pre-emptively published his own biography of Churchill, insisting on a parallel that could only be unflattering to himself.
So here I sit, unable to shake off the sinking feeling that we are about to witness the Monty Python remake of the movie Darkest Hour.
Yet it would be a mistake prematurely to write off Mr. Johnson’s premiership. Mr. Johnson has needed a lot of luck as well as charisma to get to the top of the greasy pole. Moreover, despite his reputation for disorganization, he opened strongly last week. We have all seen too much of Boris the bluffer and bungler, not least in his recent wretched stint as foreign secretary. It was easy to forget that, when he is conductor as opposed to second fiddle, Mr. Johnson knows how to assemble a strong team and inspire its members to give their best.
This is not May, 1940. France is not collapsing as the Wehrmacht sweeps westward. We don’t need to evacuate beaches of our army or brace ourselves for invasion or blitz. Nevertheless, the new Prime Minister finds himself between more rocks and hard places than a lost hiker in the Cuillin hills of Skye.
The stated game plan is to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement laboriously if unskilfully negotiated by Theresa May. What are the chances that the European negotiators will agree to scrap the dreaded backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland under single market regulations and the whole of the U.K. in a customs union with the EU until an alternative arrangement can be found that avoids a hard border between Northern Ireland and the republic? I’d say pretty much nil.
Why would they give Mr. Johnson (whom they all despise) the break they denied Theresa May?
If there are rocks overseas, there are hard places at home. Parliament is now in its summer recess, but when it returns on Sept. 3, the Johnson government will swiftly feel the weakness of its position. All those ministers dismissed from the government will form a buzzing hive of resentment – and opposition to a no-deal exit – on the back benches. With his majority likely down to one, Mr. Johnson may be forced into an election soon after Parliament reconvenes through a vote of no confidence.
Mr. Johnson knows this, which is why his government already has the look of a campaign machine. But the road to an election victory – before or after Oct. 31 – looks pretty rocky, too. Yes, I get it: Mr. Johnson is candy floss the way Ms. May was cough medicine. He looks like an election winner, and a bounce in the polls is guaranteed.
But let’s look a bit more closely at the British electoral map. The Tories are not the only party with a new leader. Even before the Liberal Democrats picked Jo Swinson, their revival was cutting into Conservative support across centrist, professional Britain. Moreover, another leader has a new party. Nothing short of an electoral pact with the Brexit Party will prevent the Tories from losing seats to – or because of – Nigel Farage and company.
If Mr. Johnson can win a majority, he can free himself from the Democratic Unionists and tack towards the EU’s opening offer of a trade deal for Britain and a special status for Northern Ireland within the single market. But that’s an “if” the size of Mr. Johnson’s ego.
The one crucial piece of luck Mr. Johnson has going for him is the parlous state of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its history. Two years ago, Mr. Corbyn enjoyed a strange bout of popularity that scuppered Ms. May’s bid for an increased majority. Today, irreparably damaged by charges of anti-semitism and rumours of ill health, Mr. Corbyn is the perfect opponent for the rambunctious Mr. Johnson.
Also in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx wrote one his most famous observations: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past.”
Mr. Johnson is about to put the Marxist theory of history to the test. I wish him luck – because if he loses, a Marxist wins.