Tom Rachman is a novelist and journalist based in London. His latest novel is The Italian Teacher.
Decades ago, when grown-ups inquired of little Boris Johnson what he hoped to be some day, the boy answered, “World king.” Luckily for the world, the job isn’t available. Only the British must suffer this reckless oaf.
But, you might reply, Boris is so charming and so funny! That is true. He’s an entertaining shambles of English poshness: the haystack of befuddled blond hair, the old-fashioned elocution, his history of mischief that seems composed for a greedy biographer. Yet his rise to power – during a crisis worse than any Britain has known since the Second World War – is a witticism that falls dead. You wouldn’t want this man flying your plane. Why would anyone choose him to fly a country?
The answer is Brexit. The answer to every depressing question in Britain today is Brexit.
Boris is the latest degrading chapter in what feels like a parable whose moral has yet to be explained, but that will caution future generations: Don’t do as they once did. Three years ago, Britain held its referendum on leaving the European Union, and has lost reason ever since, sidetracked, enfeebled and immiserated.
Among the costs is a population divided into tribes: Brexiters and Remainers, each perceiving the other as stupid and debased. Fewer than 100 days are left until the ordained exit, yet British lawmakers have not agreed how this cataclysmic change of laws and trade pacts and border rules will unfold. Crashing out without any arrangement with the European Union – the world’s largest trading bloc, source of bountiful supplies to Britain, vital security partner – was once viewed as near-impossible, risking food shortages, chaos at ports, soaring prices. Today, it’s a fast-approaching prospect.
“The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters – they are going to get it wrong again,” Boris proclaimed outside 10 Downing St., in his maiden speech as Prime Minister. “The people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts because we are going to restore trust in our democracy.” That an entitled 55-year-old, best known for quips and irresponsibility, rose to power among 66 million fellow citizens does not restore faith in this democracy.
Boris didn’t merely step forward in his country’s hour of strife; he helped engineer that strife. After attending Eton and Oxford, he walked into a journalism career, first fired from The Times for making up a quote, then elevated to foreign correspondent at The Daily Telegraph – an upward glide from blunders to glory that has marked his career. One explanation is charm, a deadly trait of the English upper classes so well captured in the novels of Evelyn Waugh, where devil-may-care confidence means everyone else better take care, for you shan’t.
The Boris blight began in Brussels itself. For a journalist, the EU was an unpromising assignment, a place where technocrats dwell on regulatory oversight and agricultural subsidies – hardly the palpitating stuff of a 24-year-old reporter in a hurry. So Boris took the liberty of any charlatan. He twisted truth to his needs, characterizing the EU as a crew of ninny bureaucrats thirsting to impose upon common-sense Britain diktats on condom sizes, chip flavours, the smell of manure. His caricatures of absurd foreigners won an audience back home, where an island-dweller’s suspicion of “continental types” still held sway among some, particularly older conservatives.
“I was just chucking these rocks over the garden wall, and I’d listen to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England,” Boris explained in a 2005 interview with the BBC. “Everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing explosive effect on the Tory Party. And it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power.”
Later, he was to exercise his vandal’s power more directly. But in the intervening years, he became editor of the influential conservative magazine The Spectator, took a seat in Parliament, appeared on comedic TV quiz shows and won election as mayor of London, a plum position that incurs few controversial duties while granting vast media attention as the figurehead of the vibrant capital. He thrived on clownish gaffes, getting stuck on a zipwire, falling into a river, shouldering aside a small child during a rugby display. He also conducted a series of infidelities. Few can say how many children he has fathered. At least five, perhaps six.
Before the 2016 referendum, Boris dithered. Despite his slights against Brussels, he’d also spoken in favour of membership in the European common market. Britain waited in anticipation, for all knew what a winning campaigner he could be. He wrote two test versions of his newspaper column. In the first, he came out for “Remain”; the second, “Leave.” Perhaps this reveals a heartfelt dilemma. Perhaps paper-thin principles. Anyway, he published just one, and became the public salesman of a “Leave” campaign that is today recalled for staggering dishonesty and unexpected victory, by 52 per cent to 48 per cent.
The ensuing deadlock is largely due to false promises of “Leave” campaigners, who assured disaffected citizens that quitting the EU would be a simple and profitable enterprise, that Britain could be great again, that fewer immigrants would appear on these shores, that the struggling National Health Service would become flush with cash, that native-born British citizens could enrich themselves rather than faceless bureaucrats abroad.
After the vote, the false promises dissolved. Yet, the fiercest Brexiters grew more aggressive, blaming Brussels for the failure of their whims to materialize, advocating an ever-more-radical break from the EU and attacking those who questioned a referendum marked by lies. To support “Remain” any more, the Brexiters contended, was to subvert democracy.
The outgoing prime minister, Theresa May, needed two years to negotiate a proposed divorce deal with the EU. Unsurprisingly, those much-maligned “Brussels bureaucrats” – not to mention the 27 other European countries – preferred not to sacrifice the bloc’s interests for a chauvinistic movement from a single member-state. Ms. May‘s withdrawal agreement displeased everyone, and Parliament rejected it by the largest majority against a British government in history. Repeatedly, she tried to pass it but failed, her minority government propped up only by a small right-wing party from Northern Ireland. Hence, Ms. May’s ouster, and the designation of a new Conservative leader, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, who won the highest job in the land through a vote restricted to the 160,000 Tory party members, mostly older, distinctly right-wing.
The Boris promise is Brexit by the Oct. 31 deadline – “do or die, come what may.” He’ll compel those Brussels bureaucrats to give in, he vows, though they insist on the opposite. Even if he does win concessions, Boris inherits a wobbly majority in a legislature that is entering summer recess, more than a few lawmakers likely sunning and inebriating themselves in the very European countries they publicly shun.
Yet, Boris says, Brexit is an opportunity. The country merely needs to summon its can-do spirit – much as you’d levitate if you only put your mind to it. No-deal is nothing to fret over, he adds, although it risks the breakup of the United Kingdom itself, renewing tensions at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a frontier that has been seamless and safe after years of sectarian violence. A no-deal would also stir Scotland to push for independence, given that a majority there voted to stay in the EU and feels dragged into this mayhem by the English.
Some observers hoped Boris would moderate his bluster once in power. Yet his first act was to sack most of Ms. May’s cabinet, bringing in dedicated Brexiters. One notable hire is a new senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, prickly mastermind of the Vote Leave campaign. This suggests Boris is pondering the next step, a general election to consolidate power.
But fresh elections could produce another hung Parliament. The traditionally dominant parties, Conservative and Labour, have alienated droves. While Tories bungled, the greybeard 70-year-old leader of Labour, Jeremy Corbyn, never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Mr. Corbyn – old-school leftie with a coterie of troubling allies, some of whom have spouted anti-Semitic rhetoric – mounts feeble opposition to Brexit, and has a history of opposing the EU as a project of callous capitalists. Worryingly, he seems prepared to see his country plunge a little, providing he gains power – finally able to build that socialist paradise.
With ease, Boris skewers the opposition leader for the Brexit waffling. “At last, at last – this long-standing Euroskeptic, the right honourable gentleman, has been captured,” Boris told Parliament on Thursday, jabbing his forefinger in the air as Tories cheered. “He has been jugulated! He has been reprogrammed by his honourable friends! He has been turned now into a Remainer!”
According to the latest YouGov poll, 25 per cent would vote Conservative, 19 per cent for Labour, 23 per cent for the pro-remain Liberal Democrats (led by a little-known young leader, Jo Swinson), 17 per cent for the Brexit Party (led by boorish populist Nigel Farage) and 9 per cent for the Green Party.
The Tories and the Brexit Party are natural partners. But would Labour finally declare itself a place for Remainers, allying with the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, the Greens? And who would lead such a coalition? It’s hard to imagine Mr. Corbyn as prime minister.
An enduring question about the present holder of that office is whether Boris plotted his path to “world king” of England or bumbled into it. Once, he remarked that it’s useful to convince people you are putting on a clown act, simply playing the fool. A smile curled his lips as he added, “Because the reality may be that you don’t know what’s going on. But people won’t be able to tell the difference.”
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