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Boris Johnson: gaffeur, entertainer, Brexiteer, Premier

The rise of Johnson, U.K.’s 20th Etonian PM, marks not just the ‘celebrification’ of politics, but also its poisonous triviality

Give it a few years, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons, and Britain will be “the greatest place on earth”. The new Conservative leader, overwhelmingly elected by party activists, is the consummate confidence man. With a patter that makes the British media swoon, Mr. Johnson promises that he will deliver Brexit by October 31. Britain, of whose colonial past he is a bombastic champion, will be on top again.

Yet, everyone knows, including the backbenchers roaring and hawing with delight at his every word, that he can’t deliver. There is no time for him to reach a new deal with the European Union (EU), even if it offers a new deal. The current Parliament will not pass the deal that is on offer. And if Mr. Johnson tries to leave without a deal, he will split his party and probably bring down his government.

There has been much frantic discussion in the British press about Mr. Johnson’s appointed Cabinet members and advisers, stuffed full of Brexiteers and gurus from the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign. Yet, he doesn’t get his way merely by surrounding himself with right-wing ideologues. To get the parliamentary numbers he needs to deliver Brexit, he would have to call a snap general election. And he spent much of his leadership campaign assuring fellow Tory MPs that they wouldn’t have to face an election. Why? Because, since June 2017, it has been clear that Jeremy Corbyn could win a general election. Because, since the European elections, the new hard-right Brexit Party has almost cut the Conservative vote in half. The first poll since Mr. Johnson took the leadership put the Conservatives on 25% of the vote, exactly what it was before. If a new leader was supposed to result in a polling ‘bounce’ for the Tories, this must be very disappointing.

Farage offers a ‘deal’

There is only one circumstance in which Mr. Johnson could risk an election. The leader of the Brexit Party, rightist enragé and former City trader Nigel Farage, has offered Mr. Johnson a “sensible deal”. If he called an election before October 31 on the promise of quitting the EU on a ‘no deal’ basis, Mr. Farage might just stand down his Brexit Party candidates. But by cutting such a deal right now, Mr. Johnson would empower and legitimise a competitor, someone who has done enormous damage to the Conservative Party. Even if his colleagues were to permit such a deal, which is unlikely, he would be weakening his own position, confirming his party’s terminal descent, and risking Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street.

The most likely scenario is that Mr. Johnson will seek yet another Brexit delay to negotiate the terms of a new deal. And yet the only deal he could possibly get would be unacceptable to much of his party. He would need to build cross-party support, which would mean having discussions with Mr. Corbyn. That, he cannot do: one of the breaking points of Theresam May’s reign was when she entered into formal talks with Mr. Corbyn, a man whom she and many of her colleagues bait as a ‘traitor’ to the country. Mr. Johnson, among the first to condemn her for it, would be hoist by his own petard if he risked such negotiations.

So what, then, is the point of Mr. Johnson’s charade? Why did Conservative MPs overwhelmingly choose him as the best leadership candidate? Why did party activists trust him? Why did the Conservative press, from the pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph to the pro-Europe Evening Standard, back him? Why are right-wing tabloids so delirious about their new leader? The short answer is that after two years of disarray, defeats and demoralisation, Mr. Johnson offers that seductive opiate: optimism.

Lacking answers to the constitutional crisis, underlying crisis of legitimacy for the political system, and stalemated economy, and well out of options, the Right is hankering for the ‘hope-ium’. As the Daily Mail’s front page beseeched, referencing a famous song by the old British comedy duo Morecambe and Wise, “Bring Us Sunshine”.

Such a bathetic plea, just over a couple of years after the same paper hopefully exhorted Prime Minister May to “Crush The Saboteurs”, shows how deep the depression goes. Indeed, Brexit was itself partly a placebo answer to a long-brewing melancholia on the British Right over the loss of empire: chauvinist self-assertion as national therapy.

Mr. Johnson is the right person to benefit from this because, like Donald Trump, he is a product of the entertainment industry. It is through his self-clowning appearances on the satirical show, ‘Have I Got News For You’, that he invented his public persona as a harmless gaffeur, stumbling through political life. That persona shrouded his politics in ambiguity. It won him the matey, gently mocking affection of correspondents, who uniformly call him ‘Boris’. It enabled him to become London Mayor twice, despite achieving staggeringly little, and wasting money on vanity projects like water cannons. It saw him through scandals that might have crushed other politicians.

Erring and apologising

In his political columns, written for the Thatcherite faithful, he is a provocateur, who refers to black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, equates Papua New Guineans with cannibals, refers to gay men as “tank-topped bum boys”, and suggests that the colonial powers should reconquer their former empires. If ever caught out in one of these statements, he plays up the clowning, knowingly adding one more entry to his “global itinerary of apology”.

His stint as Foreign Secretary was less kind to him. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office being a residue of the empire, Mr. Johnson felt compelled to remind people of the fact. On a trip to Myanmar, for example, he thoughtlessly recited Rudyard Kipling’s pro-colonial poem, ‘The Road to Mandalay’. Many Britons, particularly older conservatives, would have enjoyed Mr. Johnson’s display of chauvinism. More seriously, his laziness and refusal to understand his brief scuppered negotiations with Iran over the release of a detained British journalist, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. She is still in prison.

Yet these scandals didn’t hinder his progress. Why? Because, like Mr. Trump, he made his base feel good. He was entertaining copy for editors, producers and his social media following. And in a leadership election in which no one had any answers, Mr. Johnson at least had star power.

In part, this is an old story about the Eton-educated rich dominating politics. Mr. Johnson is the 20th Etonian Prime Minister. Legend has it that W.H. Auden, when told by his schoolmaster that only the ‘cream’ attended his school, replied: “yes, I know what you mean: thick and rich”. The preparation of the thick and rich for rule has been the vocation of the U.K.’s public schools for centuries. Yet, Mr. Johnson also embodies, not just the ‘celebrification’ of politics, but also its relentless and poisonous triviality. It is noticeable that new right-wing tendencies are thriving in cultures of flippancy, contrarianism and online irony.

The pervasive lack of seriousness in Britain’s political culture, which has internalised the values of mass entertainment, has enabled the new celebrity-politician to evade consistency and accountability, and revive discredited ideologies.

To what effect? In this case, the main result of Mr. Johnson’s ascent is to store up yet another meltdown at the top of government, and a bitter backlash among the base. This may be a terminal crisis for the Conservative Party. And it is not likely to end well for the country either.

Richard Seymour is a London-based writer, a founding editor of 'Salvage' magazine, and author of the book 'The Twittering Machine'

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 9:12:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/boris-johnson-gaffeur-entertainer-brexiteer-premier/article28725727.ece

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