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The Trumpy Tory: Spirit of Boris Johnson lives on in Brexit-era Britain

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

The Trumpy Tory: Spirit of Boris Johnson lives on in Brexit-era Britain

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions at the Houses of Parliament in July 2022.

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions at the Houses of Parliament in July 2022. | Photo Credit: AP Photo / Matt Dunham

The windy-haired Johnson is gone for now but his spirit of callous incompetence is very much alive.

They emerged on that fateful morning of June 24, 2016, to face the press gaunt-faced and shell-shocked. Boris Johnson and his partner in crime, Michael Gove. Two men whose relationship resembles something from a Jacobean tragedy with sudden betrayals and back-stabs followed by reconciliation and hastily buried rancour. They had just won the Brexit referendum securing Britain’s departure from the European Union and changing British politics for the foreseeable future. But they more resembled men who had successfully broken into the Bank of England only to find the vaults occupied by a single lump of coal.

Boris Johnson with Michael Gove.
Boris Johnson with Michael Gove. | Photo Credit: OLI SCARFF / AFP

It’s a widely held belief that the reason Johnson and his erstwhile compadre Gove looked so mortified that morning of what was by any reckoning a stunning political achievement (in arguably all the wrong ways) was that neither of them even in their wildest dreams ever actually expected to win. But win they did, with Johnson probably the main factor in that narrowest of victories for the Leave campaign, which I am sure I am not alone in predicting Johnson will be forever associated with. Brexit owes him an enormous debt. A debt he called in when he used it to win his famous landslide General Election victory in 2019, his Trumpian mastery of the hypnotic three-word mantra (“Get Brexit Done” in this case) now complete.

Smirking insouciance

The suspicion lingers strongly though that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson took his time weighing up which side of the campaign would suit his personal political ambitions more, as both Conservative Party campaign trams were understandably very keen to have him. He famously kept ready two contradictory newspaper columns earlier in the referendum process when journalists endlessly speculated which side he would join.

David Cameron, the prime minister who will possibly go down in history as one of the great bunglers of all time, was said to be furious when Johnson eventually opted for Leave in the perilous public school parlour game that UK’s politics had by then sunk into and arguably hasn’t emerged from since.

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron will possibly go down in history as one of the great bunglers of all time.
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron will possibly go down in history as one of the great bunglers of all time. | Photo Credit: JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP

Furious because everyone knows what an asset Johnson can be to a Conservative Party that often struggles with imaging, being as it is so firmly rooted in establishment politics and the preservation of ‘traditional’ values. Famously known as the “Heineken Tory” after the once ubiquitous lager advertisement (“refreshes the parts other beers can’t reach”), Johnson was imbued with the aura of being able to win over swathes of the population who’d usually run a mile from a Tory politician.

He managed to win two terms as Mayor of London, a city viewed as an anti-Tory stronghold — though personally I think that’s exaggerated, last year’s election seeing a far less ebullient Tory candidate, Shaun Bailey, run the sitting Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan surprisingly close. But his tenure as Mayor is also evidence of his expedient political chameleonism. As London Mayor he was the funky multi-cultural Tory who delighted in photo-ops with ethnically diverse market-traders in Peckham and whose dodgy dad-dancing to the Spice Girls at the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony seemed to sum up that golden “post-racial” occasion. He used to extol the virtues of immigration in those days. Now he signs off on policies like the one to fly asylum-seekers to Rwanda — a policy as cruel as it is unworkable.

““Enthusiasm” is what Boris Johnson is all about. Enthusiasm for power. Enthusiasm for himself.”

And many fell for his combination of Bertie Wooster bonhomie, smirking insouciance, and windy-haired waggishness. He managed the Tory trick of earning instant first-name recognition. Plain “Boris”, just as Churchill was “Winnie”, and Thatcher was “Maggie”. The kind of easy familiarity no Labour or other opposition party leader has ever managed, and which successfully capes for all manner of callous incompetence by somehow blindsiding the electorate into thinking this person in ultimate charge is part of the furniture — or even family.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The British-Iranian aid-worker and journalist ended up imprisoned in Iran for six years as a result of one of Johnson’s infamous “gaffes” while serving as Foreign Secretary in his predecessor Theresa May’s administration.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The British-Iranian aid-worker and journalist ended up imprisoned in Iran for six years as a result of one of Johnson’s infamous “gaffes” while serving as Foreign Secretary in his predecessor Theresa May’s administration.

Because, make no mistake, Johnson is as callous and incompetent as they come. He famously colluded to have a journalist beaten up while his many lies and cronyisms (including, allegedly, fixing favours in public office at tax-payers’ expense for women he was having sexual relationships with) continue to surface with a regularity that is nothing short of astonishing. While serving in the crucial role of Foreign Secretary in his predecessor Theresa May’s administration, the journalist Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe ended up imprisoned in Iran for six years as a result of one of Johnson’s infamous “gaffes” — “gaffes” that we’re often persuaded by his team are all part of the “Boris Factor” but that have very real consequences in the real world, which U.K. politics seems to have gleefully abandoned in recent years.

Casual racism

Then there’s his seemingly endless casual racism. His quips about the “watermelon smiles” of Africans, “flag-waving piccaninnies”, the “AIDS ridden choristers” of Uganda, refers to Muslim women in burqas as “letterboxes” — remarks he casually brushes away when challenged on and even manages to look offended that people are unreasonable enough to bring them up. He quoted Kipling — a writer who famously despised East and South-East Asians — in a temple in Myanmar and joked about sex tourism in Thailand during a speech about… you’ve guessed it, Brexit. As unapologetic about colonialism as it’s possible to get, maintaining that “the problem is not that we were in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore”.

This was the man who legendarily stood in front of a bus on the Brexit campaign emblazoned with a slogan unequivocally promising £350 million a week for the national health service upon leaving the EU. A broken promise he now of course blusters away with his trademark browbeating “positivity”. The “positivity” that was the central theme of his excruciating 2019 election campaign where he would lead his team in the kind of call-and-response routines we might normally reserve for kindergartens. To his “We want to Get Brexit Done. What Do We Want To Do?” “Get Brexit Done”, his campaign supporting MPs would chorus back obediently but slightly embarrassedly, perhaps at the way he was reducing a Conservative Party that at least had a reputation for chilling efficiency into an awkward collective of middle-management motivation workshop participants.

Boris Johnson in Manchester during the General Election campaigns of 2019.
Boris Johnson in Manchester during the General Election campaigns of 2019. | Photo Credit: Frank Augstein

We can laugh, of course, but it won him the day, alongside a whacking great majority with parts of the country that had never voted Tory in generations seemingly falling for the Heineken Tory cheerleader’s mendacious Midas touch. The Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole extended Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil” thesis into the “banality of sentimentality” — the world being “nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm”.

And “enthusiasm” is what Boris Johnson is all about. Enthusiasm for power. Enthusiasm for himself. He promised big. Pie in the sky, elephant on the moon big. After the “£350 million for the NHS” came the “levelling up” agenda so evidently appealing to Northern voters so long neglected by cynical Tory (and Labour, in fairness) regimes fixated on what former Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond used to refer to as the “yuppie vote in the South”. Johnson promised those voters castles in the sky — can anyone actually remember how many hospitals he pledged to build them?

Gargantuan promises

The 45th US President didn’t bestow the mantle “Britain Trump” on him for nothing. Johnson has the same tenuous relationship with truth as his similarly omelette-coiffed American counterpart and his administration was marked with comparable chaos. His supporters often liked to insist he got the “big calls” right, in particular citing his handling of the unique pandemic challenge, but Britain’s humongous death rate and his characteristic flippancy at the beginning, extending to jokes about handshaking and failure to attend emergency meetings as well as secure adequate PPE equipment for embattled NHS staff arguably bely this.

Boris Johnson with then US President Donald Trump (left) in 2019. The latter didn’t bestow the mantle “Britain Trump” on Johnson for nothing.
Boris Johnson with then US President Donald Trump (left) in 2019. The latter didn’t bestow the mantle “Britain Trump” on Johnson for nothing. | Photo Credit: AFP / PETER NICHOLLS

Even to those of us who predicted it, the accumulation of scandal that has brought him down (for now) is mercurial: even the proroguing of Parliament (deemed illegal by the supreme court), in the interests of a Brexit deal worse than the one he resigned from Theresa May’s cabinet over and which he had promised (anyone sensing a theme?) was “oven-ready” that he was again prepared to break international law to change, now seems halcyon in comparison to the “partygate” ignominy, when 10 Downing Street appeared to become the only functioning beverage bar in a country where people weren’t allowed to say goodbye to their loved ones in hospital, along with the final straw of the groping party whip about whose sexual assault indiscretions Johnson had to backtrack sharply after initially claiming ignorance. And the biggest scandal of all may yet come to proper attention in the shape of his apparent clandestine meeting, at the height of the Skripal poisoning crisis, with a former KGB officer whose newspaper-owning son Johnson recently elevated to peerage.

Even his own ministers revolted at having to change the party line on the whims of someone who, in the words of Sara Gran, wouldn’t know the truth if it bit him in the ass and paid for the privilege.

And now we have yet another Tory leadership contest for yet another suddenly vacant prime minister’s job. A leadership contest again governed by the politics of Brexit that Johnson fought and won on an audacious poker bluff with its tall stories, gargantuan promises, relentless anti-immigration rhetoric, and fevered nationalism.

Is this the actual end though? The U.K. media is in constant thrall to the perennial pulsating drama of his turbulent win-at-all-costs political roller-coaster ride. I’m certainly not ruling out a comeback.

Daniel York Loh, London-based writer, actor, and film-maker, is one of 21 “writers of colour” featured in the best-selling essay collection The Good Immigrant.  He is Associate Artistic Director of Chinese Arts Now and current chair of trade union Equity’s Race Equality Committee.