Odds stacked against polarizing figure Johnson
For some, a Boris Johnson premiership has been a long-held dream. For others, this will be just the next nightmare to afflict British politics. He is a “Marmite” politician — people either adore or loathe him — but rarely do British voters not have a strong view.
Johnson is arguably the most visible and well-known politician of his generation. Not since Tony Blair has any politician of any party attracted such a celebrity status. Wherever he speaks, he attracts hordes of passionate supporters, in an almost cultish fashion.
This is why he is afforded the status of being known purely by his first name, “Boris.” Yet there is just one issue with this. Boris is not his first name — it is Alexander. This is still what his family members know him as. In fact, his parents gave him the middle name Boris after a Russian who had helped them while traveling overseas.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is not a man of the people, but someone born into privilege, having been sent to Eton College and then to Oxford. His wide network of contacts goes across all walks of life at the apex of British high society and political life. Not only is he a contemporary of former Prime Minister David Cameron, but he is actually his eighth cousin. He would himself admit he has had a charmed and very lucky life. He once wittily remarked that: “My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”
Entering Downing Street will be the fulfillment of what Johnson has for years seen as his destiny. He is deeply ambitious with a burning desire to succeed. This is why he never saw being mayor of London or foreign secretary as satisfactory.
So what sort of Prime Minister will he be?
Unpredictability is part of the Johnson package. Why? Friends argue that he is flexible and adaptable according to circumstances, able to change his mind if the situation changes. Opponents contend that he has no principles and is only interested in one thing — himself. For example, while Johnson first came into the public eye as the Daily Telegraph correspondent in Brussels, firing off coruscating tomes about the great European federalist plot, on other occasions he has shown considerable Europhilia. Back in 2001, Johnson backed the arch-Europhile Kenneth Clarke for leader of the Conservative Party against Euroskeptic rivals. At the start of the 2016 referendum campaign, whilst debating which side to support, he even wrote two competing articles arguing the case for either side. While he ultimately became the face of the “Leave” campaign, he was very nearly a “Remainer.” Although he is robust on the issue of Iran today, back in 2006 he wrote a newspaper column suggesting that the West gives Iran the nuclear bomb in return for the promise of good behavior.
Entering Downing Street will be the fulfillment of what Johnson has for years seen as his destiny.
Disorganization is another theme. Many debate just how cultivated this image is. His unkempt platinum blonde hair has frequently been ruffled even further prior to public appearances. His timekeeping is dire. He was even late for getting in his nomination papers to be a Member of Parliament. But he turns all of this into an asset, conjuring the image of the loveable rogue who others should and often do help out from his innumerable scrapes.
Yet, despite the image, he has a ruthless and ambitious drive. While he might appear unprepared, he has often done far more research than he lets on. A part of this drive is a fierce competitive nature. This is allied to a thin skin, as he does not take kindly to criticism and is too willing to bear a grudge.
His intelligence is undoubted, even if too often it is unfocused and distracted. He speaks several languages and enjoys sprinkling his speeches and articles with Latin terms and obscure English idioms.
What stands out is that, more than any other British politician in recent times, he has deployed humor and wit to further his ambitions. He makes people laugh and this is tremendously powerful. People might pull their hair out at his inability to master detail, but soon forgive him following an outbreak of delightful charm and bonhomie.
Johnson will be the polar opposite in character as prime minister to Theresa May. She had none of Johnson’s charisma. He has none of her micro-managing, detail-obsessed stubbornness.
Yet the greatest weakness of Johnson is his ability to go too far in the search for another headline, another one-liner. His inordinate quantity of gaffes includes racist, sexist and Islamophobic comments. He has riled European leaders with his approach, and this will make any attempts to renegotiate a withdrawal agreement that extra bit spicy. Johnson as London mayor did castigate Donald Trump but is now in full embrace mode when dealing with the American president. A former American citizen himself, born in New York, one can expect Johnson to be chasing that elusive free-trade deal with the US.
Johnson’s premiership will not allow boredom much of a chance in British politics. He will enjoy shaking things up. Yet, if he is stays in the post, a successful Brexit is vital. To do that, he may have to take drastic measures, including suspending Parliament. He will lead a bitterly divided minority government dependent on the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. He has 99 days to make a deal with the EU or the UK crashes out.
What is hard to see is how such a polarizing figure can unite the country, as opposed to further dividing it. While Johnson has rarely failed to surprise, the odds are truly stacked against him.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech