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The Boaty McBoatface of British Politics

The Brexit fight is proving too big a stage for Boris Johnson’s brand of political performance art.

London Mayor Boris Johnson waves as he crosses Victoria Harbour on a Star Ferry during his visit in Hong Kong on October 18, 2013. Johnson is in the former British colony on the last leg of a trade mission to China from 13-18 October 2013 aimed at promoting London as a major investment destination.  AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez        (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
London Mayor Boris Johnson waves as he crosses Victoria Harbour on a Star Ferry during his visit in Hong Kong on October 18, 2013. Johnson is in the former British colony on the last leg of a trade mission to China from 13-18 October 2013 aimed at promoting London as a major investment destination. AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

In the Netherlands, where I live, a novelty-bicycle hire firm catering mainly to British tourists lends out 10-seater, pedal-driven charabancs to stag and hen parties. Despite having no discernible links to the now-former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, the “Boris bus company” sports a cartoon of the blond-mopped careerist as part of its corporate logo. Apart from Prime Minister David Cameron, Johnson is among the few British politicians – maybe the only one – with significant name and face recognition outside the U.K. “Boris” is box office. Women ask him to autograph their breasts with lipstick, and he obliges.

Britain’s upcoming referendum on EU membership will now give voters the chance to consider whether they wish to see Johnson’s signature scrawled across the ample bosom that is their country’s future.

Johnson outed himself as a Brexiteer shortly after Cameron called the referendum date in February; until then, the prime minister had hoped to keep him on board. But Johnson reckoned that coming out for Brexit would position him better in a future leadership poll than would falling in behind his leader. It’s true that in 2003, Johnson announced, “I am a bit of a fan of the European Union.” But Johnson’s career has, contrary to popular opinion, not been marked by an abandonment of principle; he has never had any to abandon.

Throughout his career, he has cultivated buffoonery as a personal brand. By this point, the Johnson chronicles — tales of the bumbling mayor’s various foibles — are well known. There is Boris as fabricator: As a Brussels-based journalist in the early 1990s, Johnson fed made-up stories about Eurocracy’s excesses — such as mythic EU directives about the shape of bananas — to his bosses at the Daily Telegraph. (This after he was sacked by the Times for fabricating a quote by his tutor and godfather Colin Lucas, later vice chancellor of Oxford University, about King Edward II’s sex life.)

There is Boris as philanderer: While at the Spectator, Johnson, by then on his second marriage, twice impregnated his mistress, Petronella Wyatt, who had an abortion at his insistence and then a miscarriage. Johnson denied the affair when stories about it emerged, describing them as “an inverted pyramid of piffle” — a lie for which he was sacked from the Conservative Party front bench. (This was before he fathered a child by another mistress, Helen Macintyre, and another affair, with the journalist Anna Fazackerley, which was largely pursued in taxis — a risky strategy, a friend noted, as “Boris doesn’t tip very much.”)

And then there is Boris as ruthless adversary: In 2006, Johnson flattened the German soccer player Maurizio Gaudino in a “friendly” match, with a headlong charge to butt him in the groin. Other sports field mishaps include tripping a small child in a soccer match and flooring a 10-year-old Japanese boy in a game of street rugby. It seems he can’t leave that competitive edge at home, even when playing against infants.

The character that is “Boris” caters to the British weakness for cheerful subversiveness — the same emotional streak that recently, in an online poll to the name a new Arctic research vessel, lead the public to settle on “Boaty McBoatface.” Boris is the Boaty McBoatface of British politics. And, until now, he has been received by the public with the same combination of incredulity and indulgent hilarity as that research boat. (The day after Boris was elected mayor, I overheard a Brit remark with a laugh, “Did he get in, then?” — as if the election was just a bit of performance art.)

But the jester’s mufti is starting to wear thin. Johnson’s record as mayor was modest, at best. He did oversee the 2012 London Olympics, in which his most memorable role was waving Union flags while stuck on a zip line. Much of the rest of Johnson’s reign was characterized by inaction — notably an utter failure to tackle the capital’s housing crisis — tempered only by publicity stunts. Even Johnson’s flagship policy, opposing a third runway at Heathrow Airport, has achieved no resolution; last year, it emerged that his own office had invested millions of public money in Heathrow. At the time of the Olympics, 36 percent of Londoners thought he would make a good prime minister. Now only 20 percent of them think so.

Nonetheless, it was a boost to the “Leave” campaign when, after rigorous interrogation of his principles, Boris discovered it aligned perfectly with his own political ambitions.

It’s not as if there has ever been a surfeit of charisma in the Leave camp, and it’s spread even more thinly by the fact that the campaign is split between two rival factions, and Grassroots Out. The only figurehead with much name recognition is Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party, who’s siding with Grassroots Out. Boris proved eager to enter the fray, but if his buffoonish style hasn’t changed, its impact has.

Johnson’s first big intervention as Brexiteer-in-chief came in late April, when U.S. President Barack Obama visited Britain to stiffen the sinews of the Remainers. Prior to Obama’s arrival, Johnson tried to discredit the president by pandering to the whackball “birther” lobby, a first in U.K. politics. He referred to Obama, not in an off-the-cuff remark, but in his column for the Sun newspaper, as “part-Kenyan,” insinuating that the U.S. president has anticolonialist reasons for disliking Britain — though what American president doesn’t? — but which sounded a note closer to dog-whistle racism. An article in the right-leaning Spectator, no particular friend of Remain, excoriated these remarks. The only effect was to dilute the country’s animosity to Obama’s warnings in London against Brexit — a protocol-breaching intervention in a foreign state’s politics.

It was Johnson’s biggest blooper in the Brexit debate to date, but certainly not his only one. Johnson was recently shredded by Andrew Tyrie, the Commons Treasury Select Committee chair, over claims he’d made about the EU, such as imaginary directives banning tea-bag recycling, regulating the dimensions of coffins, prohibiting children from inflating balloons, or curbing the suction power of vacuum cleaners. In March, he lauded Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for saving Palmyra, having previously made admiring noises about Vladimir Putin.

Britain has become accustomed to forgiving Johnson for his mere “gaffes” — acts that manifest crass insensitivity or simple incontinence, but which may, in the strange folkways of the British press, be treated as enhancing rather than damaging the gaffer’s image. But the public and press have started to treat his efforts on behalf of Brexit as outright mistakes.

Has Johnson finally lost his magic touch? It may be too early to say at this point, though one thing does seem clear: His endorsement doesn’t seem to count for much in the city he’s run for the last eight years. Johnson popped up in campaign ads for the Tory candidate to succeed him as London mayor, but his Labour opponent, Sadiq Khan, won the election handily.

But all of this could change if the Brexit vote goes his way on June 23. From Johnson’s viewpoint, the best outcome would be that Leave wins and, as would certainly then happen, Cameron resigns. Johnson could then step in as the champion of the aging Poujadist Brexiteers who now dominate the Conservative Party’s country membership (most senior cabinet members, including Theresa May and George Osborne, likely candidates in a leadership contest, back Remain). Even if Cameron narrowly wins, he may well be forced out by blowback from thwarted Brexiteers in Parliament. Here, again, Johnson may find himself holding the parcel when the music stops. He would probably face competition for the Brexiteer vote from Michael Gove, whose opposition to U.K. membership of the EU, unlike Johnson’s, is held on principle.

Even if Johnson got through to a Tory leadership runoff against Osborne or May, he still wouldn’t be a shoo-in. But suppose that the greasy pole does find itself under Johnson’s ample butt. If he’d gotten there despite a narrow Remain vote, he’d face clamor from Brexiteers to re-run the referendum, as has happened with the pro-Remain result of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. If it followed a vote for Leave, his premiership would be dominated by years of complex Brexit negotiations, with loud noises off from the Remainers, to say nothing of Scottish nationalists indignant about being bounced out of the EU by the English. And that’s just the foreseeable problems. His low boredom threshold, penchant for fantasy, and disdain for detail would augur ill for Johnson’s tenure. Above all, as with anyone whose lodestar is to get and keep power, a Johnson premiership would be unpredictable. As he’s already shown in the referendum campaign — a stalking-horse for his leadership ambitions — Johnson will say whatever it takes.

When Johnson was tapped as editor of the Spectator in 1999 — a post from which he was sacked only a few years later — a friend, Andrew Gimson, remarked on how ill-suited his pal was for the job. “It’s like entrusting a Ming vase to an ape,” he said. One can only hope now that the ape isn’t entrusted with running the whole china shop.

Photo credit: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Glen Newey is professor of practical philosophy at the University of Leiden. He is the author of several books including After Politics (2001) and Toleration in Political Conflict (2013). He blogs and reviews regularly for the London Review of Books.

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