Argument

Boris Johnson’s Great Leap Forward

Britain’s conservatives were once known for sensible stewardship of the economy. Now, the Tory Maoists are blowing it up.

Britain's then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, and U.S. President Donald Trump arrive for a working dinner meeting at the NATO summit at the NATO headquarters, in Brussels, on May 25, 2017.
Britain's then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, and U.S. President Donald Trump arrive for a working dinner meeting at the NATO summit at the NATO headquarters, in Brussels, on May 25, 2017. (MATT DUNHAM/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — A month before he resigned as Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson spoke at what he thought was a private meeting of Conservative supporters. “Imagine Trump doing Brexit,” Johnson said, admiringly. “He’d go in bloody hard.”

Out of government, Johnson’s only hope of becoming prime minister is by positioning himself as the leading candidate of the Conservative right. He must be the politician who will somehow deliver the impossible Brexit he promised to gullible voters in the 2016 referendum, a Brexit that will allow the British to have their cake and eat it, too — enjoying the benefits of being in the European Union while leaving it.

Johnson, an old Etonian and child of privilege, is building an alliance of snobs and mobs. Like Donald Trump in 2015, he is an elite populist and nationalist leader-in-waiting. But Johnson is a strange kind of nationalist, who has ingratiated himself with local right-wing activists by praising a U.S. president who has made it tediously clear that his sole aim is to put America first.

As he prepared to fly to Britain, Trump returned the compliment. “Boris Johnson’s a friend of mine,” he said. “He’s been very, very nice to me, very supportive. And maybe I’ll speak to him when I get over there.” He even launched a broadside against Prime Minister Theresa May that was published just after she hosted him for dinner at Blenheim Palace on Thursday. “I think he would be a great prime minister,” Trump said of Johnson. “I think he’s got what it takes.”

Unfortunately, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt; it breeds acceptance. The transformation of the leader of the free world into the ally of the enemies of freedom no longer provokes the astonishment it deserves. In Britain, Trump’s interference in the Conservative government’s civil war was greeted with a shrug by the left and right alike. Too many take it for granted now that the United States, the bastion of the West, has more praise to offer Vladimir Putin’s Russia than Angela Merkel’s Germany or May’s Britain.

Internationalist nationalism is a contradiction in terms. Yet everywhere you look alliances that make no sense are flourishing on the right — between Trump and Johnson, between Putin and Marine Le Pen, and among Trump, Putin, and the German far-right.

British Conservatives ought to see that Trump’s threats to NATO make him a clear and present danger to national security. Since 2015, they have fought the opposition Labour Party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and said, rightly, that he and his aides from the post-Marxist left were soft on terrorism, Iran, and Chavista Venezuela and had campaigned against NATO. Yet now that Trump threatens NATO, those same Tories praise rather than denounce him and fail to see that in their admiration for dictatorships the alt-right and far-left are all but indistinguishable.

So much for the Conservative right’s claim to be the descendants of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. For Johnson and today’s Tory Maoists, as David Cameron once called them, national security is as unimportant an issue as the national prosperity they are throwing away by taking Britain out of the EU’s single market.

What they admire in Trump is not the content of his policies but his style: the mixture of unashamed lies and raging aggression and his willingness to “go in bloody hard.”

Once, that mixture was meant to be toxic in Western politics: The supposedly merciless media would expose the lies, and the rage would alienate voters. But Trump won, and everywhere the worst politicians dream that they can imitate his paranoid style and win, too.

“Vote Leave,” the official pro-Brexit campaign group, claimed to be the respectable face of British nationalism. It wanted nothing to do with the politicians who dabbled in racism — most notably Trump’s British comrade in arms, Nigel Farage.

When he was still London mayor in 2015, Johnson said Trump was “clearly out of his mind” when he stated, with deliberate mendacity, that some parts of London were radicalized to the point that the police were “afraid for their own lives.”

But that was then, and this is now. Johnson is no longer mayor of London with a liberal, metropolitan electorate. To win the Brexit referendum and sustain his ambitions thereafter, he had to inflame the provinces against the very metropolis where he had built his political profile. No one can understand the full resonance of the word “charlatan” until they have studied Johnson’s career.

True to form, Johnson and the Tory right decided they had to imitate Trump and Farage if they were to win. They triumphed in 2016 by successfully selling three straight lies. First, that Brexit would provide 350 million pounds ($460 million) per week for the country’s National Health Service. Second, that Turkey would soon be joining the EU and would flood Britain with millions of Muslim migrants. Third, and most significantly, that Brexit would be painless. The negotiations to leave the EU would be among the “easiest in history,” the leaders of the Brexit movement assured their followers in true Trumpian style.

Mix these falsehoods and the accompanying wishful thinking together and you have a poisonous combination. Far from making Britain poorer, taking back control by securing its borders would make Britain and its beloved National Health Service richer. Securing this nirvana would be the easiest thing in the world.

Rather than admit to misleading the public — and in all probability themselves — they are preparing for a Weimar solution. Just as the German militarists could not admit that they had led their country to disaster in World War I, and blamed the democratic politicians of the Weimar Republic for stabbing Germany in the back, so too is the British right preparing to raise the charge of treason.

Both Johnson and David Davis, the minister who was responsible for overseeing Brexit, initially agreed to support May’s messy attempt to square the promises the Brexit campaign had made to the realities of Britain’s position as a part of an integrated European economy. But, like all true ideologues, they lacked the courage to compromise. Davis resigned first, then Johnson, and then two junior ministers.

They did so because there is no majority in Parliament for crashing out of the EU without a deal to protect the 47 percent of British trade that goes to and from the continent and to preserve the landmark Irish peace agreement of 1998. The Tory Maoists must therefore take their case to the country. Their only conceivable strategy is to say that the elite has stabbed the sovereign people in the back.

The right-wing press has already been test-marketing Weimar politics. When British judges did their duty and heard a case from claimants asking for Parliament (the very Parliament Brexit supporters said they wanted to be sovereign) to be given the power to approve withdrawal from the EU, they were condemned across the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people.”

Members of that Parliament — who obeyed the strictures of Edmund Burke, the philosopher that members of the Conservative Party once admired, and followed their conscience — were denounced as “mutineers.” Only this week, the supposedly serious Daily Telegraph suggested that May could be guilty of treason.

Farage is already building the stab-in-the-back myth. He is promising to return to politics to stop the betrayal of Brexit. “The government’s sellout leaves me with no choice. The latest Brexit betrayal must be reversed,” said Farage, who is found as often in Trump’s America as the Britain he claims to love. “I never wanted a career in politics,” he continued with a modesty he expected his audience to applaud. “I only ever wanted to stop the country I love being sucked further into a political and economic union, which is most unnatural to the instincts of the majority of my fellow citizens.”

Trump had his own stab-in-the-back myth ready in case he was defeated in 2016 — the claim that the election was fraudulent. Doubtless, he is already working on a new one in case he loses in 2020.

But for once, the British right is ahead of the American right. It is blaming the mess it made on others and crying treason when its undeliverable demands cannot be delivered. In short, it is now out-Trumping Trump and preparing to make the divisions in the country unbridgeable.

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the London Observer and the author of “What’s Left?: How the Left Lost Its Way.” @NickCohen4

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