Argument

There’s Nothing Behind Boris Johnson’s Clown Mask

A brief survey of the likely future U.K. prime minister’s very long—and very thin—resume.

Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives at the Foreign Office on July 15, 2016 in London.
Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives at the Foreign Office on July 15, 2016 in London. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The results from last week’s European Parliament elections had not yet come in when U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said she would resign in speech last week. It was inevitable. Two days later, it was announced that her Conservative Party had picked up just 9 percent of the vote, placing it in a distant fifth and suffering its worst defeat since 1832. Now the search for her successor, someone who might be able bring the party back from the brink and finally deliver Brexit, is on. The list of possible replacements has grown by the day, but one candidate has continued to stand out: Boris Johnson.

Today, Britain’s bookmakers are betting on Johnson. He’s the person his party wants in a system where that’s all that matters. (Prime ministers are picked not by the public but by whoever holds the parliamentary majority.) That may be for the best. For the United Kingdom to be stable, the Tory party must be stable. This was far from the case with May, whose unpopularity with the public and past support for the Remain campaign in the 2016 referendum on whether Britain would leave the European Union made no-confidence votes, cabinet coups, and other crises common in her three years as prime minister. But Johnson is a true Brexiteer whose credentials and commitment are beyond dispute. Not only is he more trusted to drive a harder bargain with the EU, but he’s also more trusted to persuade his party to accept compromise.

In one sense, Johnson’s promotion would mark a natural culmination of a long and high-profile political career. The problem is that any close examination of that career reveals it has fundamentally been a Ponzi scheme—a pursuit of personal popularity by a man who has repeatedly proved incapable of channeling it to any use.

On the surface, Johnson’s resume suggests he’s the man for the job. The shaggy-haired member of parliament is a former foreign secretary and a former mayor of London who studied at the elite Eton boarding school and the University of Oxford, served as an editor at the Spectator, and paid his dues as a Conservative backbencher. His path to prominence is the most established on his side of the aisle. At the same time, he’s managed to win praise as a populist, pushing the Leave campaign past the finish line in 2016 and pushing for a hard Brexit ever since. He has the history and experience the Conservatives need.

He also has the excitement. Where the Tory party is boring, Johnson is not. Throughout his political career he has proved himself to be a talented showman, always placing himself in farcical situations—getting stuck on a zip line over a crowd, writing a lewd poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and accidentally flattening a young Japanese boy in a rugby match. Among his more famous declarations was the solemn campaign promise: “Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3.”

With that excitement comes popularity. Today Johnson boasts a 32 percent approval rating, not high by global standards, but high enough to make him the most popular politician in all of Britain. With their party on the decline, these are the credentials the Conservatives are looking for.

But Johnson arrives at his popularity despite the details of his professional record. In nearly two decades in office, he has achieved remarkably little. This is in part because he has always juggled a career in politics with a career in journalism, keeping a foot in both doors ever since he first became an MP in 2001. After his early years in Parliament, during which time he doubled as editor at the Spectator, Johnson became a columnist for the Telegraph, a position he still holds today. In addition to both gigs, he’s been busy publishing a wide range of books and essays on Rome, London, Winston Churchill, and himself.

These distractions have been reflected in his parliamentary attendance record. In his first term as an MP, Johnson showed up for just 52.1 percent of votes. In his second, that number dropped to 44.6 percent.

His distractions have also been clear in his uninspiring legislative record. While Johnson may earn plaudits for being an early Conservative convert to socially liberal causes, his time in Parliament has not shown much other initiative or direction. His votes have been par for the course for any Conservative: in favor of the Iraq War, in favor of cutting taxes, and in opposition to environmental regulation. Beyond that, little legislation has been attached to his name.

However, his eight years as mayor of London, an overwhelmingly liberal city which Johnson surprisingly won over, proved more promising. He earned wide and well-deserved acclaim for instituting the city’s bike-share program, the Santander Cycles, popularly known as “Boris Bikes,” which have topped 77 million journeys since their introduction. It was the sort of innovative program that ought to come from a politician as clever and colorful as he is—helping to address problems of pollution, congestion, and health at once. He was also praised for other investments and upgrades in public transportation, opening new tube lines and carving out dedicated bike lanes.

His signature “Boris Bus,” on the other hand, hasn’t fared as well, generally being criticized as a vanity project that was overly expensive and ill designed. After he returned to Parliament, the vanity projects and polarizing antics—his ploys for gaining popularity—became more pronounced. This was particularly the case during the Brexit campaign, and just this week it was announced that Johnson will be facing charges for making intentionally false claims.

The false claims were paired with foul claims. After Barack Obama made clear his opposition to Brexit in 2016, Johnson dismissed the U.S. president’s position as an “ancestral dislike of the British Empire” derived from being “part-Kenyan.” In the same year, and in the pitch of the Syrian civil war, he alternatively offered praise to the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. “Bravo—and keep going,” Johnson wrote.

The biggest rough patch in Johnson’s political career has come most recently. In his two troublesome years as foreign secretary, from 2016 to 2018, he did little more than stir trouble at home with his plots against the prime minister and stir trouble abroad with his frequent gaffes.

At every turn of the Brexit negotiations, Johnson took to the Telegraph to spell out his opposition to his boss, and he became the subject of countless rumors about a possible cabinet coup. His coup never materialized, but his damage did. Immediately after Theresa May unveiled her first Brexit deal, Johnson set the tone for Parliament’s response: a resignation in protest.

With his stint as foreign secretary, Johnson left behind the poorest indication yet that he could be the person to steer his country out of its current crisis. As Britain’s top diplomat, he produced a litany of undiplomatic episodes, one of the more notable being a satirical recital of a poem by Rudyard Kipling, the famous British imperialist and author of “The White Man’s Burden,” while visiting a Burmese temple. Worse than that, Johnson created real and lasting controversy for Britain, its allies, and its citizens. This was most clear with his regular interventions into Brexit, where his comments served to degrade what limited camaraderie existed between the U.K. and the EU in the early days of negotiations.

More disturbingly, Johnson attempted to intervene in the case of a British woman who had been detained and imprisoned in Iran on trumped-up charges of espionage. He protested the conviction of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe by saying she was “simply teaching people journalism”—a claim that was untrue and that has since been used by the Iranian regime to defend its actions. She is still in prison.

Over the years, gaffes and blunders have all become part of the act for Johnson. But in truth, it’s no act. At no point in his decades-long career in journalism and politics has he evidenced even a passing interest in detail. His first foray in the public eye proved as much. As a young writer for the Times, Johnson famously made up a quotation, attributed it to his godfather, and was subsequently sacked. Three decades later, as he is hauled to court for similar lies, it’s clear that not much has changed.

The next prime minister will have quite a bit on their plate. In addition to putting a fractured party back together, Theresa May’s successor will have to do what she could not: deliver Brexit. After that, they will have to hold off the party’s challengers—the rising Brexit Party and the resurging Liberal Democrats—when the next general election rolls around in 2022.

No matter the successor, the odds of success are long. As May learned and proved, her party and her Parliament have been too divided to “honor the referendum,” as politicians in the U.K. so frequently say, and get the country back on track. The people have been divided as well, and a general election in a few years’ time will likely show just how many divisions there now are as new parties such as Brexit and Change UK pop up, the old Liberal Democrat and Green parties pick up support, and the established Conservative and Labour parties fall behind.

For all that lies ahead, Boris Johnson does not seem up for the task. He may benefit from being the country’s most popular politician, but he is also among its most polarizing, with a 46 percent negative opinion rating. In addition, although he may not be as ideological as other Brexiteer backbenchers, this does not mean he’s any more pragmatic or any more likely to solve problems. Over the years, Johnson has proved himself to have a casual relationship with fact and detail. This should come as a major concern for a nation looking to leave a web of laws and regulations. Nevertheless, for now, the race remains Johnson’s for the taking.

Stephen Paduano is a journalist based in London, and an associate of the IDEAS Institute at the London School of Economics.

 Twitter: @StephenPaduano

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