Brexit Births Boris
Our top reads on Boris Johnson's unlikely route to 10 Downing Street.
On Tuesday, July 23, roughly 160,000 people—97 percent of them white, 70 percent male, and the majority over 55—will choose the next prime minister of the United Kingdom. Barring a shock result in a contest that allows only dues-paying party members to vote, the victor of the two-man Conservative Party leadership contest and with it the prime minister’s office will be Boris Johnson, a shambolic blond populist with a complicated love life and a proclivity for racist comments.
Johnson rose to fame first as a journalist and media personality, then as mayor of London, and finally as a late but ardent supporter of the Leave campaign for Brexit. Johnson claims he can achieve a better deal to leave the European Union than the one his predecessor Theresa May negotiated with Brussels: His deadline to do so is Oct. 31. Johnson’s stated willingness to accept a no-deal Brexit that would leave Britain crashing out of global trade networks has already caused several prominent Conservatives, from Philip Hammond to Rory Stewart, to announce they would not take up posts in his administration.
Foreign Policy has been following Johnson’s career for several years; here’s a selection of our best coverage:
This isn’t Johnson’s first shot at being PM: After the Brexit referendum in 2016, he was initially the favorite to succeed then-Prime Minister David Cameron. But his supposed ally Michael Gove threw his hat into the race, frustrating Johnson and resulting in a victory for May—albeit perhaps one she regrets today. As the political analyst Alex Massie pointed out back in 2016, “when push comes to shove, no political party has cornered the market in ruthlessness as the Tories have done for the last 150 years. The party exists to be in power and will sacrifice any individual in pursuit of that greater cause.”
That might have been the case three years ago, but today the Conservatives are burning down their own legacy by going all in on Johnson and giving up a reputation of sober governance, argued the British writer Nick Cohen a year ago, suggesting that, “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.” Trump’s success presaged Johnson, Cohen wrote, “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.”
British politics has been thrown into continual chaos in the era of Brexit, with the political newcomers of erstwhile UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party chipping away at the Conservative vote, while the Liberal Democrats—the only full-throated Remain party—soar to new heights.
Polls have had the Conservatives dropping to third or even fourth place on some occasions, but some of the Tory leadership hopes that Johnson will be the man to win back hardcore Brexiteers. That’s unlikely, argued the London-based writer Owen Matthews last month—because Johnson’s selfishness and destructive impulses are more likely to bring the party down for good: “With a national vote now divided four ways, the Conservatives may face the same kind of electoral Armageddon as the Canadian Conservatives, which were wiped out in 1993 after nearly a century in the political mainstream.” Johnson’s adventurism—usually scorned by cautious Tories—is only going to make that more likely.
That reckless impulse comes out of Johnson’s Etonian schooldays, literary expert Henry Hitchings wrote earlier this month: “Yet ‘boys will be boys’ is Johnson’s approach not just to life, but also to politics—one that treats statecraft as a series of naughty exploits.” Everything around Johnson’s rhetoric is designed to suggest a rogue, a chancer—a rejection of adulthood and convention. “When Johnson lets rip with a ‘Crikey,’ it’s a riposte to the killjoys, the equivalent of saying, ‘Can’t you take a joke?’ The answer, of course, depends on what the joke’s about and whether it’s funny.”
Sure, Johnson’s supporters say, he might seem like a clown, but there’s depth underneath. Not so fast, the journalist Stephen Paduano wrote in May. Indeed, every time Johnson has been given a chance to show his supposed talents, he’s screwed up. “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,” Paduano wrote, pointing at blunders that alienated allies and helped keep a British citizen imprisoned in Iran. That’s a record that goes back to his pre-politics days: “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.”
With May out of the picture, Johnson was just one of a bevy of Brexit-backing men competing for the prize, according to the writer Sarah Donilon—men who had no idea (or simply didn’t bother to consider) the grave consequences of Brexit for women, she wrote last month. The EU’s protections for women will supposedly be transferred into British law, but, “Without European courts and standards, it is not hard to imagine the next government of Brexiteers, in their zeal to cut red tape, trimming protections for women through deregulation.” Johnson, who often plays fast and loose with claims about the National Health Service, certainly seems to be in that camp.
ferocious quarrel with his girlfriend caused alarm last month, while he is on record as having at least one, and perhaps two, children born of affairs during previous marriages. None of this has ultimately turned Conservative voters off—and perhaps even the British electorate will stick with him. After all, as the professor Glen Newey predicted back in May 2016, Johnson is more performance artist than politician; people support him for the same reasons they picked “Boaty McBoatface” as a name for a British vessel—because it seems like a laugh.Of course, Johnson’s problems with women don’t end there. A
That might not seem so funny now. As Newey wrote, “His low boredom threshold, penchant for fantasy, and disdain for detail would augur ill for Johnson’s tenure.” A friend of Newey’s once compared his editorship of the august Conservative magazine the Spectator to “entrusting a Ming vase to an ape.”
As prime minister of Britain at the most critical time in decades, Johnson will have an opportunity to smash a lot more things up by accident.