In all probability, the next prime minister of Great Britain will be Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party. Americans, like Conservative Party members, might think that Johnson’s charisma, un-PC irreverence, and firm pro-Brexit stance will make him the kind of energetic, straight-talking, patriotic leader that Britain needs. There is no reason to be optimistic.
As with President Trump, criticism of Johnson tends to focus on his private life, and, more specifically, his string of affairs. In fairness, one must admit that a disgraceful private life need not make for a disgraceful public life. Benjamin Franklin might have made the most of his status as a ladies man but his face still adorns the hundred dollar bill.
To say that Boris Johnson is no Benjamin Franklin is like saying that Adrien Broner is no Floyd Mayweather, Jr. Johnson’s public life, as a journalist and as a politician, has been marked by misbehavior, incompetence, and egoism.
Boris Johnson was a child of privilege. He rose up through Eton and Oxford to become a journalist for the Times. He was promptly sacked after fabricating a quote from his own godfather, the academic historian Sir Colin Lucas. Never mind. Johnson soon landed a job with The Telegraph, where his reports from Brussels on the EU’s bureaucratic lunacies stoked anti-EU feeling among conservatives, despite his often cheerfully indifferent stance towards the truth.
Johnson, thanks in no small part to his barn-burning bumbling on the British panel show Have I Got News for You, soon rose to the status of major public figure, becoming first editor of the esteemed Spectator magazine and then a member of Parliament. His good-naturedly chaotic manner was appealing, but anyone who knows the man will tell you that it is the bright facetious facade that shields a calculating and dishonest political animal.
Johnson flip-flops between positions in accordance with their usefulness to him. There is nothing wrong with changing one’s mind. There is something wrong with changing one’s mind without some sort of intellectual accountability. Johnson supported the war in Iraq to the point that he saluted George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign on the grounds that he had “liberated Iraq.” Later, he would criticize Prime Minister Tony Blair for having “dragooned” Britain into the Iraq war without, so far as I know, any kind of substantive reflections on his own enthusiastic participation.
Johnson is also a curiously unreliable advocate for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Granted, I have not been a supporter of Brexit myself, but I think its proponents should bear these strange facts in mind. Johnson drafted two articles before the Brexit campaign, one in support and one in opposition, and flip-flopped on which he decided to submit. Fair enough: a hard decision deserves careful thought. But if Johnson is so cognizant of the undeniably bloated and unstable state of the European Union, why has he long advocated Turkish accession?
This politically and culturally radical step is not liable to be taken soon by the EU. But in a documentary produced in 2006, Boris “Mr Brexit” Johnson was dismissing opponents of Turkish accession as fearful reactionaries who, as he sniffily put it, think that Europe is “coterminous with Christendom.” Again, I have no knowledge of Johnson retracting these remarks.
Leftists are paranoid to think that Johnson is some kind of dark bigoted nationalist. As a young progressive, I joined the chorus of lamentation when he became mayor of London. We thought that he was a racist, a homophobe, and every other kind of “ist” and “obe” one can imagine. In truth, he was as pleased to celebrate diversity as any other British official. This remains the case. One of his first acts as Britain’s foreign secretary was to lift a ban on flying rainbow flags at British embassies, and he has welcomed Brexit as being, among other things, a chance to welcome more non-EU migrants into Britain. He is a liberal, as a supportive Times leader has said.
Now, from the political right, I see Johnson’s flashes of un-PC provocation as useless rabble-rousing. Take his comparison of women in burqas to letterboxes. This riled up hysterical British progressives, to the point that his comments were reported to the police. Yet these mild insults, which rallied British conservatives in defense, came in the context of an article defending Muslim women’s right to wear the burqa. His liberalism is flavored with enough scandalous spice to make his further right supporters think that he is one of them, but it is all rhetorical and without substance.
While Johnson is calculating when it comes to his affairs, he is far sloppier when it comes to other people’s. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian women, was arrested in Iran on charges of training dissident journalists. Zaghari-Ratcliffe denied the charges, claiming to have been in Iran on holiday, but when Johnson, as foreign secretary, opened his mouth to speak on her behalf, he said she had been “simply teaching people journalism.” One can see how his mind worked. What is wrong with teaching journalism anyway? But for Zaghari-Ratcliffe the difference between doing it and not doing it is a significant one, and she is still in jail today.
Britain is unlikely to implode when Boris Johnson becomes prime minister. He was not a good Mayor of London, with his time in power being marked by foolish appointments and attention-grabbing but ill-considered policies, but nor was he the failure that he could have been (knife crime, for example, has risen since he left). One does not hang around in politics for as long as he has without having some intelligence. Yet the sunny hopes conservatives have for him are ludicrous. He will not “unite” the country in anything but gloom, given that pro-EU voters will always hate him for his role in the Brexit campaign and anti-EU voters will turn on him in considerable numbers when he cannot mask his watery liberal instincts.
It is terribly improbable—though not, I grant, impossible—that he will get a better deal out of the EU than his predecessor, as his blustering comic charm is unlikely to work its magic on cold-blooded EU bureaucrats. He is very likely to spend far more time on photo-ops, windy speeches and preposterous symbolic gestures—like the “royal yacht” he wanted to build post-Brexit—than on addressing Britain’s deep political and cultural ills.
This might be effective in good times, when the most one hopes from politicians is often nothing. Britain is not facing good times, however, but a tumultuous exit from the European Union, a terribly polarized electorate, a looming social care crisis, fantastic housing shortages, and a rise in violent crime. The famous Boris charm might work its magic on impatient newspaper editors but it is unlikely to have much sway with people who are struggling to find homes, take a walk without being witness to a stabbing, or extricate a loved from an Iranian jail.
Johnson is often described as being “Wodehousian” for his Bertie Woosteresque bluster. It is all an act, as I have said, but that is not the main problem. Politicians are advertisers, after all. The problem is not that he pretends to be Bertie Wooster, it is that he has none of the quiet, selfless, and insightful qualities of Jeeves.
Ben Sixsmith is a British writer living in Poland who has written for Quillette, the Spectator USA, the Catholic Herald, Public Discourse, and Unherd.