Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Some hours have thrown up war leaders who aren’t equipped to achieve much in peacetime – a Winston Churchill or a Jan Sobieski. Now the move to achieve Brexit, which has always been about posturing rather than reality, has thrown up Boris Johnson – who is fast discovering that there really is a difference between performance and reality.
We expected a show from Boris, and we are getting one, broadcast to all continents like some grotesque TV spectacular doubling as a cyanide capsule. This is not because he has made a policy decision to behave this way, but because it is all he can do.
BoJo thinks that by making as much noise as possible he can get away with anything. This is what he has done all his life, from the playing fields of Eton to the fantasy grandiloquence of the Foreign Office. But now he is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the real world is finally catching up with him.
All mouth and no trousers
Did BoJo really think that Brexit would go away if he prevented people from talking about it? He has a history of thinking whatever will get him the most attention, so he may not have any thoughts of his own about anything.
But he did know that threatening to shut down parliament to prevent debate, and continually threatening to leave the EU on October 31 even without a deal, were going to be controversial steps. He knew they would provoke opposition from his own side which he can’t afford to have, as he started with a majority of one, and even that has now vanished.
Boris doesn’t care, because controversy means more publicity – and the more publicity he has, the more people he reaches. His strategy is to lead his audience, which he thinks is the global public, in some sort of revolt against their elected representatives, their institutions and everyone who disagrees with him, because everyone prefers show business to politics.
This does work with the public – but as show business. Unlike Boris, most people don’t spend their whole lives in a fantasy bubble of perpetual performance, even if they want to. Nor did they elect Conservatives, of all people, to behave in such a way.
Brexit was always about people shaking their fists at all authority. Some still do so, with ever more circular arguments supporting that.
But increasingly the British public are coming down on the side of the politicians, the people they elected to address real problems. Even if they don’t like those politicians, and still want them to deliver Brexit, they see BoJo’s stunts for what they are.
The British public are notoriously unrevolutionary, as the history of the arts in the UK has repeatedly made clear. They are not going to blow up their institutions for the sake of Boris. Now the people have seen him in action, they have quickly gathered that the Promised Land of an eternal Boris show is not a place people can actually live in.
UK voters may still prefer show business to politics, but they are rapidly falling into the camp of another conservative, Clint Eastwood. Like his character Dirty Harry Callahan in Magnum Force, they end up reluctantly saying – “I fear you have misjudged me. I hate the goddam system, but until someone comes out with something better, I’m going to stick with it.”
This hasn’t happened because voters disagree with Boris’s attempts to get Brexit over the line, and thus get on with an austerity-busting domestic agenda. It is because Eastwood knew the difference between playing a part and being Mayor of Carmel, and Boris doesn’t.
Boris will never be in line with the people, let alone his own MPs, because they don’t think show business is everything, and they have the ability to act outside it. Kicking people out of his party for supporting its manifesto commitment – a “smooth and orderly exit” and a “deep and special relationship with the EU” is going too far, and threatening to get Brexit through by shutting down parliament and holding a snap election after Brexit day to stop a new PM preventing it are going too far, in the eyes of both his colleagues and the electors.
Boris was warned… but did not listen. Now he is on a collision course with everything and everybody, with an army, like Bonnie Prince Charlie’s, which sees no point in going on if everyday life gets in the way.
This just isn’t me
There is nothing wrong with bringing your own people into the Cabinet, as Boris did If you have a particular policy slant, you obviously want to be surrounded by people who agree with that, understand it and are committed to following it through.
But as Boris knows very well, for most of its members the UK Conservative Party is not a political choice but a state of being. They may argue about policies and approaches, but not about the soul of the party – their own individual souls, in effect.
MPs are leaving because they feel their party has lost its soul because of Brexit, or rather, Boris is now tearing it out. This may seem ironic, when Conservative governments have been associated with narrow economic doctrines (monetarism and austerity) for the last 40 years.
Theresa May’s characterisation of it as the “Narrow and Nasty Party”, meant to inspire her colleagues into pretending they were not that, has been adopted as a badge of courage which distinguishes that party from the others on offer. This is why attempts to portray old school hard left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as similarly narrow and nasty have backfired – if he isn’t Conservative, he can’t be as narrow and nasty, in the eyes of the public.
But these policies were tolerated because their supporters could still argue that they were reflections of the soul of the party, even though many members disagreed. Brexit is different. It is not a matter of more of this and less of that, but all or nothing.
Leaving the EU represents such a fundamental change that it is bound to spook conservatives, who feel their very existence is threatened by tolerating such radicalism. Those who support Brexit are still spooked by No Deal, as it is hardly conservative to just throw everything out and cast off into the unknown, hoping everything will be alright in spite of all the government’s own projections saying otherwise.
Boris has made it all or nothing by his confrontational approach. His opponents are convinced that they are the real Conservatives and he is not. If he had engaged with his colleagues and party members in political terms, he might have won enough arguments to build a strong enough base.
Instead he chose show business, and made that synonymous with any radical action. He should have expected that his parliamentary colleagues, and many of his own members, would prefer to stay in a political party, not a public defecation.
Take a bow and get off
Every show has an end. As we see with dramatic news stories, people can only process events for so long. So Boris is trying to make out that this is what will happen with Brexit: once it goes through, deal or no deal, the issue will go away and he can legislate about other things.
He knows however that this is nonsense. No Deal means ripping up all kinds of existing agreements and procedures and developing new ones over a period of time. This disruption will impact on many people’s lives, and simply because it is disruption it will make people long for the good old days when regulations allowed them to operate without difficulty, even if they hated those regulations.
A deal would be no better, because there would still be a transition period when new arrangements were put in place, and new areas of difficulty, not foreseen when the deal was done, will inevitably arise. In time these arrangements would bed down, but would they be considered worth the tariffs, the loss of trade and the loss of jobs?
No one voted for either No Deal or Deal. They voted to leave the EU, without having any idea what that meant. They were told contradictory things by Leave campaigners, all of which could not be true at the same time. The British people did not, and could not have, voted for any Brexit scenario which currently exists, nor for the reality of today, with a gridlocked parliament unable to agree on any potential way forward.
Whatever exit arrangements are made will only embolden those who don’t like them, which will be all Remainers and a significant number of Brexiteers, to continue fighting. Leaving the EU won’t end the problem, it will begin a new and more complex phase of it.
Staying in will put the issue on the back burner until either a deal can be agreed, or the public and parliament no longer want to leave. Boris reckons there will be violence in the streets if Brexit does not happen. It already hasn’t on the date the people were promised, but the protests against Brexit happening are consistently larger, though non-violent, than the ones demanding it
Doubtless Boris thinks his adoring public are like many of those former Soviet citizens who were happy to accept their economies and public services collapsing overnight as long as they could rid themselves of Soviet rule. He’s a Conservative. The fact that his party is in power, albeit in a minority government, shows that voters don’t really want to overthrow the whole system they have been brought up with. They often think to think they do, but the show has to come to an end sooner or later.
From Liverpool with love
While those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, those who do study it just watch other people repeating it. It is unlikely that Boris wants to be known as another Derek Hatton, but after one parliamentary vote and one Prime Minister’s Questions, that is whom he has chosen to most greatly resemble.
Derek Hatton was Deputy Leader, but effectively leader, of Liverpool City Council from 1983 to 1986. He was a highly ideological leftist, a member of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, whose members Labour later expelled.
Like Boris, Hatton gained a lot of media attention, and many of his ideas, such as improving housing conditions and creating jobs, were widely supported. What few cared about at the time was that these policies were designed to recruit Liverpudlians, against their will, into a class war Militant was pursuing through the council executive.
The Conservative national government, determined to curb local authority spending, forced local councils to set rates (local tax) within certain levels. Liverpool resisted this, presenting a budget which was illegally high, and in response gained an extra grant from the government to meet some of the spending commitments outlined therein. Hatton announced this from the council house roof via megaphone.
When the budgets for 1985/86 were due, Liverpool again insisted on setting a rate which was illegal, or not setting one at all, which was also illegal. They also insisted on acting against any council worker or voter who got in their way, under Hatton’s direction. Big campaign, big tough lefties, big noise, all to destroy the hated capitalist system which paid most Liverpudlians’ wages.
The outcome was deliberate financial ruin, surcharges on the councillors, a debt it took the city 15 years to repay (with interest) and the council sending redundancy notices to every council worker in a fleet of taxis. This was too much. Hatton and his mouth had gone too far, as no one had voted to destroy the city.
Hatton moved on into other areas of work, including some very dodgy capital ventures. He spent longer outside politics than in it. But his name remains a byword for radical posturing which brought nothing but harm, precisely because it was posturing.
For 30 years anyone who abuses public trust to make a noise has been accused of “doing a Derek Hatton”.
How long will it be before they are accused of “doing a Boris Johnson”? And even trying to do a Donald Trump!
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.