Notes from the Margins | Hollow Man: Boris Johnson’s delusions of grandeur won’t survive reality

It now seems almost certain that the Tory Party will make Boris Johnson the next UK Prime Minister. Narcissistic, opportunistic, incompetent, shallow, devoid of loyalty or decency, he has wanted the Big Job for a long time, and has said and done everything to get it.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, June 18, 2019 19:38 - 0 Comments

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It can safely be said that the last three years have not been fruitful ones in the history of the United Kingdom. Politically speaking, the 2016 referendum has opened a political hellmouth straight out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which a seemingly endless procession of charlatans, mediocrities and outright monstrosities haunts the polis with messages that are alternatively idiotic, jingoistic, dishonest, preposterous, or downright sinister. Mark Francois, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey, Dominic Raab, Andrea Jenkins, Jacob Rees-Mogg — all these demons parade through our TV screens, proposing deals that cannot be implemented, promising futures that cannot be delivered in the way they say they can, ignoring evidence to the contrary and denouncing their opponents as ‘traitors’ or ‘Remoaners’, sabotaging plans that have already been well and truly sabotaged by the gulf between expectation and reality.

Stuck in this little shop of horrors, it would be comforting to find some consolation in the ongoing implosion of the Tory Party, which has been inflicting this nightmare — and so many others — on the nation in the first place. Punished in the recent local and European elections, the Tory Party, once one of the most formidable election-winning machines in Europe, has been shattered by its obsession with Europe, an obsession it has chosen to inflict on the whole country.  Its zombie government staggers on, visionless and ineffectual, crushed by its own incompetence and a Brexit process that has revealed it to be fatally out of its depth.

The schadenfreude and genuine pleasure at this outcome should be tempered by the awareness that the opposition is also in disarray, and that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is now set to play a kingmaking role in national elections, according to a succession of polls. According to the Telegraph, Tory donors are now in secret negotiations with Farage’s organisation — calling it a ‘party’ is somewhat overstating it — with a view to an electoral pact in any forthcoming general election.

If this pact takes place, and there is nothing to suggest that it won’t, then we may end up with a Brexit Party-Tory coalition government with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and Nigel Farage in some kind of ministerial position. In the short term it now seems almost certain that the Tory Party will make Boris Johnson the next Prime Minister. For Johnson, this has been the whole point of his political career, but it is very bad news for anyone who would like to prevent our deepening slide into gutter politics.

If Farage is an ideological fanatic, Johnson’s overwhelming passion is himself. Narcissistic, opportunistic, incompetent, shallow, devoid of loyalty or decency, he has wanted the Big Job for a long time, and he has done everything possible to get it.

It’s true that not all Tories like him. Max Hastings, Matthew Parris, and Ken Clarke have all made it clear in no uncertain terms that they aren’t fans, and there are others who feel the same. But there are also many Tory MPs who will simply go with whoever they believe can save their careers and ‘deliver’ Brexit in the process. For those who do like him, and there are many, Johnson exudes the ‘optimism’ and ‘positivity’ that they feel have been missing in a Brexit process gone sour. As Alison Pearson gushed in the Telegraph last week, ‘when Boris Johnson enters the room, the molecules rearrange.’ She was probably not thinking of curdled milk.

To those who regard Johnson as a political fun-boy, that cheekie-chappie grin and the retro-imperial mood music are everything. It doesn’t matter that their hero has made racist comments about ‘piccaninies’, mocked Muslim women and homosexuals, or had a laugh about dead bodies in Libya. That’s just politically-incorrect, plain-speaking ‘Boris.’ These fans won’t be bothered that their hero’s characteristic lack of detail helped get Nazanin Zhagari-Radcliffe a longer prison sentence. Or that he consistently conspired against Theresa May, and then resigned from her government in protest at a Brexit deal that he had already agreed to, simply because David Davis did it first and Johnson didn’t want to be upstaged as a potential successor to May.

These admirers certainly won’t be bothered that Johnson lied about £350 million for ‘our’ NHS.  Most of them won’t pause to wonder why both Trump and Steve Bannon like Johnson, and those who do will probably think this is a good thing. Nor will they care about the money that Johnson threw away on various vanity projects when London mayor, or the water cannons that were, and could, never be deployed, or the fire stations that he closed down. They just want Brexit and they want it hard — but they also want to feel good about it. 

Johnson knows his audience. In his leadership launch speech last month, he spoke of the ‘guts and determination’ needed to make Brexit happen. Like Elvis, he just can’t help believing, and in Brexitland, belief and emotion are everything — the only way to close the persistent gap between fantasy and reality. When Johnson argues that only by preparing for No Deal can we make the EU do what we want, they believe him. When he promises to ‘unite the country’, some of them believe that too. Because unlike Dominic Raab, a politician whose gimlet-eyed ambition is clear in every position that he adopts, Johnson speaks of wider more romantic possibilities, with a throwaway patina of Etonian learning that too many people take for intellectual gravitas.

When he talks of ‘Global Britain’, he evokes a lost world of pith-helmeted district commissioners, gallant privateers, gunboats and proxy ‘native’ rulers in turbans or lion skins gathered round Queen Victoria’s skirts. He makes jokes, drops in a bit of Latin, and oozes the sense of national entitlement that is the very essence of the Brexit dream. 

It’s true that Johnson lies — a lot — but his fans won’t care about that either. In our current ‘post-truth’ political world, a propensity for unrepentant lying is not an obstacle to power, and may even smooth the way to it. Johnson’s minders have played a clever game by keeping their man quiet these last few weeks. They know that whenever he opens his mouth he is likely to say something — such as ‘fuck business’ — that will reveal his glib opportunism, his inattention to detail, and his total unfitness for office.

Instead, they’ve cut his hair and got him to make various emollient One Nation Tory-like pronouncements to win over the doubters. For the time being, Johnson’s team have reduced him to an absent presence, a political hologram in whom his admirers can see the Johnson they believe him to be, while the doubters can be induced to rethink their doubts. They know that Johnson is all performance, and that public appearances are likely to reveal the essential hollowness at the core of his delusions of grandeur.

Such delusions are the perfect antidote to a radicalised Tea Party Conservativism that has abandoned pragmatism, common sense and any sense of the national interest. Johnson is also the perfect symbol of a British governing class that no longer knows how to govern, whose reputation for non-partisan efficiency has collapsed like so much else. On one hand, there is a kind of satisfying dramatic irony in Johnson’s narrative arc that the creators of Alan B’stard would have envied: the amoral chancer who wrecks his own country in order to get his country to love him as much as he loves himself. The mendacious journalist whose lies during the 1990s did so much to turn his own party against the EU leading a diminished and divided nation into ‘negotiations’ that the EU have already said cannot take place.

So, it is very likely that Johnson will get the job. Whether he can keep it is another matter.  Johnson may talk of ‘guts’ and ‘determination’ and bluster on about ‘max fac’ solutions to the Irish border, but in the end, as May has already found out, there will come a point when the bluster, the bravado — and the optimism — will collide with reality.

Yesterday, in his latest Telegraph column, Johnson lamented the fact that ‘rural areas’ in the UK don’t get good Broadband, observing ‘There are whole towns in Britain where people are still being driven wild with frustration as they stare at the slowly revolving pizza wheel of doom.’

Many others will also be staring at that pizza wheel, and cursing the party that is now poised to inflict this dangerous and reckless chancer on a country that he has almost no prospect of uniting, and will only divide still further.

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Matt Carr

Matt Carr is a writer, blogger and freelance print and radio journalist. He is the author of My Father's House, Blood and Faith: the Purging of Muslim Spain, and The Infernal Machine: an Alternative History of Terrorism. His book Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent was published in autumn 2012. His latest book 'Savage Frontier: the Pyrenees in History', has just been published in the UK by Hurst. He has lectured in a number of UK universities, schools and cultural institutions. He blogs at www.infernalmachine.co.uk.

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