LONDON – It is not as if the British nation or, for that matter, any even half-awake observer around the world does not know what they are getting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
No other British politician has had so many biographies written about him even before he won his first elected office as an unsuccessful mayor of London, 2008-2016.
Never one to hold back choice quotes, Johnson once even declared: “My chances of being prime minister are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive.”
Now that he is so far ahead in the race to be Britain’s next prime minister, everyone should remember this most basic of Boris facts: He has only ever been faithful to one cause — himself.
Johnson’s life is there for all to see in the endless words he has poured out since he became the Daily Telegraph’s first fiction-writing resident correspondent in Brussels.
To allow Johnson to turn the story of the European Union into a villainous venture established to betray the noble British nation, the Daily Telegraph tossed out all of its fact-checking principles.
And so it was that Johnson’s fabricated EU narrative became an early version of “Harry Potter.” Johnson simply cast himself in the role of taking on the Voldemorts who ran the commission and the council of ministers.
But we know all this. Indeed, Johnson has written his first autobiography, lightly disguised as a book about Winston Churchill.
In it, Johnson-Churchill is a swash-buckling outsider, a drunk, permanently in debt, hated by the buttocks-clenched boring Tory Party establishment, a dollar-a-word journalist, writing or speaking anything for anyone who will pay him hard cash to cover his gambling and champagne debts.
In his Churchill book, Johnson writes that “Gestapo-controlled Nazi European Union” was proposed in 1942 with “a single currency, a central bank, a common agricultural policy and other familiar ideas.”
The underlying logic is as breathtaking as it is preposterous: Just as Churchill had to defeat Nazi Germany, his reincarnation, Boris Johnson, has to slay the “Gestapo-controlled Nazi EU.”
Now he gets his chance. The 100,000 or so paid-up members of the Conservative Party will make Johnson the next prime minister. Their average age is 71.
Never mind that many of them have pictures of Nigel Farage, Johnson’s alter ego, on their walls. Very few are non-white and one-third want to see hanging restored.
Johnson has prepared his ground carefully. He has been a star of their evening events for more than a quarter of a century. He has always told them what they want to hear.
One benefit of Johnson’s ceaseless wooing over decades is that they forgive his endless womanizing. He has been unfaithful to all of his wives, has a declared child with at least one mistress and, as endless London rumor has it, undeclared children with others.
Johnson has also channeled his inner Churchill, in his case by having enjoyed cocaine and industrial quantities of cheap red wine.
The net result of all this is his relentless need to make money, which he does by writing fluently for any paper or traveling the world to make speeches. He never prepares for such occasions, which speaks to his boundless confidence in the ability to produce words that will amuse.
It also makes one question whether he can afford life as a prime minister, when such revenue options will be foreclosed for him for the duration of his service at No. 10 Downing Street.
Master of imperfection
Curiously, the one place Johnson has never mastered is the House of Commons. I observed him over the years and his populist demagogy and endless exaggerating for effect.
While that is the secret of his after-dinner rambles or speeches to anti-European faithful at rallies, delivering such boisterous diatribes have had zero impact in the Commons where MPs want facts properly marshaled and policy duly advanced.
If it was known that he was speaking, no one came in to listen and his verbose rhetoric thus never made an impression.
It remains Johnson’s biggest secret how he will transform himself to stomach prime minister’s question time. In his new role, he will have to go on for lengthy periods to deliver precise, technocratic-sounding answers to difficult questions.
Johnson is taking on a big risk as a British prime minister sinks or swims by his or her ability to master the Commons.
It doesn’t help that a Tory prime minister has no majority. Plus one can count on Johnson’s bluster about calling an early general election will remain just that — bluster. Conservative MPs are gravely worried that many of them would not get re-elected if elections were called before they must.
A key reason for Tory weakness is not just the inability to deliver on Brexit. Most voters now want convincing answers on government cuts, the growing inequality, the lack of police on the streets, the schools where parents have to buy pens and paper or the lack of drugs for British cancer patients that are available in Europe or the United States.
Robespierre or Talleyrand?
That leaves him with one choice. Does he insist on being the Robespierre of the Brexit revolution? Tory party members will select him as prime minister in the firm expectation that he will be the Brexit revolutionary they have been waiting for.
But Johnson, for all his constant doubles and distortions, knows his history and hence the fact that all revolutions devour their children, sometimes very soon after the launch of the revolution. Thus, if he insists on Brexit revolutionary purity, he risks that his own head will soon be on the execution block.
Or does Johnson do what he loves to do — which is to pivot on the head of a needle to do an unexpected 180 degree turn? That would mean to be unfaithful to the no dealers on Brexit and decide to be the Talleyrand of the sensible Tory restoration.
If he were able to make his peace with Europe, he would leave Jeremy Corbyn and the Corbynized Labour Party badly exposed? Johnson could cast Corbyn as the last of the 1968 leftist Bourbons who has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
Big Tory turnaround required
This would require Johnson to re-center his Conservative party. It’s not impossible. Remember that the Tories were once the party of empire but then dutifully and effectively learned to be post-imperial.
For 25 years, the Conservatives have been the anti-European party. Can they turn that page? Does Johnson’s serial infidelity allow him his last great betrayal — that of betraying the anti-Europeans of England — in order to stay in Downing Street and defeat Corbyn?
Denis MacShane is a contributing editor at The Globalist. He was the U.K.’s minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005, and is the author of “Brexit No Exit: Why Britain Won’t Leave Europe.” Follow him @DenisMacShane; www.theglobalist.com
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