The last thing any self-respecting politician needs or wants is a ringing endorsement from Donald Trump. The United States president particularly likes to offer his advice to British politicians, and to the British electorate. Neither want it.
After Boris Johnson became prime minister of the United Kingdom on Tuesday, Trump told a cheering crowd that he will do a great job. Johnson is the “Britain Trump,” he said, in true Trump fashion, and that’s a good thing because “they like me there.”
It seems fitting that Johnson’s premiership started out with a lie from the biggest liar of them all. (Spoiler: Trump is deeply unpopular here in Britain.)
But, Trump does have a point. The U.K.’s bumbling showman of a new prime minister, with his signature silly blond hair, a trail of mistresses and jilted wives, and a record of lying, is indeed something of a “Britain Trump.”
And that should terrify us all.
First, some background. Johnson is a journalist, though his lifelong ambition was always to become prime minister. His biography of Winston Churchill clearly implied that he sees himself as this generation’s Churchill, and his timing is now perfect. He is taking the reins of power just as the country is in its biggest crisis since the last war. He can now prove himself by rescuing the country from disaster, though as the leader of the Vote Leave campaign, and chief antagonist to former Prime Minister Theresa May, this is mainly a disaster of his own making.
Johnson has a worrying mix of Dunning-Kruger lack of insight and extreme privilege, meaning he, alone, is unable to see that he is not anywhere near the caliber of Churchill. He has the bravado, breeding, and confidence of Churchill without any of the empathy, morality, or intellect. This type of temperament could be his undoing, and ours.
Johnson has ridden the anti-EU wave for years. He helped make the referendum happen, and now he will have to see it through. As a journalist in Brussels, he used to write populist pieces about the absurdity of the EU, mocking its rules and processes. While most of his facts and intel were simply made up, it appealed to a readership back in England that was instinctively anti-European and xenophobic. This contributed to an anti-European sentiment in the U.K. which ultimately led to the referendum in 2016.
His part in that vote is better known. Despite having just drafted a pro-Europe article for his newspaper, he abruptly took a 180-degree turn and decided to join the Vote Leave campaign. There, he threw himself into discrediting the EU, and selling a fantasy future outside the EU, in which the U.K. would thrive and flourish. It was a great sales pitch, but it was based on a false reality.
His biggest lie was the one he stuck on the side of a bus, saying that the U.K. sends £350 million a week to the EU, money which instead would go toward England’s own National Health Service. It was a great stunt; the NHS is the nation’s most precious jewel, and offering to shower it with money would win anyone favor. The statement, however, was completely false. He has since batted aside criticism for this particular lie, but it is one among so many.
After David Cameron stepped down as prime minister, Johnson made a play for the job but was stabbed in the back by the equally ambitious and slippery Michael Gove. The three men had been at Oxford University together, and were playing out a fight they had started back at university, but now on a national stage. After Johnson was named foreign secretary, there was hope he would be kept under control or be set up to disgrace himself. Indeed, by all accounts he was really bad at his job. He doesn’t like detail, didn’t read his briefs, and made serious mistakes that in such a job can jeopardize alliances, and even people’s lives.
Johnson resigned from his position in protest at May’s final deal on leaving the EU. However, he resigned just before an official investigation found that Vote Leave, the campaign he had led, committed serious breaches of electoral law, and had been referred to the police. It is likely he would have been fired or forced to step down in disgrace had he not preempted this by resigning as a martyr to Brexit just in time.
It was all very different when he was mayor of London. Back then, Johnson was just “Boris,” and was an international, open, and liberal politician, a “one-nation” Conservative — the traditional center-right of the party who rule for the whole country. He celebrated immigration, multiculturalism, and even boasted of having Turkish ancestry.
This changed with his Vote Leave performance, and then, as May’s leadership collapsed, Johnson warmed up to the inevitable leadership vote by veering to the right. Despite having previously claimed Turkish heritage, he now lied about Turkey joining the EU and flooding the U.K. with immigrants. He used his column in the Telegraph to make offensive and provocative comments about minority groups. In one column, he wrote that women in burkas looked like letter boxes.
Having completed his rebranding from liberal mayor to right wing xenophobe, Johnson has now become prime minister through a quirk of British democracy. We do not elect prime ministers directly; we elect members of parliament. The prime minister is the leader of whichever political party wins a majority in a general election, and that leader can change in between elections.
The Conservative party elects leaders by holding a series of votes between its members of parliament, and the two winners of those votes then go to a poll by the members of the party. Anyone can join a political party, and the cost is around $20, but really, people should not have to pay $20 to buy an electoral mandate. Having to align themselves with “the party” in order to have a voice smacks of the Soviet Union.
The Conservatives have around 160,000 members, and Johnson won with about two thirds of their votes. This means he was appointed prime minister by 0.13% of the population. When Labour’s Gordon Brown became prime minister in a similar way, Johnson the journalist wrote:
“They voted for Tony [Blair], and yet they now get Gordon, and a transition about as democratically proper as the transition from Claudius to Nero. It is a scandal… The extraordinary thing is that it looks as though he will now be in 10 Downing Street for three years, and without a mandate from the British people… It’s the arrogance. It’s the contempt. That’s what gets me.”
Johnson ended up winning on the basis that he is gregarious, right wing, and a Brexit purist.
It is typical Johnson that such glaring hypocrisy is ignored through his own sense of entitlement and greed for this job, and his journalistic sense that whatever he says doesn’t actually need to be true, accurate, or have any consequences.
He ended up winning on the basis that he is gregarious, right wing, and a Brexit purist. Johnson won despite warnings from leading Conservative politicians and former prime ministers — even his former friends, colleagues, and previous boss all publicly cautioned that he lacks the talent, intellect, and moral compass for the job. Max Hastings, his former editor, wrote of Johnson, “there is room for debate about whether he is a scoundrel or mere rogue, but not much about his moral bankruptcy,” concluding that he is totally unfit to be prime minister.
In some respects Trump is correct — Johnson is “Britain Trump.” They are both showmen, populists, and gifted with a knack for public speaking, but not detail or honesty. However, I’m sure Trump would actually prefer to see Johnson as his “mini-me” — not his British equivalent.
When Trump recently decided to defenestrate Sir Kim Darroch, the U.K.’s ambassador in Washington, D.C., the British political community all lined up to support the British diplomat, all except Boris Johnson. Darroch resigned because he did not have the support of the next prime minister, making Johnson’s inaction seem as though he was caving into pressure from Trump, because after Brexit, the U.K. will need to pander to anyone willing to give it a favorable trade deal when it leaves the EU.
Moving forward, nobody knows which Boris we’ll get as prime minister. As with Trump, for Johnson, truth seems to matter much less than truthiness and rhetoric. Johnson has campaigned by saying what his base wants to hear, by promising everything to everyone, and by detaching any of this from reality. He shares with Trump a bravado that he can say anything today, and deal with whatever actually happens when it arises. As was the case when Trump became president, people are hoping that the nasty, nationalist, xenophobic, lying candidate-Johnson will tone it down now that he’s won his prize, and will become a respectable statesman. However, to get into power he’s aligned himself with the right wing of his party and with Brexit ideologs. It may be that he has no real political or moral compass, only a burning desire to become prime minister, but he is now wedded to these people who jostled him into Downing Street.
Johnson also may struggle to tone down his rhetoric and retain his base. Like Trump, Johnson is using the division in the U.K. to create an electoral base. He joins the extremist Brexiteers in suggesting that detractors of the movement are talking the country down. This implies that not agreeing with his position is anti-British. He is creating a political climate in which he can say you’re either on his side or the wrong side.
Unlike the U.S., in the U.K. the transition from one administration to the next happens overnight. Theresa May drove to Buckingham Palace in the prime minister’s armored Jaguar, handed in her resignation to the Queen, and left in a normal car. Johnson followed minutes later in a normal car, and left in the Jaguar. By the next day, he had appointed his cabinet, received intelligence briefings, and held his first cabinet meeting. The makeup of his new government says a lot about how things will play out.
He has controversially appointed Dominic Cummings, a highly intelligent political attack dog who coordinated the Vote Leave campaign as his effective chief of staff at Downing Street. In that role, the Electoral Commission found he had broken electoral law, and he was held in contempt of parliament for refusing to attend and give evidence to its inquiry into Brexit, Russia, and Cambridge Analytica. He shares, with his American equivalents around Trump, a total disregard for the truth — he once said, “accuracy is for snake-oil pussies.” His disdain for the civil service, other politicians, and parliament leave people very disturbed that he is now running Downing Street for Johnson.
Johnson’s cabinet is still split 50/50 between MPs who voted leave and remain, but they are all considered loyal to Johnson, and now committed to Brexit. He has pulled in members of the European Research Group, with arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg now Leader of the House, and therefore with a seat in Cabinet. In that respect, he has pulled into government the most right wing, ideologically extreme part of his party, and has arguably formed the most right wing cabinet in British history. These were the people undermining May’s attempts to leave the EU, and who insist on nothing less than the most definitive break from Europe.
Their unwillingness to compromise on anything is why the U.K. is still in the EU. Just like Trump and his Republicans in America, they like to cast aside the experts, and in the face of almost every business leader, economist, and any other form of expert saying a no-deal Brexit will be a disaster for the U.K., they are using that mix of entitlement, arrogance, and ignorance to fall back on arguing that if we just believe in ourselves, we can be fine.
It is widely felt that Johnson has promised fields of unicorns. Even, Philip Hammond, the now-resigned finance minister, cautioned that his promised tax cuts and a no-deal Brexit were simply not affordable. He now has to make good on a promise to leave the EU by the end of October, deal or no deal, while cutting taxes for the rich, increasing public spending, and addressing the many problems that have befallen the U.K. after years in which the government was only focussed on Brexit — rising knife crime, pollution, collapsing social care, underfunded health care.
Johnson has promised fields of unicorns.
On top of this, Johnson currently has a majority in parliament of just two votes. One of those votes is likely to be lost to the resurgent Liberal Democrats in a by-election in August, and he relies on the fanatical swivel-eyed loons in the tiny Democratic Unionist party for any majority. So, his personal agenda will presumably be to call an election at the right moment to secure a stronger majority, and thus to secure his place in history as anything other than just the next least successful prime minister in history.
Johnson’s other problem, given his past as a Brussels correspondent in his journalism days, and the disaster of his time as foreign secretary, is that he will be greeted in Brussels through gritted teeth. Few there take him seriously, and many hate him. He has promised to renegotiate the deal May struck with the EU, despite the EU saying this cannot be done. That campaign promise alone has not made him any friends in Brussels, where it is likely that plenty of politicians would enjoy seeing him humiliated.
Johnson is also being heralded as “the last prime minister of the U.K.,” because of the threat he poses to the EU. In Scotland, he is hugely unpopular, and few Scots voted for Brexit. Scottish nationalist politicians are jokingly saying he is a gift to their cause, making it far more likely Scotland will vote to leave the U.K. This also reflects the realization that Brexit is primarily an English movement, tied to English nationalism, and Johnson was voted into his position mainly be a small group of Southern, English, men.
At the end of the day, a tiny number of Conservative party members have put Johnson in charge of a country where he is otherwise very unpopular and disliked. If he crashes the country out of the EU, they will be blamed. One positive outcome of all this is that finally a pro-Brexit prime minister will lead a pro-Brexit cabinet through the 100 days before the U.K. leaves the EU. Until now, Brexit voters have been able to blame Remainers for sabotaging Brexit. May and half her cabinet were seen as too soft, and not really behind Brexit.
Whatever happens next, it’s unlikely to be pretty. Just as Trump may well be leading to the unravelling of the Republicans, Johnson may just be the final demise of Conservatives. But they, and the Brexiteers, are the ones who created this mess. It’s theirs to clean up.