Benefiting from Brexit Boris Johnson's Folly

Boris Johnson is Britain's most talented populist. He has seduced his country to leave the European Union -- and it could make him prime minister. But those supporting him could end up paying most dearly.
Leave campaigner Boris Johnson

Leave campaigner Boris Johnson

Foto: Str/ dpa

On the day of his greatest triumph, Boris Johnson left his house with his hands shoved deep into his pockets, his shoulders slumped. His expression made him look like a child being called into the school principal's office for causing trouble. His neighbors booed him as he passed by, with some calling "shame on you, Boris."

It was a striking scene, for Johnson had just scored his greatest political victory -- one that could even make him the next prime minister of Britain.

But the man who was berated on the streets of London on Friday morning envisioned things ending up this way from the very beginning. He had gambled and he had won.

It hasn't even been a year since we interviewed Johnson  back when he was the mayor of London. We sat together in City Hall, just across from the financial district, and he didn't have much to say about Brexit. Johnson shrugged his shoulders, said that there were reasons for it and many against it, but that he didn't believe Britain's departure from the European Union would be the end of the world. He seemed to not particularly care.

Johnson became far more animated when the discussion turned to one of his favorite topics: The great statesman Winston Churchill, that larger-than-life British icon who refused to back down to the Nazis, sporting a bowler hat, chomping on a cigar and carrying a machine gun, announcing he'd rather die than shake Hitler's hand.

Churchill had principles, but what Johnson truly admired about him was that Churchill was a gambler. One prepared to go so far as abandoning his own political party simply to gain more power.

At the time, one year ago, Johnson was politically adrift. He had no great challenge awaiting him after leaving City Hall behind. British Prime Minister David Cameron, Johnson's eternal rival going back to their days together in Oxford's snobby student drinking outfit the Bullingdon Club, remained untouchable for him.

There would be no glory for him inside parliament, so Johnson needed an outside movement he could hitch his fortunes to. That would become the Leave campaign. Before he and Michael Gove, Cameron's friend and British secretary of justice, joined the campaign to abandon the European Union, it was a repository for provincial freaks, gin-drinking nostalgists and malcontents such as Nigel Farage, someone who considers his nicotine addiction an act of nonconformity and resistance.

Brexit supporters were set to remain politically irrelevant, confined to Farage's UKIP party of pub revolutionaries and armchair rebels, content to down three or four pints of ale and never take more than 10 percent of the vote.

But Johnson changed all of that. He is a gifted populist and can read and articulate the feelings and desires of his fellow Britons like no other British politician of his generation. This despite the fact that he is an elitist through and through, a product of the country's best schools. He uses charm and humor to win over London's upper classes, but is equally at ease in the most provincial parts of England. Swinging his ample belly to and fro, he's a man of the common folk in those places where there's little hope left, such as Hull or Carlisle.

At home, Johnson likes to quote Ovid, but when he's visiting town squares in northern England, or whatever the economic downturn has left of them, he gladly chows down on bangers and mash with the locals.

The Brexit campaign became Johnson's latest populist plaything. He took over the movement like an investor snapping up a company -- but this was no hostile takeover. The freaks desperately needed Johnson.

Now he's achieved his goal. He gathered up all of the provincial rage outside of the capital and used it to place a huge bet. And perhaps it was too large. During his first statement after a long night of dismay for most continental Europeans, it sounded as if he wanted to prepare his country for hard times ahead.

"No time for haste," Johnson said. It sounded like he hoped protracted negotiations with Europe could stave off the worst for Britain.

Johnson will end up costing the British a lot of money. Back in his Bullingdon Club days in Oxford, Johnson and his cohorts would sometimes smash up the restaurants they visited, tossing food on the walls and trashing the furniture. Only to return the next day to pay in pounds for their vandalism.

This time it's different. The entire nation will end up paying for Johnson's folly. And the highest price is sure to be paid by those most downtrodden -- those who voted as Johnson wished.

Translated from the German by Marc Young
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