Mad in Britain How Boris Johnson Turned the British against Europe

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By in London

Part 2: Plan B. B for Boris.


At some point, a transcript of a conversation between Johnson, back when he was still a journalist, and his old Eton and Oxford buddy Darius Guppy appeared in the British press. Guppy, very much a fly-by-night businessman who would later spend several years in prison, asked Johnson to get him the address of a disliked journalist so he could have him beaten up. Here are some excerpts from that conversation:

Johnson: "Really, I want to know, because if this guy is seriously hurt I will be fucking furious."

Guppy: "I guarantee you that he will not be seriously hurt ... He will probably get a couple of black eyes and a cracked rib."

Johnson: "A cracked rib."

Guppy: "Nothing which you didn't suffer in rugby, OK? But he'll get scared and that's what I want him to do."

Johnson: "OK Darry, I've said I'll do it. I'll do it, don't worry."

Johnson, who categorically denies helping Guppy in the matter, suffered no consequences. Big B almost never gets into trouble, apart from the occasional delay in his ascent to power when his lies are exposed. While other politicians would have fallen from grace, he just keeps stumbling along.

He suffered no long-term damage, for instance, after coming under scrutiny several times for making misleading statements about his side earnings. Likewise, there was no damage after he brazenly lied to his former party leader about an affair. Nor did it hurt him when he traveled across Britain in a bus emblazoned with grotesquely false information about British payments to the EU and how London was allegedly transferring 350 million pounds (389 million euros) a week to Brussels that could be put into the NHS, the national healthcare system, in the future. This was probably the most serious lie of Boris Johnson's political life.

Yet people fall for him, because he's so wonderfully different than the others. He's louder, livelier, funnier. To this day, it's unclear what Johnson believes in -- except himself. He has fought for the rights of gays and he has spread homophobic stereotypes. He has demanded policies for the poor and for the rich. He is apparently proud of his Turkish roots, yet while he was waging his Brexit campaign, he warned against the alleged onslaught of millions of Turkish immigrants if the country were ever allowed to join the EU. Today, he denies ever having said that. Besides, what's that compared to his insight that Tory voters get "women with bigger breasts?"

The Profanation and Infantilization of Politics

Boris Johnson, like Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump and all the other populist seducers who have made their entry onto the world stage of late, stands for the profanation and infantilization of politics. If it benefits him somehow, he can be a liberal today, a social democrat tomorrow and conservative the day after. And he doesn't even need to conceal his lack of plans and principles. He's like the emperor who tells his people: "Look! I'm not wearing any clothes!" Many people find him so disarmingly honest and hilarious, that they can't help but vote for him.

That's why even the Londoners -- the enlightened, progressive, multicultural Londoners -- elected Boris Johnson as their mayor in 2008. It was a sensation and the most convincing proof yet of Johnson's political allure. It was never his goal to become mayor. But three years earlier, the Tories had tapped the younger though not half as charming Eton and Oxford alum David Cameron to be their leader. For Johnson, it was a humiliation.

Under those circumstances, the posting to London's City Hall seemed like a suitable alternative way of getting closer to his ultimate goal. So, Johnson joined the race and achieved the unimaginable: As a Conservative in London, a Labour stronghold, he deposed legendary leftist Ken Livingstone.

This is the underdog story Johnson uses today to promote himself to Tory party members. Coming out of nowhere, he not only managed to keep a dangerous socialist in check, he also successfully administered a mega-city with a population of 10 million for eight years. One day, he wants to run the entire country the way he did London, with an "all-star team" and a political agenda for those "who are the worst off." But is he telling the truth?

It's indisputable that during Johnson's time in office, London -- at least temporarily -- became more climate-friendly, less crime-ridden and generally more livable. Many of the successes that he ascribes to himself, however, are thanks to Livingstone's initiatives. The congestion charge, the increased police presence, the "Boris bikes" on which masses of tourists can be seen zipping through the city and even the fabulous Olympic Games of 2012 -- all of these policies were originally spearheaded by the Labour politician.

Johnson, on the other hand, whose own people describe him as a peevish "do nothing" politician, opened London's doors primarily to the rich and super-rich from around the world. With this, he exacerbated inequality and the city's desperate housing situation. One of his most striking legacies was the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower, a 19 million-pound monument with a red, steel scaffold entwined in tangled loops -- and whose primary purpose is to stand out from all the other buildings in East London.

One man, one tower.

But it's not as if the wavering course of Johnson's 30 years in politics hasn't left behind any bruises in the minds of Brits. At the latest, since becoming the leader of the Brexit campaign in 2016, the politician, who counts "Apocalypse Now" among his favorite movies, has been one of the country's most polarizing personalities. In recent polls, 47% of Brits said they considered Johnson's election as prime minister to be a foregone conclusion. But only 13 percent said they would buy a used car from him. Around half of those polled said they doubted he could unify the divided nation. Even more consider him "immoral."

For now, though, Boris Johnson doesn't really need to worry about that. The fact is, of the United Kingdom's 66.4 million citizens, more than 66.2 million will have no say when the country's next prime minister is proclaimed in the next few days. Only registered members of the Tory Party will elect their new leader -- and that person will then automatically ascend to the top of the government. Britain is home to around 160,000 card-carrying Conservatives. Anyone keen on getting to know these people a little better can swing by the Swigs Hole Farm in Kent County, an hour's train ride southeast of London.

On a recent Sunday morning, around 40 sprightly men and women are sitting on some artificial turf here, eating salmon sandwiches and tiny sausages baked in dough. It could be the scene of an ad on television for English sparkling wine. (As it happens, there's a vineyard nearby.) Dogs and cats roam around the small pond, next to which stands a statue of a bathing nymph. In the distance, cornfields gently undulate past crooked farmhouses with turrets and half-timbered facades. It's all so idyllic, almost as if it had been designed for a huge model railway.

The Tory chapter in nearby Tunbridge Wells is hosting the "Summer Fizz & Canapés" party to chat about politics in a relaxed atmosphere. Pauline Aylett, whose pink blouse, pink lipstick and lavish pearl jewelry starkly contrasts her green surroundings, finds today's politics "terrifying." Pauline is 81 years old. She used to be a stock trader in London and has the same hair color as Boris Johnson.

Leave Europe, No Matter the Cost

She doesn't like him very much, though. He's an "idiot," she says, not to mention a serial philanderer who is then too stupid to cover up his own tracks. "What's the matter with the man? Hasn't he ever heard of birth control?" Pauline jibes. But "of course" she would still vote for Johnson -- he's the only one who can beat Corbyn and deliver Brexit. "I want out," Pauline shouts, spilling a few drops of her bubbly.

This sentiment can be heard all over the farm. That the good Jeremy Hunt is really smart and capable and all, but he's also too polite to stand up to the Europeans. Boris, on the other hand, though uncouth and unsteady, is at least an unflinching man who will slam his fist on a table in Brussels if need be. And what about the fact that he called the French "turds," which conceivably might not be very helpful in forthcoming negotiations? Pauline's friend, Sonia Borrago, 88, just smirks: "I must admit I go along with that."

Leave Europe, no matter the cost. This is practically all Britain's Conservatives care about these days. The Tories are not only older, whiter and richer than the rest of the country, they're also more ardent enemies of the EU, according to research conducted at Queen Mary University in London.

Just how far they would go to finally become an independent island nation again was made clear recently by a sensational YouGov survey: A clear majority of Conservatives would be willing to accept the disintegration of their own party, Scotland's secession, the reunification of Ireland and lasting damage to the British economy as long as they finally got their precious Brexit. Two out of five Tories would even be willing to put up with a Corbyn government.

It's impossible to overstate just how dramatic such a development would be -- not only for the traditional political balance, but for the country as a whole. The party known formally as the Conservative and Unionist Party is willing to sacrifice its kingdom for Brexit. A party that has courted business like no other for decades is now ready to follow a Brexit fanatic who only months ago shouted: "Fuck business!" The party that has perfected the acquisition and maintenance of power like no other in Europe is about to hand its fate over to an egomaniac and a political rogue. As a side note: The Tories were once the self-proclaimed "Party for Europe."

But that was long ago.

It's as if Brexit has caused the more than 300-year-old Tory party to mutate into a political sect with Boris Johnson playing the sect leader with simple, messianic messages: Believe in this great country and be nice to each other and we'll manage. Faith, love and hope -- but no political agenda.

Johnson even survived his only TV debate with Jeremy Hunt on Tuesday of last week. By the end, his exhausted rival groaned: "I think he has this great ability: You ask him a question, he puts a smile on your face, and you forget what the question was." Johnson returned the favor by calling Hunt "a stickler for detail." For him, that's an insult.

In the one-hour broadcast, Johnson exposed his dithering side, the one that has so often gotten himself and others into trouble. This time it was aimed at Britain's ambassador to the United States, Sir Kim Darroch, one of the country's most distinguished diplomats. Shortly before the live debate, Darroch's unflattering cables about Donald Trump's government were leaked to the public. Trump and his administration were "dysfunctional" and "inept," Darroch wrote, adding that Trump himself was so dim-witted that he must be communicated to in the simplest possible terms. The U.S. president seethed and lashed out against Darroch and his superiors on Twitter. It was an unprecedented attack, one which Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt condemned on live television.

An Almost Unbeatable Lead

Johnson, on the other hand, gave a confused answer in which he somehow managed to position himself behind Trump, whose benevolence he will have to rely on when Britain seeks a post-Brexit free trade deal with the U.S. In doing so, he snubbed Darroch, who resigned shortly afterward. Johnson's party colleagues -- and his enemies -- immediately questioned how such a lily-livered individual could hope to survive tough negotiations with the EU. His popularity among the Conservative kingmakers, however, remained untarnished. Recent polls showed Johnson as having an almost unbeatable lead.

And so the great unsolved mystery of our day remains: What does Johnson intend to do with power if (or when) he attains it? Especially when it comes to Brexit? In the three years since the ill-fated referendum, he has revealed little more than his grim opposition to compromises with the EU.

As May's short-time foreign secretary, he wandered aimlessly around the world, committing assorted blunders and lamenting his country's lack of self-confidence. As a highly paid columnist for the Daily Telegraph, which has long positioned itself squarely behind its bumbling former staffer, he insisted Britain take the fight to its enemies in the EU. But Johnson has offered little more than these bombastic outbursts, which he faithfully tries to make sound like those of his great role model, Winston Churchill. There's a reason why Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, once called Johnson "Donald Trump with a thesaurus."

Johnson recently made it abundantly clear in a memorable BBC interview that he hasn't made much progress on that front, even now. In typical Johnson form, meaning without an eye for detail or even a firm grip on reality, he said he would "make progress with the bits of the withdrawal agreement that we have," including the "stuff about the European Union citizens." All this will be tackled in the planned transition phase. With an eye to the danger of a hard border emerging between Northern Ireland and Ireland, he surprised the interviewer by saying that he believed there were "abundant technical fixes that can be introduced to make sure that you don't have to have checks at the border."

It doesn't seem to matter to Johnson that there won't be a transitional phase at all until the withdrawal agreement has been ratified by all 28 EU member states or that a miracle solution for Ireland has yet to reveal itself after three years. He claims to have sensed "a real positive energy about getting it done." And he'll take care of the rest with "creative ambiguity." Plan A didn't work, so now it's time for Plan B.

B for Boris.

Johnson has announced that he will lead his country out of the EU by Oct. 31 at the latest -- "come what may." The completely arbitrary Halloween deadline was dictated to Theresa May by the EU; she was powerless to do anything about it. If Johnson wants to negotiate a completely new agreement with Brussels before then, as he has announced he will, he'd better get to it.

Infinitely High Stakes

After his probable inauguration at the end of July, the government and parliament will likely first go on holiday. Then there will be party conferences. Once things pick back up in London in mid-September, there will only be six weeks left for meetings before Halloween. And it's not even entirely certain that the EU will be ready or able to negotiate, considering how distracted it is with its own internal struggles.

In the end, Johnson really could opt for the so-called nuclear option and try to disjoin his country from the EU without any formal agreement. It would be a highly risky move, not only because a no-deal decision in Britain would trigger indeterminable economic, political and social unrest in the country. The stakes would be infinitely high for Johnson himself, too. The majority of the conservative government in the House of Commons has shrunk to only a handful of votes. It may only take a few Tory rebels breaking ranks to overthrow the new prime minister with a vote of no confidence. And more than three have already threatened to do just that.

So, how will Johnson, the player, decide? There is much to suggest that a man who has always regarded life as one great exercise in improvisation doesn't yet know himself. "Boris Johnson will, as always, do whatever he thinks he can get away with," says Tim Bale, an expert on the Tories at Queen Mary University. "If he realizes that no-deal looks like a disaster, he may well swerve at the last minute. If he thinks it's the only option, he may risk an election to create a parliament that will deliver it. To be honest, all bets are off."

All bets are off.

You couldn't find a more concise way of describing Boris Johnson than that. He wanted to make it to the top. Now he's just a few steps short. And even once he gets there, there's only one direction he can take. Depending on the circumstances, things could go downhill faster than he would like.

But he also wouldn't be Boris Johnson if that prospect frightened him. "There are no disasters, only opportunities," he once said. "And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters."

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