Has Boris blown it? Or is he a step closer to Number 10? Boris, being Johnson of course — BoJo, the shambling blond Etonian, Tory rat, and serial incompetent whose appeal to large sections of the British middle and working-class (“well, he’s a bit of a lad, innee? Says what he thinks! Not stuck up like the rest of ’em, arrgghhhhhhh.”) — is a cause of everlasting despair to everyone trying to defend the idea of democracy, least not from their own dark thoughts.
For a couple of years Boris has been rising Brexit, as part of his relentless campaign to make it to Number 10. But Brexit has finally, finally, become a net negative, as the scale of the disaster that will befall the UK when it leaves the EU in 2019 becomes apparent. Dozens of constituencies that voted “leave”, now poll as preferring to remain. The surge of manic energy that accompanied the “leave” vote has now all but exhausted itself. So Boris has switched back to, of course, the burqa. Having been recently playing foreign minister in the panto that is British politics, and now openly gunning for PM Theresa May, Johnson wrote a column for the UK Daily Telegraph ruminating on the burqa ban operative in half a dozen European countries, and decided that he was against it on good old-fashioned liberal grounds — but not before he had done a round of jokes about burqa’d women looking like post-boxes, etc, etc.
Outrage ensued, as Johnson presumably hoped it would, because it’s the perfect squeeze play. In one hit, he gets to 1) dog-whistle to the hard right about hating Islam, 2) outrage progressives and the Tory centre into denunciation, thus winning hero status with the “middle-hard” right, who hate “political correctness gone mad” etc, 3) then point out that he was against the burqa ban — that progressives like French President Emmanuel Macron have left in place — and that people should focus on the substance, etc.
But we’re in an age where the progressive transformation of the public sphere is moving quite rapidly. So what worked a couple of years ago, might be subject to shifting terrain. That appears to have happened now, with a level of denunciation coming from within the Tory party drowning out the left-progressive chorus. That won’t matter to the right within the Tories. It was thought that the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership would have held their fire for a while; they would have been happy to lose to a Blairite, the logic went, if that was the price of winning the party. But they would stop short of helping elect a genuine socialist. Not so it seems. Corbyn and Labour have now opened up a three-point lead over the Tories in polling, despite a largely confected and wholly hysterical campaign about anti-Semitism in Labour launched at Corbyn.
Half the Tory right believe that the party would triumph if it could be an unashamedly nationalist and chauvinist party, and hell, they may be right. Labour benefited from the Brexit decision; Corbyn could have a de facto anti-immigration policy popular in regional working-class areas simply by saying that Labour would abide by the referendum decision. So too Brexit allows the Tories to embrace economic nationalism. They can talk about the virtues of free trade, even as they’re leaving a free trade area, and without a single free trade agreement in place. It’s hilarious. Boris has spoken before of his admiration for the “dead cat” strategy — throw a dead cat on the table, and no one can think about anything else — and the burqabox imbroglio is that with a twist.
Nevertheless, it’s a measure of the trouble the Tory right are in — that they must return to peekaboo Islamophobia to stir a jaded base. There’s not many places left to go after this. Boris would appear to believe that the clock is running out, and for once he may be not only right, but right.