Boris Johnson
(Image: AAP/David Crosling)

At Eton with Orwell.
At Oxford with Waugh.
He was nobody after
And nothing before.

— Cyril Connolly (of himself)

“Boris will have to play a blinder to…” oh God, spare us the cricketing metaphors. Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has become leader of the UK Conservative Party, as everyone thought he would. The shambling, blond, mop-haired, Billy Bunterish MP defeated his run-off rival Jeremy Hunt by two to one, gaining 92,000 votes to 46,000 of the party’s 160,000 members, an 87% turnout.

That was a higher vote for Hunt than expected, but it didn’t matter a damn. Boris was never in danger, and the run-off was never a Leave-Remain contest; more like a kamikaze v dive bomber choice on delivering Brexit. There was nothing that Boris could have done to lessen his vote, except to be less crazy-resolute about leaving the EU.

Billy Bunter as played by Gerald Campion
Billy Bunter as played by Gerald Campion. (Image: Mary Evans Picture Library)

Over the months-long campaign — in which one party’s leadership tussle became a de facto national election, an elision conforming to the UK’s anti-democratic core — Boris’ blustering act started to come apart somewhat, like an old vaudeville hoofer burning a 20-year-act with a single TV appearance. This was the culmination of an act that Boris — the urge is to call him “Johnson” but there’s so many goddamn of them in politics that the folksy nominal persists — has honed for two decades, if that verb can be applied to a calculated decision to not stop being shambolic.

Out of Eton via Oxford, and into The Daily Telegraph in the standard manner, he was a lazy, incompetent and wilfully falsifying journalist, whose boss at the time now says he should have been sacked. He was responsible for many of the “EU gone mad” stories — banning bent bananas etc — when he was Brussels correspondent. MP for Henley, then mayor of London, then MP for Ruislip, he got the editor’s chair of The Spectator more or less as a signing-on gift. There he was buttressed by a solid staff; at City Hall by civil service continuity, and an utter lack of media scrutiny of London politics.

Advised by Lynton Crosby, he perfected and advocated the “dead cat on the table” strategy, and put it at the heart of Tory strategy at the national level. That has had mixed effects, but Boris has sailed on by… well, how? By using his quickfire wit, and a literary style that Waugh called (of Churchill’s) “sham-Augustan” prose — Boris mixing in a fair amount of Wodehouse and not a little Python — he became a null-set at the heart of politics, a politician sous-rature, crossed out.

This is not the same as US or European populism; a Boris Johnson mass rally would collapse in the middle like a wedding marquee in the rain. By actually becoming an entertainer who happened to be an MP — like the new Ukrainian president, but in exact reverse — Boris has been able to create a force-field in which he is not only rewarded for lying, but doubly so for being caught lying. Anti-Muslim or anti-working class slurs become part of an act, like a beloved ’70s sitcom you can’t watch anymore because PC gone mad. For his faithful, he is a pure value, simply by being himself. Nothing, to date, that he actually did, detracted from it.

On the party hustings, he was skewered again and again for cheerful falsifying; and on TV by Andrew Neil, Newsnight and others. He simply adopted a grinning caught-out pose, like he was on a “call my bluffs” style panel show to which, as with weak sweet tea, the British are addicted.

That pose allowed him to be caught out, prior to the referendum, and then the previous leadership contest that elected Theresa May, backing both the Remain and Leave cases, and waiting to jump. He left May to try and manage the impossible task, was briefly an incompetent foreign minister, and went to the backbenches to undermine. When all was chaos, de Pfeffel strolled in and picked up power like a de’feather. But in doing so, in nailing the leadership — neutralising a loud domestic barney with the latest girlfriend, after being thrown out by his wife for multiple infidelities — Boris had to push the rhetoric to new heights of impossibilism.

Achieving a brilliant Brexit – an October 31 departure, but with a better deal, and no northern Irish “backstop” to put an EU border within the UK — would simply be a matter of will, of optimism, of cheerfully telling Johnny foreigner all bets were off. By the final weekend, he was comparing this messy and very ordinary process to the moon landings. Loon meanderings would be more like it, and they now have an imminent expiry date.

As mayor, Boris turned himself into a semi-competent leader — though wasting hundreds of millions on a failed garden bridge and a cable car over the Thames, as if Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling had suddenly become town planner — emerging as such from the first month of chaos simply because no one was watching. Now, the world is. Boris faces an EU that is cheerfully refusing to make any further changes to the final May-negotiated deal. True, France aside, it doesn’t want the UK to leave because it needs to smoothly “export” to it. But the commission will rely on an anti-no deal parliament to pass a motion banning a no-deal exit, and then offer an extension.

Boris will then have to either prorogue parliament ahead of such a vote, ignore it claiming unconstitutionality, or accede and ostensibly “muddle through” to an eventual exit, hoping that he can charm supporters to stay away from the one-policy Brexit Party.

By then he may well have ditched much of the Billy Bunter act, to reconnect with the Victorian liberal-conservative traditions which inform his real politics: a commitment to global free trade and the “animal spirits” of capitalism contained within a patriotism worn far more lightly than the union jack capes and boaters the Leave fanatics drape themselves with.

But that presumes he makes it to October at all. With three cabinet ministers resigning, and a handful of Tory MPs making noises about supporting a no-confidence deal, anything is possible in the coming days and weeks.

For the country, it’s a question of whether they head towards an unknowable, damaging exit from a union they’re deeply entangled with. For Boris — who is waiting for history to tell him whether he’s Winston C or Neddy Seagoon — it is far more serious than that.

Peter Fray

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