Boris Johnson can emerge with a majority in parliament, which is all he really wants, says Michael Clifford.
COMETH the hour, cometh the man. British prime minister Boris Johnson is a perfect specimen for our times. He has all the qualities a leader needs for the kind of politics that is sweeping across large parts of the globe.
The UK is having something of a political nervous breakdown. The prorogation — or suspension — of parliament by Mr Johnson this week, for five of the most crucial weeks in the country’s history, was politically audacious and democratically outrageous.
It blindsided his opponents. They now have a much narrower prospect of stopping the UK leaving the EU on a no-deal basis.
Their most obvious option is to call for a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s government when parliament resumes next week.
If Johnson loses the vote, a general election ensues. The polls favour the Conservatives. Johnson is a good campaigner, excellent at deploying charm and empathy behind a soft, fuzzy exterior.
Like US President Donald Trump before him, he is blessed in his opponent.
Unless Johnson literally implodes, the chances of the British electorate putting Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10 remain remote. So Johnson can emerge with a majority in parliament, which is all he really wants.
If, after that, the EU softens up to give him a deal, he’ll be thrilled. If not, he can live with that, because he will have five years of a free run before his government can be removed.
On such ambition for this Old Etonian rests the destiny of a nation, and, unfortunately, considerable collateral damage for our own country.
Johnson’s strategy makes no room for what might be called the national interest. It completely discounts the economic devastation that will be visited on large sections of the British people. And he has no vision as to what will emerge.
This man is not an ideological Brexiteer. In his earlier incarnation, as a journalist based in Brussels, his stock-in-trade was incredible and false tales of how the EU was obsessed with daft laws. On a more serious note, he also wrote, again inaccurately, about how Germany was taking over.
“Everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party, and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power,” Johnson said.
It was, for Boris the man-child, something of a game. It still is.
In 2016, he famously wrote two newspaper columns ahead of the Brexit referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, one outlining why he was voting Remain, the other why he must vote Leave.
He weighed up which route offered the better prospect of propelling him to Number 10 and decided it was his duty, in the national interest, to vote Leave.
So, unlike many of his fellow travellers, his current path is not paved with a pathological hatred of the EU. It’s simply the road on which he hitched a lift to fulfilling his personal ambition.
So much for the audacious Mr Johnson and his self-obsession. The suspension of its parliament is a depressing reflection of where British democracy now cowers. You have to go back to Charles I for the last time that the British parliament was suspended because it inconvenienced the ruler of the day.
That didn’t end too well for the monarch, who would lose his head. For Johnson, however, it represents a gamble with that which he holds most dear: his own career.
In times less turbulent, one might have expected the British people to rise up and depose anybody who would attempt to subjugate the oldest parliament in the world for his own ends.
The reason that he gave for the suspension is transparently untrue. He said it was to allow new legislation be formulated so that the queen’s speech could set out the government’s agenda.
Presumably, he told that lie to the queen, when he asked her for the suspension. Government ministers, such as Michael Grove, vehemently parroted the lie in the media.
Lying has been a constant with Johnson, throughout his career. This is not the usual double-speak or economy-with-the-truth stuff that politicians routinely deploy. It’s just barefaced lying.
Early in his career as a journalist, with the London Times, he invented a quote, attributing it to his godfather, a leading academic. He was fired when the deception was uncovered.
In 2004, he denied publicly, and to his party leader Michael Howard, that he had had an affair with journalist Petronella Wyatt. The affair did happen and when it was confirmed, Howard sacked him.
So he lost two jobs through barefaced lies and now he is lying as a strategy to capture the biggest job of all: Prime minister with his own mandate.
Will he succeed? The reaction since Wednesday has, on one level, been fierce.
Opposition politicians have been apoplectic. Corbyn described it as a “smash and grab” at democracy. Even some in Johnson’s own party have recoiled at a move that strikes at the heart of representative democracy.
Beyond the Westminster bubble, there have been public demonstrations in various cities and a major protest is scheduled for today. But the outrage has not been widespread and apathy, or even hostility, about parliament is the sentiment on which Johnson relies.
That is where Johnson is investing his political capital. He need only look across the Atlantic to know that a record as a liar, or one with low morals, is no longer an impediment to high office.
What matters today, in many jurisdictions, is a capacity to connect with negative emotion, usually resentment, and put yourself forward as the best person to right this wrong.
Central to this political pitch is the suggestion that longstanding institutions are no longer working in the interests of the public, and require to be put in their place by the new strongman in town.
So it went with Trump clearing the swamp. So it goes with Johnson undermining parliament.
Brexit always was an exercise in emotion over reason. Johnson’s talent for campaigning was a central feature in the 2016 referendum.
He got lucky in his failure to be elected leader of the Tories and prime minister in the aftermath of the referendum result. If he had been, he would have then been forced to face up to the reality of what exactly Brexit entails.
Now, instead, he can just throw his hands up in exasperation, and present himself as the guardian and supreme interpreter of the sacred referendum result, who must be allowed to just get on with things.
It’s a high-risk strategy, but if he gets the election he wants, he is en route to fulfilling his ambition. It’s all still a game to Boris, one in which the consequences are felt only by others.