Has history ever known a leader like Boris Johnson? He is a phenomenon of the modern age, says Michael Clifford
In the last few days, his leadership has made markets tremble, seen off a prime minister and put in peril the future leadership of the Labour Party in the UK. The campaign he led has dealt a major blow to the economy of this country, but we Irish are too insignificant to have even featured on the periphery of his radar.
He has been exposed as a liar and a cheat yet none of that matters. With a straight face, he campaigned for Brexit promising to rid the country of “European elites”, yet he is a product of that very caste himself. He is an old boy of Eton, the academy of Empire, and studied at the exclusive Oxford university, yet he claims to be taking on the “establishment”.
But more than anything, he has managed to turn Europe — and by extension the world economy — upside down despite lacking any meaningful conviction of what he was about. Truly, he is a perfect specimen of the age in which we live. At this remove from the UK’s referendum on Europe result, it is reasonable to speculate that it wouldn’t have been won without Johnson. He gave the Leave campaign a respectability that it was sorely lacking.
Johnson is a national celebrity and one of the most popular politicians in the country. The only viable alternative would have been the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, an individual who would have found it extremely difficult to reach beyond his core xenophobic constituency.
UKIP garnered three million votes in the last general election, yet any prospect of victory in the referendum would have required at least five times that harvest.
Johnson filled the gap. He offered charisma and a track record as the mayor of London. Everybody knows foppy Boris, lovable Boris, the middle-aged man who comports himself as if he has wandered onto the public stage from the pages of an Enid Blyton book. Boris, the rogue who manages to wear so lightly his intelligence, his privileged education, his elitism. Boris, your only man if you want somebody to give it to you straight.
He gave it straight on the Monday after the referendum was called. He told readers of his Daily Telegraph column on February 21 last that he was opting for Leave, dealing what turned out to be a fatal blow to Cameron’s campaign to remain.
The following month it emerged that he had written two columns for that day, the one which was published, and a second setting out why he was opting to remain. He deliberated over the weekend as to which option he should choose. Most observers are agreed on the over-riding issue that preoccupied him at the time. It wasn’t what was best for Britain or Europe, or even the London over which he had presided for eight years.
It wasn’t which option would improve the lives of the working class, or generate more wealth for those of his own privileged class. It wasn’t even whether he should take into account the implications for the Peace Process in Northern Ireland that had brought an end to murder and mayhem.
No, it was all about Boris and his place in the world. Which option would be best in his quest to succeed David Cameron? Which path would lead him to Number Ten? Those were the questions that propelled the lovable Boris to the front of a campaign that succeeded in persuading 52% of British voters that the great unknown of Brexit was a safer bet than the world they knew.
Nobody should really be surprised at Johnson’s brass neck. In the past, he actually made up quotes in his role as a reporter for the London Times. That led to his sacking from the paper, but his cache is such that he just went onto greater things.
Later, he lied to his then party leader Michael Howard about whether he’d had an affair with another journalist. Extra marital affairs happen. Howard’s problem was how best to deal with the political fall-out, but for Boris that wasn’t his problem so he thought he’d be better off toughing it out. Keep the head down, and your time will come.
And so it has. He stands now on the cusp of assuming the role of Prime Minister of the UK. Ok, it might end up being a diminished UK, down to possibly just England and Wales eventually, and it might end up being stripped of much of its power and prestige in the wider world. But it will be Boris’s UK, and that’s all that really matters.
Johnson is a thoroughly modern leader, cut from the same cloth as Donald J Trump. Both men have shown that wooing the masses these days has precious little to do with track record, character or conviction. It’s all about giving the impression of being on the side of anybody who feels — often with some justification — disenfranchised.
If that takes pointing the finger at minorities to blame, so be it. If it involves constructing obvious untruths, so be it. Like Trump, Johnson knows that in today’s turbulent world, it’s all about telling people what they want to hear. In such a milieu, the truth is there to be trampled on whenever it is convenient.
History suggests this is a dangerous place to be and we can only hope that history is not going to be repeated in this time of Boris.
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