Between Two Borises

Will the UK’s New Prime Minister Lead It off a Cliff?
Boris Johnson speaks after being announced as the next prime minister, July 23, 2019, at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London. (CNS photo/Toby Melville, Reuters)

Because I appeared on TV and seemed to know a few people in public life, the woman who became my wife in July 2010 was under the illusion that I was in some way famous. “At least no one will recognize you here,” she told me with satisfaction as we went from a safari camp in Tanzania to a tiny beach island called Lazy Lagoon.

But then Boris Johnson swept in with his family, his blonde mop, his booming Eton voice, and his 1950s public-school exclamations. “Crikey, what are you doing here?” he asked while pumping my hand, adding: “How’s the pope?” (Benedict XVI was coming to London a few weeks later, and I had been involved in the communication of the visit.)

While my wife rolled her eyes in that told-you-so way wives do, I shared jokes and reminiscences with the then-mayor of London, who this week becomes the UK’s prime minister after winning the Conservative Party leadership on a promise he can’t possibly keep: to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union by October 31.

I had gotten to know Boris, a little, a couple of years earlier, while leading a campaign urging an “amnesty” for long-term undocumented migrants. The campaign had been inspired by a call from then-archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who had in turn been inspired by the U.S. bishops’ regularization campaigns. The United Kingdom was reckoned at the time to have close to a million long-term visa overstayers and asylum seekers.

Boris entered the picture because he was then editor of the Spectator, and commissioned from me an article that urged a one-off pathway to citizenship for those who had put down roots in the UK. Softened up by the arguments in my article, Boris later adopted the idea while running for mayor of London the following year, after meetings with the coalition of churches, mosques, and charities behind our Strangers into Citizens campaign.

By then, he had served for nearly a decade as a Member of Parliament for Henley-on-Thames, waiting for an opportunity to move ahead but still best known as a columnist and TV celebrity. That changed during the mayoral campaign. At a hustings we organized for twenty thousand Londoners to hold the candidates to account, Boris was charming, funny, self-deprecating, and, in his chaotic way, exciting.

Unlike the left-wing incumbent, “Red” Ken Livingstone, who drily sought to claim our citizens’ demands for decent housing and living wages as his policy achievements, Boris made us feel as if we were the protagonists of change. He was bumbling, even endearing; he had joie de vivre, energy, promise—and charm. He could scan a crowd and find a point of engagement almost by instinct. Spotting a fair number of hijabs in the crowd, he had spoken about his Turkish great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, and his respect for Islam. Afterwards, while Red Ken slipped away unseen, Boris went among the people, mobbed by Muslim mothers, exchanging jokes and posing for selfies.

I saw that night in Westminster Central Hall elements of a serious politician that have since become much clearer: ruthless ambition, a capacity to “read” the public’s mood, and an ability to appeal to many different constituencies at the same time. When he won the mayoral election in a city that had long been in a Labour stronghold, he made the Tories sit up straight. When he won for a second time, many Tories became convinced he was the One.

Long before Breitbart, Boris knew what his readers wanted and gave it to them in spades.

Boris is not a charlatan. As mayor he did his best to deliver on his promises to us on living wages and housing and commissioned a report into a “migrant amnesty” that made use of our research and came down in favor of our proposal. It was our biggest success. He defends the idea even now, earning himself a slap on the wrist from anti-immigration hardliners.

Boris is hard to pin down ideologically. A libertarian who made his journalistic career out of poking fun at the authorities in Brussels, a socially liberal conservative who back in 2016 sniffed the national-populist wind and became the figurehead of the campaign to leave the European Union, he can be infuriating in his desire to please contradictory constituencies. The Boris who spoke proudly to the hijab-clad women at the London Citizens assembly back in 2008 is the same Boris who said women who wear niqabs look like letter boxes and bank robbers. But that, he added, wasn’t a reason to ban them. Thus, Boris pulls off a dog-whistle appeal to those anxious about immigration and Islam, while at the same time defending pluralism and toleration.

The Boris who is proud of raising the living wage (another one of our Citizens campaigns) for the poorest began his conservative leadership campaign pledging to lower taxes for the wealthy. The Boris who as mayor promoted London as business capital of the world is the same Boris who dismissed business concerns about a no-deal Brexit with a Saxon expletive. Truth is, Boris can take almost any view of anything and plug it with passionate intensity, just as he sometimes argues himself to a standstill.

“There’s always been two Borises,” observed George Osborne, the former chancellor of the exchequer, back in May. “There’s hard-Brexit Boris and the mayor who won Tory victories in a city that previously always voted Labour…. He likes to have two articles to hand.” This was literally true in the case of the 2016 referendum. After a lifetime of equivocating over the UK’s membership in the EU—along the way, arguing in favor of Turkey’s admission to the EU—he wrestled with which way to jump in three separate newspaper columns—two making the case for Brexit, the third for Remain. Having made up his mind in February 2016, he threw his celebrity behind Vote Leave, and played a crucial role in its victory. But no one was more shocked the morning of the result, June 24. When the European Council president, Donald Tusk, famously said there would be “a special place in hell” for those who urged Brexit “without even a sketch of a plan,” he surely meant Boris.

This ability to inhabit an idea, and to run at it courageously and quixotically while swatting away details and facts that get in its way—this is what makes Boris such a good newspaper columnist, and such a dangerous leader. After his case crumbles under the weight of contradictory evidence, he abandons it for something else, turning his new theme into a lifelong passion. Colleagues at the Telegraph recall him shutting himself away close to the deadline and working himself into a fist-pumping frenzy in order to make the case for which he was (for that moment, at least) the most ardent advocate.

Boris is all about the big idea, and the passion to believe it. Thus his victory this week: in the midst of my country’s greatest political crisis in peacetime, a crisis brought on by an inability to confront the reality of Brexit, Boris points to the moon. “If they could use hand-knitted computer code to make a frictionless re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in 1969, we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border,” he claimed on Monday in the Daily Telegraph. How? Don’t ask. What matters is to wave our flags and recover our can-do spirit.

Even when he was a reporter in Brussels, penning hilarious Telegraph stories about the follies of the European Union, Boris was essentially an opinion columnist. What mattered was always the consistency of his narrative—the caricatures he drew of the ham-fisted and high-handed, the threat to the British way of life from control-freak bureaucrats—rather than the truth: the stories were almost always based on wild exaggerations or grotesque conclusions from the thinnest of rumors. Long before Breitbart, Boris knew what his readers wanted and gave it to them in spades.

Last week he did it again, brandishing a fish in a plastic wrapper that came, he said, from a “kipper smoker from the Isle of Man,” who, thanks to EU rules, could only mail kippers using a plastic ice pillow: costly for his business, unnecessary red tape, and damaging to the environment. His audience of Tory faithful roared with delight. By the time it turned out that it was Britain, not Brussels, that made the mail-order kipper rules, people had moved on.

 

Emotion is driving out facts, at a time that calls for coldly staring at hard, realistic choices.

When we met Boris and his wife and four children on Lazy Lagoon Island in 2010, he was trying to make it up to her for an affair that had recently become public. He has since left Marina, to be with a woman much younger, whose furious row with him in June was recorded by a neighbor. It is the latest in a long series of public affairs and relationships. Those who know him say he is ruled by his feelings, and needs the intensity of affairs. Andrew Gimson, a friend and his first biographer, says Boris “takes a cavalier attitude to mere morality. The knowledge that he is being sincere is good enough for him.”

The affairs—about which Boris has brazenly lied in the past—have each time threatened to finish him politically, but his supporters price in the chaos and the narcissism. Many in the Conservative Party say his mischievous streak will strike fear into Brussels, making them take his threat of a no-deal Brexit more seriously. Consumed, now, by the strange sub-nationalist faith that Brexit produces, they are convinced that Boris carries the magic elixir that has so far been wanting: he will get the kind of deal that Theresa May could not.

Emotion, in other words, is driving out facts, at a time that calls for coldly staring at hard, realistic choices. As former prime minister Tony Blair—who increasingly sounds like the only adult in the room—points out, Britain’s Brexit rests on three mutually inconsistent positions: that the United Kingdom should leave the single market and the customs union; that the border between Ireland, an EU member, and the north of Ireland should be frictionless; and that Northern Ireland should be in the same relationship with EU countries that the rest of the UK will be in. The so-called “backstop,” agreed upon by London and Brussels, was supposed to resolve this conundrum. To meet the British request that nothing should endanger the Irish peace process, Brussels agreed to let the UK remain in the customs union until the future UK-EU relationship was thrashed out.

But the backstop is anathema to the true-believer Brexiteers, and Boris says he will be asking Brussels to “delete” it, to have all the border issues discussed in a future negotiation—or proceed to leave on October 31 without a deal. The first cannot happen without the EU abandoning Ireland, which it will not do; and the second is not only irresponsible but unacceptable to Parliament, which will seek to block it. Britain, in short, is heading to a cliff edge (“cripes,” as Boris might say) under a columnist-turned-politician intoxicated by his own vehemently held but reality-starved convictions. If ever anyone needed Pope Francis’s maxim “Reality is superior to ideas” written above his head, it is Boris.

Published in the August 9, 2019 issue: 

 

Austen Ivereigh is the pope’s biographer. His new book Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church  will be published in the fall by Henry Holt. 

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