It’s now official. Yes. Boris Johnson will be reincarnated as an olive. A man who only a few years ago described his chances of becoming the PM as likely as being reincarnated as the Mediterranean fruit, will now be the newest occupant of 10 Downing Street. Whether he’ll be chewed and spat out in a jiffy or linger around longer in the cocktail of British politics, shaken like never before, will rest solely on his ability to saw the country off from the European Union by the end of October.
Boris Johnson, 55, who has built a career in public life fashioned after a mix of bumbling Wodehousian characters, is set to become the prime minister of Britain at a time when the wheels of its politics are immovably jammed. Britain itself has been reduced to a one-issue country: It’s all about Brexit. For instance, in Brexit-blighted Britain, the seizure of a British-flagged tanker last week by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Persian Gulf has barely created a blip. In the past, Britain has gone to war for provocations far less serious.
Since the 2016 referendum result, a slender two percentage point win for Brexiteers against Remainers, Britain has been split right down the middle. Brexit has so far devoured two prime ministers (David Cameron and Theresa May), decimated both the Conservative and the Labour parties (opinion polls have them both below 20 per cent if elections were held today), and has made ideological middle ground disappear completely. Extremist views about Europe are now the mainstream view. The two political parties, Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party, the latter formed barely a few months ago, with very clear and completely opposing views on Brexit are on the rise. Boris Johnson’s mid-term ascent itself is the result of the Eurosceptics in the Conservative party having their way. And for all its troubles, Britain is still not out of the EU, having already missed one deadline on March 29 and unlikely to meet the next deadline looming at the end of October.
As Johnson climbs up the summit made of Brexit debris, many in India are asking what his premiership would mean for India. As the most prominent Brexiteer, a pillar of Johnson’s campaign was the ability to strike trade deals with fast-growing Asian economies such as India, unfettered by European regulations. But the short answer to the India question is: Nothing. It really doesn’t matter. Britons have scarcely begun to figure out what it means for them. He needs to sort out the Brexit shambles before engaging with the world. But already there are mushy stories in the Indian press about his bond with India in the form his divorced wife Marina Wheeler’s part-Indian ancestry.
Boris Johnson is far and away from the most divisive politician in Britain. Even by the high standards of self-serving duplicity members of the Conservative party are credited for, Johnson is seen in a league of his own. Be it the London Olympics of 2012 or the bicycle hire scheme funded by Barclays bank during his time as the city’s mayor, everything ended up being about him. Of his supreme desire for self-promotion, it can be said that he fell in love with himself before he turned a teenager, and it’s the only relationship he’s been faithful to since. However, a series of extramarital affairs and a predisposition for playing fast and loose with facts (he was sacked as a journalist once for making up quotes and is famous for his ‘creative’ reports filed from Brussels as The Daily Telegraph’s EU correspondent) haven’t come in the way of his rise. For many, Boris Johnson, a man who cannot be trusted, is simply the denouement of Britain’s disgrace.
His reputation for not keeping promises hasn’t helped. He assured the owners of the pro-Conservative Spectator magazine that he wouldn’t contest elections to Parliament while its editor but went on to become an MP. He promised his voters that he’d quit his day job, and yet remained the magazine’s editor. He made a virtue of such doublespeak by calling it his ‘cake’ philosophy that entailed both eating and keeping it. Johnson’s Eton and Oxford education add to his disparagement as a Tory toff disconnected with the lives of the working class.
Critics say his indiscretions as foreign secretary not only created diplomatic discomfort but also put at risk the lives of British citizens such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian, was employed by the charity organisation Reuters Foundation. She was handed a five-year jail sentence by the Iranian government for trying to topple the regime in the guise of journalism. Johnson, in trying to defend her, claimed that she was merely a journalist trying to teach people journalism in Iran. By all accounts, she was not a journalist but a project manager. Johnson’s ill-advised intervention, critics say, worsened her case.
Bluster, breezy optimism, burning ambition and occasional buffoonery make Johnson in the eyes of many Conservatives the best electoral bet in the face of potential annihilation. The colourful phrases Johnson uses in his Telegraph columns and public speeches (he once likened Muslim women in Burqa to bank robbers and letterboxes; called blacks in former British African colonies as flag-waving piccaninnies with watermelon smiles) self-admittedly make the “plaster come off the ceiling” sometimes. But Johnson posits that as a counterpoint to the “muffling and veiling” language other politicians use.
But what is moot now is whether he has the mandate or the political legitimacy to be the PM of Britain, and whether he can manage to miraculously extract UK out of EU on deadline. Johnson, after all, has only been endorsed overwhelmingly by the 160,000 paid-up members of his own party. Theresa May lost her job because she could not get Parliamentary approval for her divorce deal with the EU. The Parliamentary logjam means that reheating May’s version is not an option. Also, walking out without a deal, while preferred by the extremist Eurosceptics, cannot pass Parliamentary muster. The inability to brandish the threat of a no-deal exit to EU negotiators decidedly weakens Johnson’s hands. A snap general election before the October deadline is now a real possibility. Until then the big olive can wear the crown of thorns.
(TR Vivek is a Bengaluru-based journalist)
The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.