Thursday, August 22, 2019

Britain under Boris

(A slightly shorter version of this column was published in the Manawatu Standard and other papers on August 21.)

These are extraordinary times in British politics. Under its flamboyant new prime minister, Boris Johnson, Britain is more polarised than at any time since Margaret Thatcher.

A crucial difference is that Thatcher split the country along traditional party lines. She was despised with visceral intensity by the Left but revered by her own Conservative Party, whose fortunes she revived after a spell in the doldrums under the colourless Edward Heath.

Electoral success is ultimately what counts to the British Conservatives, as is the case with our own National Party, and the Tories can normally be relied on to unite behind a winner.

In Thatcher's case, the resistance within her own party came from a relatively small group of disaffected “wets” – most notably her former minister Michael Heseltine – who disliked her swingeing free-market economic reforms.

Johnson, on the other hand, has fractured the Conservatives to the extent that some former Tory ministers are exploring ways of helping Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to form an “alternative” government.

In normal circumstances this would be unthinkable, but these are not normal times.

The issue that has created this deep political rupture is, of course, Britain’s membership of the European Union. Johnson has staked his future on successfully leading Britain out of the EU in line with the 2016 referendum that resulted in a 52-48 vote in favour of leaving.

It’s a giant step into the unknown – too risky by far for the so-called Remainers in the Conservative Party, who are determined to thwart Johnson even if means installing Corbyn, an unreconstructed, old-school socialist, in No 10 Downing St.

So what are we to make of the politician whose tousle-haired blond head has become the lightning rod at the centre of this storm?

Johnson’s defenders say he has been unfairly and inaccurately caricatured, and they appear to have a point.

He has been portrayed as a British Donald Trump, with all that implies. He is commonly depicted as a buffoon, an oaf and a dilettante. But he graduated from Oxford with a second-class honours degree and had a successful career in journalism, including six years as editor of The Spectator, before moving into politics.

His best work as a journalist was incisive and informed. It showed a level of intellectual sophistication and wit that would be far beyond Trump.

Johnson has also been described as the archetypal old Etonian toff – a cross between Bertie Wooster and the classic boarding-school bounder so beloved of English fiction writers dating back to Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

It’s certainly true that he had a privileged and uniquely English upper middle-class upbringing, but he combines that background with a sharp intellect and a common touch that was evident in his eight years as Mayor of London. That’s a rare political skill set.

More unfairly, Johnson has been disparaged as being anti-immigration and opposed to cultural diversity. This ignores the inconvenient fact that he appointed a cabinet which includes more ministers from ethnic minorities than any in British history.

Other criticisms – for example, that he’s a serial philanderer and politically accident-prone – are much harder to counter.

Inevitably, his political ascendancy brought his turbulent personal life back into sharp focus. That was apparent in June when The Guardian, standard-bearer for the British Left, reported that the police were called after neighbours overheard an angry shouting match between Johnson and his partner, Carrie Symonds.

Not content with dialling 999, the couple next door to Symonds’ flat in Camberwell thoughtfully recorded the row and supplied the tape to the paper, which splashed it across the front page. 

The neighbours told The Guardian they recorded the “screaming, shouting and banging” because they were concerned for Symonds’ safety.

Of course they were. No doubt that’s why they took the tape to the paper.

Disappointingly for both the neighbours and The Guardian, the police, who sent three vehicles to Symonds’ address, said there were no offences or concerns apparent and no cause for police action.

Johnson and Symonds subsequently had to leave the flat because of protesters in the street outside. No doubt they were concerned for Symonds’ safety too.

The neighbours, incidentally, were subsequently identified as Eve Leigh and Tom Penn, who sound like a pair of classic chardonnay socialists: she an American “experimental playwright”, he a “theatre maker” – whatever that is – and composer.  The arts sector is overwhelmingly, you might say hysterically, anti-Johnson and anti-Brexit.

The flat occupied by Leigh and Penn is reportedly valued at £750,000 so they’re obviously not short of a bob. Both work in the arts sector, which is heavily dependent on state subsidies, so they can be assumed to have their hands deep in the taxpayers’ pocket. Not your working-class battlers, then.

Penn said he called The Guardian because he felt it was a matter of important public interest. Yeah, right.

He claimed he was not political but admitted he was a Remainer, while Leigh had proudly tweeted on a previous occasion that she had given Johnson the finger. So we’re obviously talking about people with a high level of emotional maturity as well as impeccable moral principle.

Sanctimonious justifications aside, the Guardian’s story looked like a bit of journalistic mischief from a paper that vehemently opposes Brexit. But it was an example of the type of scrutiny Johnson is subjected to.

Interestingly, the clash of opinions over him has been fiercest among those who know him personally. It has been played out in recent months in the columns of the magazine he once edited, The Spectator.

It started with a savage attack on him by Sir Max Hastings, a former editor of the conservative Daily Telegraph, who was once Johnson’s boss.

Hastings, who once vowed to flee to Buenos Aires if Johnson was given the keys to No 10, marvelled that the Conservatives could consider delivering power into the hands of a man no one could trust with their wallet, handbag or spouse. 

He wrote that Johnson’s air of geniality concealed an egomania that precluded concern for the interests of any human being other than himself. In an even more damning article in The Guardian, Hastings accused him of cowardice, moral bankruptcy and contempt for the truth.

Those attacks triggered a withering response from Sir Conrad Black, the former owner of both The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph, who has lately made a comeback in public life after a period in disgrace for alleged embezzlement.

Black, who knows both men well, declared Johnson to be more trustworthy and reliable than Hastings, whom he labelled an ill-tempered snob.

It was an extraordinarily bitter exchange between two prominent establishment figures, and an indication of the depth of feeling over the new prime minister – and Brexit.

Clearly, Britain is in for a wild ride.  The world will be watching to see whether Johnson crashes and burns, taking his country down with him, or successfully delivers on his promise to restore British autonomy.

I know which outcome I'd prefer, but I wouldn't put money on it even if I had any.


Damien Grover said...

In Max Hastings' booked Editor (published 2002) he made similar comments about Boris Johnson's fitness as a PM to the ones he's written recently. He also refers in that book to his confrontational, but challenging, interesting and enjoyable, relationship with Conrad Black. Hastings wrote that Black always accused him of being a "wet". It seems that not too much has changed. Hastings also explained his falling out with Thatcher - he can hardly be criticized for that surely. I've forgotten what my point is. Anyway, Editor is an extremely interesting book, I don't remember Hastings ever being accused - rightly or wrongly - of embezzlement. And if I was to trust the judgement of any one of those people, it would be Hastings. At least he's been consistent in his views of Johnson for the past 17 years at least.

Andy Espersen said...

Boris is known as lazy, insanely ambitious, unprincipled and a liar - but that does not disqualify you from being a great and successful politician. Boris has been floating in his opinions about everything all through his life - and therein lies his strength. He is never tied by group-think to just one opinion. He can change tack according to how the wind blows. He is the archetypical, common-sense English politician, usually able to wiggle out of difficult situations by possibly unprincpled but always rational negotiations. Best man for the incredibly difficult situation England finds herself in.The United Kingdom may not survive - but England will.

Neil Keating said...

Sir Max Hastings threatens to move to Buenos Aires. What a larf! It reminds me of a prominent Auckland North Shore (leftie) local body politician (no names) who decided about five years ago that New Zealand was in such a mess that he would find a country to emigrate to. But he couldn't find one as good. Or was it that no one wanted him? So he went back to his campaign to get rid of the Little Shoal Bay Boatowners' Association hauling out yard. So far he hasn't succeeded. I so enjoy being a citizen of NZ.

Ricardo said...

Being insulted by Conrad Black is a compliment. He was a corporate kleptocrat, fraudster, imprisoned felon of unparalleled opulence. He remains a Trump sycophant.

Hilary Taylor said...

I think your piece is about as good a summation as any Karl. We have family in the UK, who doesn't I suppose, and while not hysterical they are firm remainers & shocked but unsurprised at Johnson's ascension. I hope he succeeds but fear he won't, not that I have an opinion on Brexit etc. The fuss about 'democracy' is just silly.