He might have once talked about reaffirming his commitment to Britain but did Boris Johnson ever get around to renouncing his American citizenship? The Republicans should check with the State Department. After all, the political demise of Jeb Bush was a salient reminder of what American’s right has been missing this election season: not so much the personality of a big bumbling English butler-in-residence but the political opportunist ready to buckle himself to whatever bandwagon is rolling fast down the slope.
It might seem far removed from the debate surrounding Brexit yet there is a lesson in political expediency about the fall of the former Republican frontrunner in the race for the White House. When Bush took to the stage in South Carolina last Saturday night, he didn’t so much show great dignity in defeat as he accepted the inevitability of a far less dignified defeat if he took his campaign forward. His capitulation was not about the failure of his message as much as the failure of the Republican establishment to address a mood among voters that is sharp, pronounced, and able to make seasoned politicians twitch. In South Carolina Jeb Bush essentially rose on his haunches, sniffed the air, and admitted that the fight wasn’t for him. By name and by nature, he was totally unsuited to the coming endgame.
Bush quit the race a few hours before Boris Johnson entered a contest that might also be decided by blowhards rather than brains. Boris’s decision was long in coming but short in surprises. Those that accuse him of opportunism did so with good reason. Although the referendum supposedly transcends party, it has been clear for some time that the politics around it do not. It can be no surprise that his two strongest rivals for the Tory leadership, George Osborne and Theresa May, are conveniently located on the other side of the Brexit divide. For Boris, walking the opposite bank has to be more than a gamble; greater too than simple conviction. When he emerged from his home in North London, it was to acknowledge his neediness. He wants to be on the popular side of the debate or, at least, popular as far as the Tory grassroots are concerned. In the Tory heartlands, the winds are blowing away from Europe and that’s where Boris would allow them to carry him and carry him all the way to Downing Street should the chance arise.
If these were conviction politics then Boris’s conviction was one that read: guilty of impersonating a Eurosceptic. In that role, he floundered in the dock. His reasons for Brexit were vague and unconvincing. Many commentators have picked up on the contradiction in Johnson’s words: he wants ‘out’ but only to convince the other Europeans to give us better conditions for staying. Really, though, what he actually said was less striking than the way he was saying it. He delivered his decision in his stylized puttering manner of a two stroke engine tackling a sharp incline. It underlined the important point that Boris adds no intellectual force to the Brexit camp. It’s on the down slopes of popular opinion that Boris comes into his own; his freewheeling oratory being the Tory version of counter-culture rebelliousness, the fun to be had with copious hair and slack pants, just so long as you don’t consider the structural weakness of your ride.
In Boris we have the very political creature that Jeb Bush needed to have been to have succeeded in this Republican race: mercurial and with a sprightliness to make even u-turns look like they point in the same direction. It’s the very quality that Donald Trump embodies. Bush chose to walk away rather than pander to the whims of the electorate, though his name along doomed his candidacy a long time ago. It leaves the Republican race missing the establishment choice, capable of cooing reassuring words to moderate voters. How they could do with Boris Johnson whose personality is that of the panderer-in-chief, who uses comedy tropes to misdirect and confuse but gain attention and, ultimately, be loved.
Depending on how big a gamble this is depends on whether you believe that Boris’s political senses are acute enough to know the mood of the nation. There is some reason to think Boris might have made the sensible choice. To stay inside Europe is to convince people to vote for the status quo and in favour of the establishment. This is perhaps not the best time to make such arguments. As the rise of Trump in America and Corbyn in the UK have proved: electorates are in a contrary mood. David Cameron could well reap a thin harvest after spending years sewing disenchantment among Britain’s voters. When Cameron celebrated his victory after last year’s election, he seemed indifferent to the reality of the numbers. Approximately three quarters of voters voted for a party other than the party that took power. Cameron has always seemed insensitive to those bruised by the outcome, who bristle with anger every time he claims to have a mandate from the people. Furthermore, the Scottish Referendum is still a fresh memory. In the days leading up to the vote, Cameron (and other Tories, Boris included) promised the Scots every incentive to stay in the Union, only for those promises to evaporate as soon as the ballot boxes were sealed. Will Cameron be able to convince people again? The polling is hard to read and will remain unclear for the next four months. The ‘in’ campaign will make much of dire warnings about the dangers of Brexit but Brexiters only need a single headline about immigrant crime to steer the debate in their favour.
Johnson, of course, will push where the Tory grassroots wishes him to push. The fact that he admitted that he won’t lead the campaign reveals his true role. He’s the figure you always see in the middle of a riot, cheering every surge forward even if they’re not entirely sure where those surges are leading. He will be happy if they’re leading him in a generally favourable direction, towards Downing Street and the job he has always felt is his destiny.