talkingHe 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.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at his blog The Spine.

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9 Comments on "Where is the Republicans’ Boris and do they want ours?"

  1. David I think that given the way the Conservative leader is chosen that this was a bit of a no brainer for Boris really, indeed I was surprised to see that he was ever toying with supporting the in campaign. As you are no doubt aware the MP’s choose two candidates to put to the party members to vote on. Roughly 50 per cent of Tory MP’s support Brexit so one of those candidates is going to be a eurosceptic. George Osbourne will be the pro european candidate unless we have a financial meltdown, so if Boris wants a tilt at the leadership he needs to position himself as a eurosceptic. The result of the referendum will ensure one of two things, an out vote will lead to David Camerons resignation and Boris can ride on the wings of victory or alternatively an in vote will leave a festering resentment amongst MP’s and grassroots members over an unfair campaign which can be harnessed in the eventual leadership contest.
    With regards to last years election I should point out that the conservatives actually polled 36.9% of the popular vote which was more in fact than Labour under Tony Blair in 2005. It speaks of the chicanery that went on under ‘New’ Labour in that favourable boundaries meant that this netted the Conservatives 25 less seats than Labour gained in 2005. Personally I have always favoured PR as an electoral system but it aint going to happen until it begins to favour either Labour or Conservative.

    • Thanks, as always, Rob. Yes, the leadership election does favour Boris if he plays the Euroskeptic, which is why all these accusations of opportunism are flying around. I think that’s what sticks a little in the craw. I don’t mind him being ‘in’ or ‘out’ but, really, do we want a man who would use this for political advantage to be leading the nation? I not sure we do and I’m surprised that he’s allowed himself to be sucked into a game that will turn ugly in the next few months. I still think the next Tory leader will emerge from the shadows as Cameron did when everybody assumed David Davies was a shoe in.

      Yes, you’re right. 36.9%. I had a figure of around 26% stuck in my head for some reason. Was that the number of people eligible to vote? I will have to go off and look. However, the point is still the same: Cameron has a track record when it comes to elections and referenda and I’m not sure that his being perceived as leading the ‘in’ campaign is necessarily a good thing. He would be a bad loser but he’s an even worse winner. The treatment he handed out to the Lib Dems after their fall was just petty. Then there was the whole backtracking over what he’d agreed to give Scotland… I don’t know. I wonder if the personality of the Prime Minister won’t affect the result.

      First past the post was always said to ensure strong governments and I believed that. Not a UKIPper myself but their results seemed so outrageously unfair at the last election that it has now made me wonder. The political landscape has simply changed too much and I doubt we’ll ever head back to the two party system. PR must surely be the way of the future.

  2. I’m inclined to challenge you David as to what pre-referendum promises “evaporated” after the Scots voted no? It doesn’t take long to see that it’s very much to the SNP’s electoral advantage to play the victim card, but that it doesn’t stand up to very much scrutiny at all. After all, why would they want independence but reject full fiscal autonomy?

    • Fair point, Dan, and I’d definitely agree that it’s very much in the SNP’s interests to argue that promises were broken. However, what I’m arguing here is really about perceptions and there is an oft repeated accusation that promises were broken. Without offering a comprehensive list of examples, I’d point you here [LINK], here [LINK], and here [LINK]. As with most things to do with politics, the truth is less important than perceptions and if people think that Dave is tricky, that’s all that matters. It’s like Jeb Bush in the US. He wasn’t low energy but the label stuck. Ted Cruz is now being labelled a ‘liar’ and that too is sticking. I wouldn’t be surprised if Brexiters didn’t try to label Cameron. Might be difficult for him if they manage it.

  3. Everyone keeps asking what the UK would look like if we left the EU (not Europe, since we cannot move this island of ours).

    I ask what will the UK (no longer Great Britain I notice) look like if we stay in? Especially when Brussels have taken their foot off the pedal of the emergency brake (which isn’t written in stone yet). This is a vital question which is necessary to be answered on all sides before the referendum. We are after all deciding our children’s and grandchildren’s futures.

    In fairness, what is the difference between the ambition of George Osborne, Theresa May, or Boris Johnson? If G.O were to become Prime Minister, I for one will take a leave of absence from the UK formerly known as Great Britain.

  4. Boris Johnson? Sounds like he is a Donald Trump, and rather resembles him, too.

    • Not the first time that’s been said. He is a bit of a Trump figure: larger than life, occasionally funny, but often a bit potty. People either love him or hate him. Very few are indifferent to him.

    • I refer m’right honorouble friends to the Boris Trump cartoon in today copy of Her Majesty’s Times newspaper.

      • Great minds, I guess. I did attempt to draw Boris as Trump last week but it never looked right. Now I see that even Brookes has struggled, I don’t feel too bad. One of those cartoons that work better in the imagination than they do on the page…

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