Boris: Hero to zero in three years

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Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/palace-london-parliament-big-ben-530055/

Do not go gently into that good night.” Reluctant to stand down, Boris Johnson might have drawn inspiration from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. After being forced to resign as prime minister by his mutinous colleagues last week, he compared himself with Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese army officer who refused to surrender at the end of the Second World War, and only emerged from hiding in the jungle of the Philippines 29 years later.

A Greek tragedy, the collapse of a colossus with feet of clay, or a figure who will be remembered as responsible for one of the most seminal policy moments in British history – notably Brexit, a fundamental shift in the international posture of the world’s fifth largest economy, with momentous implications for many countries, including South Africa, where the UK is the second largest investor.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was all of these things, but above all he was the once-golden boy of the British Conservative Party who squandered the opportunities that Brexit might have offered, through sheer inept planning. In particular, his promise to “level up” Britain, between the rich south and the poor north, has, so far, come to almost nothing.

As The Guardian noted, he entered Downing Street in July 2019 with a promise. The “doubters, doomsters and gloomers” were going to get it wrong again: his leadership would make Brexit a success, reigniting an economy stalled by the divisions over Europe.

Three years later, almost to the day, he prepares to leave, with the country reeling from an implosion of his own making and an economy teetering on the brink of recession. The cost of living is accelerating at the fastest annual rate in 40 years, while families face the worst hit to real disposable income on record.

This wasn’t in the “Boris script”, but as The Guardian also concedes, neither was the biggest global health emergency in a century, and war on European soil.

Levelling up and “making Brexit work” has now ironically become the official policy of the opposition Labour Party, while they joke: “Make exit work, Boris!”

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Levelling up and “making Brexit work” has now ironically become the official policy of the opposition Labour Party, while they joke: “Make exit work, Boris!”
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So, what went wrong? A number of unfortunate coincidences, probably. Most notably, being a man whose reputation as a true libertarian in the John Stuart Mill mould was established, he himself fell foul of too much libertarianism when it entered the sphere of his own life, which, when he became prime minister, made his private behaviour a public spectacle.

The rise and fall of the most controversial, scandal-ridden British prime minister since “Welsh Wizard” Lloyd George has been well charted. With an American mother (in fact, he was an American citizen until he gave it up a few years ago), Johnson was a classic product of Eton and Oxford, with debating skills honed in the tradition of the great British “public” schools, enjoying a superb education which equipped him with Latin and foreign languages and an ability to toss off quotations from classic literature seemingly at whim. He spent a lot of time in Brussels as a reporter for British publications, but allegedly gained a reputation for skewing the facts to get a good story. Nonetheless, this didn’t prevent him from becoming editor of the intellectual Spectator magazine, and later mayor of London, where he did a competent job, sorting out trade union disputes with underground rail staff, introducing new buses and “Boris bikes” – now a ubiquitous part of the London landscape – and building a base of Conservative Party support, allowing him (eventually) to win the prime ministership on the back of his campaign to encourage the UK to leave the European Union: Brexit.

He went on to achieve the largest conservative majority in a general election in many years, but failed utterly to capitalise on his majority in parliament. Instead, he became mired in scandal, accused by his enemies – including former “remainers” in his own party – of outright lies. 

Matters were further complicated for Boris when he moved into Number Ten Downing Street. Pretty soon, there was an avalanche of negative press reporting about the expensive refurbishment that the soon to be Mrs Johnson was installing. Then there was further embarrassment for Johnson when a supposed old flame from his mayoral days surfaced. There were stories of impropriety involving official trips she may or may not have undertaken – more unwelcome press stories for Boris.

At Number Ten, a fraught atmosphere existed between the prime minister’s special advisor, Dominic Cummings, the genius behind the Brexit campaign, and Mrs Johnson, who was accused of exerting too much influence over Johnson’s policy decisions and appointments. Matters came to a head when Cummings felt he had no option but to resign. 

Johnson was a COVID survivor and staggered back to the office after a close encounter with the Grim Reaper. His return – and his birthday – was celebrated by a series of social get-togethers by his office staff as well as Mrs Johnson, who had organised a surprise birthday party. All this took place during the most severe lockdown in British history. It was leaked to the press, an official enquiry happened, and the prime minister was fined for breaking his own lockdown rules, even though he told parliament that he believed he was following good advice at the time.

As the public began to lose confidence in their prime minister, Boris clung to office, seemingly “saved” by the war in Ukraine, which allowed him to divert public attention to matters of greater importance. And, in fact, since February when Russia invaded Ukraine, he has established a European- and Nato-wide reputation for leading from the front, even though French President Macron privately called him a “clown”, according to press reports. A street has been named after Boris in Ukraine, and he has resolutely refused to countenance the possibility that in order to secure a peace plan with Russia, an accommodation must be made in the border dispute between Ukraine and Russia. This has put the UK at odds with France and Germany, but not America.

Then came the bombshell last week. An MP with historical accusations of “sexual groping” was promoted by Johnson, despite his knowing of these accusations. It was an ethical breach too far for 58 of Johnson’s Conservatives, who all resigned and demanded his head, a reminder that prime ministers in Britain serve at the pleasure of their MPs.

It is early days yet, and Boris Johnson remains prime minister until a new leader has been elected, which could take days or weeks. But the koel is deur die kerk, as they say. It’ll happen.

Candidates for the top job are lining up. But it’s not too soon to read the tea leaves. The new prime minister will not risk the same fate as Boris and will strive to be as virtuous as Caesar’s wife, and much more cautious. This may suit the EU. Johnson was a very difficult partner. Britain is the EU’s largest trading partner, and the hope in Brussels will be for a more diplomatic PM.

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Candidates for the top job are lining up. But it’s not too soon to read the tea leaves. The new prime minister will not risk the same fate as Boris and will strive to be as virtuous as Caesar’s wife, and much more cautious. This may suit the EU. Johnson was a very difficult partner. Britain is the EU’s largest trading partner, and the hope in Brussels will be for a more diplomatic PM.
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Relations between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the context of Brexit remain a big sticking point. The hope in Brussels will be that the role of the European Court of Justice in trade dispute arbitrations – a major cause of dispute – can be resolved. A new prime minister might engineer this, where Boris wants, instead, to change the Northern Ireland Protocol unilaterally as a tactical measure in talks with the EU. A bill in Westminster is currently making its way through the House of Commons.

Relations between the United States and the new prime minister may depend on the outcome of the Northern Ireland Protocol talks. This all goes back to the fragile peace established by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Brexit wasn’t welcomed by the Democrats, who have subsequently come to power in Washington. Biden is very pro-Irish, and a new British prime minister will have to get his marbles carefully in a row before that first phone call with the American president. The Americans in office now, believe that Brexit was “missold” by Boris Johnson and his allies. They are very anxious to see harmonious relations across the entire EU, given the threat from Russia to democracy.

On Ukraine, there are unlikely to be any changes. The British civil service is not as politically vulnerable to elections as is the case in America, and British support for Ukraine will continue as before at the institutional level. There is wide support in the UK for the war against Russia (which is what it feels like). Sanctions against Moscow will continue to tighten, and this could have implications for Moscow’s perceived “friends” – the members of the BRICS group, which includes South Africa. Pretoria will have to be careful not to be seen to be enabling Russia to sidestep these sanctions, and thereby diluting British efforts in this regard. The British public are currently paying through the nose for fuel sourced elsewhere instead of from Russia, and will view sanction busters in a very negative light.

Contenders for Boris’s job will therefore outdo themselves in statements of support for Ukraine and of condemnation of sanction busters worldwide.

At the end of the day, however, whoever becomes prime minister will have to deal with big geopolitical shifts. The looming energy crisis, as winter approaches and gas and oil sanctions remain in place against Russia, might break the sanctions alliance, causing Putin to increase his Ukraine offensive. In fact, he said last week that Russia has hardly begun her offensive.

China, likewise, is an increasing worry as her economy tanks domestically. In order to divert attention from internal economic woes, President Xi might choose his moment – finally – to launch an attack on Taiwan.

Both these threats would seriously destabilise the world economy and make a new British prime minister’s job more difficult, going to the heart of British political and economic decisions. It is said that the final straw for Chancellor (the British finance minister) Rishi Sunak to resign was a fight with Boris Johnson, who wanted to reverse the decision to impose a corporate tax hike early next year. A general election is likely to be called within a year by the new Conservative prime minister, and one may be sure that the fight will be over the usual promises to beef up pensions and health on the one hand, and cut personal tax on the other. Lockdown restrictions may be required in the autumn again. It’ll all be down to the economy.

What will Boris do now? Most likely, he’ll join the speech round of ex-PMs. Mrs May, his predecessor, is said to have greatly augmented her pension in speaker’s fees, and no doubt this option will cross Boris’s mind as well. Will anyone pay to listen to him?

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What will Boris do now? Most likely, he’ll join the speech round of ex-PMs. Mrs May, his predecessor, is said to have greatly augmented her pension in speaker’s fees, and no doubt this option will cross Boris’s mind as well. Will anyone pay to listen to him?
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He has clearly been ambushed by events, and his reputation tarnished to the extent that many of the spoof memes about him on social media could never be published in a reputable outlet. Al Capone was trapped through tax evasion, Boris Johnson through evasion. Sex, lies and videotapes seem to be the gist. But on the radio, historians are already judging him less harshly. His flaws are evident, as is his enthusiasm for a vision for Britain, the achievement of which, however, has often meant an elastic relationship with the truth. Comparisons will obviously be made with his successor – and if they fail to retain the support of the former Labour “Red Wall” voters in the north, then Boris’s few remaining supporters will be able to say getting rid of him was a mistake. He was a patriotic Brit at bottom, who, unlike Rishi Sunak, for example, did not hold onto an American “green card”. He was also a low tax Tory, free marketeer and free trader trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea of protectionism. The world is abandoning the old liberal rules-based order in favour of geopolitics, where self-interest will be rife: a Hobbesian world. In many ways, Boris was ahead of his time, inasmuch as he launched the multiple free port programme for the UK, which will complement the multiple free trade agreements already concluded after Brexit.

Another thing to watch will be Britain’s approach to trafficked migrants. Will the Rwanda processing policy be continued with? At present, the UK is making it easier through a global points-based system for South Africans, Australians, Chinese and others to enter the UK in search of work under this system. Many have arrived since the automatic entry of Europeans from the EU was abolished. But there is still no one to bring in the harvest and pick fruit, and crops are being ploughed into the ground. There are those who argue that the illegal migrants should be employed on the fields while their applications are being processed. But this might run the risk of rewarding the traffickers and lead to more deaths and make Whitehall potentially culpable in law.

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Another thing to watch will be Britain’s approach to trafficked migrants. Will the Rwanda processing policy be continued with? At present, the UK is making it easier through a global points-based system for South Africans, Australians, Chinese and others to enter the UK in search of work under this system. Many have arrived since the automatic entry of Europeans from the EU was abolished.
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In so many ways, though, including on the migrant issue, the UK is ad idem with the rest of the EU, part of fortress Europe, and – as a result of the Ukraine-Russian war – is ironically being drawn into even closer cooperation through NATO and other EU-wide initiatives to help Ukraine. In the UK, the first of ten thousand Ukrainian soldiers arrived this week to be trained to use sophisticated British weaponry.

Against this increasing backdrop of a potential Third World War, the new prime minister needs to enjoy the absolute trust and confidence of the British public and the wider Western world, and Boris has sadly failed in this regard, owing to his character flaws. But, as he would say in different circumstances, in his ebullient fashion: the king is dead, long live the king!

Also read:

So long Boris and thanks for nothing

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