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Tue 20 August 2019
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Otto English on why the realities of high office are dawning on our new Prime Minister.


Last week, fresh from the Palace, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood outside the door of Number 10 Downing Street and declared: “The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters [are] all going to get proved wrong… the people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts, because we are going to restore trust in democracy.” 

Brimming with confidence, he added that all of this would be achieved by 31 October and if it isn’t, we would leave anyway “no ifs, no buts”. 

A purge of the old guard followed and over the next few days Johnson fanzines, headed by the Daily Telegraph, turned into the print equivalent of screaming teenage girls at an early Beatles concert. 

Tory Leave wet dream, followed wet dream. Johnson’s cabinet was assembled; a Marvel Avengers version of Brexit, where all the heroes are present even if they only get a couple of lines. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and Esther McVey all got jobs. Dominic Cummings was appointed chief adviser and there was even a walk-on role for Chloe Westley of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

He has tried to blame Britain’s ills on Europe, he has posed with chickens, he has tried to invoke Churchill by talking of “war cabinets”.

Many willed him to fail but even his harshest critics had to admit that Johnson didn’t miss a step. His first appearance in the Commons opposite Jeremy Corbyn was a success. A 10-point Tory lead over the Labour party followed.

Nigel Farage – realising that Johnson had now stolen every single one of his handful of semi-baked ideas – cautiously endorsed him and began to look around for something else to do with his life. Perhaps this was it. The Brexit endgame had come. The war was over and the Leavers had finally won.

I was accosted by an academic in a Soho bar who whispered “you know I’m Remain, I’m Remain through and through – but maybe Johnson is the guy to take us forward and out of the nightmare”.

But, a week is a long time in politics and Prime Minister Johnson quickly ran out of hot air. 

Just saying stuff will happen does not make stuff happen. You can’t strike a better deal if you refuse point blank to meet your opposite numbers. 

You see, incredibly, instead of setting up meetings with his fellow heads of state and selling his Brexit vision, Johnson has declared that he won’t meet Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron or any of the EU heads unless they scrap the backstop. This is the same ludicrous negotiating tactic he deployed when as Mayor of London he refused to engage with London Underground union reps. It didn’t work then and led to long strikes. It’s even less likely to work now – and the end result will be far more damaging.

Johnson is all about image and image management. His team has already set to work on a £100 million taxpayer-funded propaganda campaign – the biggest of its kind since World War Two – to convince the British people that a ‘no deal’ Brexit will be fine and, failing that, it will be everyone else’s fault. Every single reputable economist disagrees. And so do the markets, which is why the pound has plummeted since his appointment. It is currently the second worst performing currency in the world – after the Madagascan Ariary.  

Some Brexit cultists argue that a weak currency is good for the economy. They’re wrong. Unless you’re a hedge fund manager or a holiday lettings firm in Cornwall, a weak pound is a disaster. It’s bad for consumers and calamitous for manufacturers relying on tight margins and supply chains. It’s awful for pensioners, holiday-makers or anyone who has an interest in the British economy functioning. A falling currency is like a failing heart. If it were otherwise, then Madagascar would be the economic powerhouse of the global economy and Italy would have been the envy of the world in the Berlusconi years.

As the pound dives, the penny, at least for some, is dropping.

Johnson was loudly booed on a visit to Wales amidst fears of what ‘no deal’ might do to Welsh farming. He was also jeered on a visit to Scotland. While few things are certain in Brexit Britain, it seems safe to bet that this will not be the end of the ridicule. This is the beginning of the holiday season and, as millions jet-off abroad to find that their money doesn’t stretch very far, many will put two and two together.

Johnson has responded in the only way he knows how. Dead cats and bluster. In interviews he has tried to blame Britain’s ills on Europe, he has posed with chickens, he has tried to invoke Churchill by talking of “war cabinets”, he has sought to reassure farmers with empty platitudes, he has fired off soundbite after soundbite and bullshitted and puffed and beseeched.   

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“Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility,” one of his teachers wrote of him, during his last year at Eton. “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else.”

Johnson could just about get away with that attitude as a roguish schoolboy, a caddish Oxford academic and a comedy London Mayor. His short and disastrous spell as Foreign Secretary demonstrated that the same antics don’t work in high office. As the pound devalues and everything turns to shit, he’d do well to acquaint himself better with that chicken that he hugged so tightly this week – because there’s every chance that it’s coming home to roost. 

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