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Sun 8 December 2019
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Otto English calls time on the eccentric Etonian image of ‘Boris’ and sees Johnson’s antagonism and disdain for Parliament as a dangerous parallel with 1930s Germany.


Late on Tuesday evening, Boris Johnson stood before the 74th General Assembly of the United Nations and delivered a bizarre speech. It was ostensibly about Artificial Intelligence – a hobby horse of his advisor Dominic Cummings – but it bore all the hallmarks of one of Johnson’s columns.

The address served no clear purpose. It rambled on, making a lot of obvious points about the risks and benefits of AI, familiar to anyone who has watched a science fiction film in the past 30 years. 

The Prime Minister peppered the thin gruel with references to Prometheus, hangover cures, limbless chickens and magical mattresses that could read our dreams. It was those bits that made the news. The rest was drivel. 

Perhaps the speech had been written in a hurry. Perhaps it replaced something else that had been ditched – maybe something about Brexit or Britain’s future outside of the EU. The Supreme Court in London had, just that morning, ruled that his prorogation of Parliament had been unlawful. Perhaps Johnson had been left lumbered with something politically inopportune – and so read out an unpublished Telegraph column instead. 

This is bigger than Brexit. Our nation is teetering on an edge. It’s no longer about party lines or Leave or Remain. If we tolerate this, who knows what will happen next.

As it was, the speech didn’t get much attention beyond the limbless chickens and Prometheus. Most of the delegates didn’t understand it. Some looked bemused, the rest looked bored.

And that was what I was going to write about this week. 

I was going to write a piece about Johnson and Artificial Intelligence and Greek myth. It was going to be fairly light-hearted. I was going to argue why the Prime Minister is not Prometheus, or even Icarus, but more akin to Sisyphus – condemned forever by the Gods to roll the enormous bollocks of Brexit up and down Constitution Hill.

I was, in short, going to play along with Johnson: follow his lead, sing a jaunty chorus to his theme tune.

But then Boris, Al, the Hulk – or whatever he’s calling himself this week – returned to Westminster and the mask came off and none of it seemed funny anymore.


For years, even those of us who detest Johnson and his political trajectory, have been guilty of playing along with his game.

We’ve posted those pictures of him on the zip-wire, or running about with a rugger ball knocking over children. We’ve reiterated his words and adopted his phrases from the “pyramid of piffle” to “spaffing up the wall”. 

But, on Wednesday night in the House of Commons, something truly frightening happened and I realise that all of that now has to stop.

Taking his place at the despatch box in the Commons, Johnson voiced no contrition for his unlawful suspension of Parliament or for lying to the Queen. Nor did he make any apology for saying that he “disagreed profoundly” with the judgment of the Supreme Court.

Instead, he doubled down. He launched an attack on the perceived enemies of Brexit in poisonous and bellicose language. These adversaries included anyone who has the temerity of getting in his way.

He branded the Benn Act “the Surrender Act”. He accused the Leader of the Opposition of seeking to “overthrow the referendum”. When Labour MP Paula Sherriff called on the Prime Minister to stop using words such as “betrayal and traitor” and invoked the murder of her friend, the late Labour MP Jo Cox, as evidence of where such rhetoric can lead, he dismissed her impassioned speech as “humbug”.

And, when the opposition benches took him to task, he had the gall to suggest that the best way of honouring the memory of Jo Cox – murdered by a far-right terrorist during the 2016 EU Referendum – was to “get Brexit done”.   

Earlier in the day, Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, had provided the warm-up act. In a similarly dangerous and ill-tempered diatribe, he declared Parliament to be “dead” and propagated the treacherous lore that Brexit is being stifled by Remainers. 

The strategy is clear. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party, millionaire Old Etonian and former Mayor of London, is pitting himself and his loyal officers against Parliament and the courts. He’s depicting himself as an anti-Establishment figure – because he knows that there’s a large group of disciples willing to go along with it however absurd and preposterous that might be. In this narrative, he is the true ‘voice of the people’ seeking to enact their wishes and anyone who tries to hinder him is defying the sacred will of the British public.

And in this, he and his administration are behaving no differently to Hitler and the Nazis. 


“Wow!” shouts a Greek chorus of angry voices. “Did you really just say that?”

Well, yes, I did. You see, for much of my adult life, I have wondered how it happened. How did the Germany of the early 1930s descend into the depths of hell? How did the land of Rilke and Beethoven turn from being the most progressive and successful nation on earth into a degenerate rogue state that murdered its own people en masse and sought to annihilate a race?

It certainly didn’t happen overnight. It took years. From the end of the First World War, right-wing elements propagated Dolchstoßlegende, the idea that Germany had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by its own people including the left, republicans and the Jews. By 1933, the NSDAP had turned this lie into official German history. 

In their steady rise to power, Hitler and the Nazis portrayed themselves as outsiders – the true voice of the people. They delegitimised state institutions, the law, judges, journalists who disagreed with them and even prorogued the Reichstag to suit their own agenda. They abused process and got away with it. They branded their enemies ‘traitors’ and pitted themselves against the ‘establishment’ even as they themselves became the establishment. They even deployed a few referendums along the way and beguiled the people into voting against their own interests as Germany became ever more a pariah.

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I am not belittling the crimes of the Nazis. Nor am I suggesting that Boris Johnson is about to turn into a murderous dictator who is going to don a swastika and start rounding people up.

I am saying that this is the thin edge of an extremely dangerous wedge. This is how great states fail. If Johnson is allowed to get away with it, to suit his own agenda, then what is to stop others doing likewise? If he can ignore judgments, defy Parliament, enact a Brexit that nobody ever voted for, and suspend Parliament at will, we have lost. If there are individuals willing to dispense with their own values to go along with it, we have lost further – all of us.

This is bigger than Brexit. Our nation is teetering on an edge. It’s no longer about party lines or Leave or Remain. If we tolerate this, who knows what will happen next.

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