Boris Johnson’sMalignant Legacy
Paul Connew reflects on the Prime Minister’s long, scandal-ridden rise to the top of British politics
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Boris Johnson cast himself as the front of house showman for the official Brexit campaign group, Vote Leave, a role that at least one relative privately confides had far more to do with his transition from the boy who wanted to be ‘World King’ to the clownish man-child prepared to settle for Downing Street, than any great passion for Brexit itself.
Johnson indeed fulfilled his ambition, taking Britain out of the EU on the back of a referendum victory that ranks as the biggest mis-selling operation in our history, winning a landslide general election on the all too predictably unfulfilled promise of ‘Get Brexit Done’, before achieving another historic feat by becoming the first prime minister to be fined for breaking the law in office.
Finally, Johnson managed another milestone by becoming the prime minister humiliatingly ousted from office by a mass revolt of his own MPs and ministers, not on the honourable grounds of policy differences but by virtue of a sordid and shameful litany of lies, sleaze, law-breaking, cronyism, incompetence, hypocrisy, and a gargantuan sense of self-entitlement.
Doomed From the Start
Turning back the personal clock, my low opinion of Johnson began in 1990 when I was a young senior executive on the News of the World and he was a thrusting young Brussels Correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. One of my reporters was investigating Johnson’s Old Eton and Oxford chum Darius Guppy over a suspected fraud and Guppy, subsequently jailed in New York over a fake $1.8 million jewellery heist and fraud plot, had got wind of our investigation.
Guppy turned to Johnson to see if he could use his journalistic contacts to get a home address for our reporter, Stuart Collier, so he could arrange for a couple of heavies to beat him up and shut down the investigation.
In an infamous but character-informing taped conversation which became known as ‘Guppygate’, Johnson agreed to help. Far from being outraged, he expressed relief when Guppy told him that Collier would only get “a couple of black eyes and a cracked rib” and our future prime minister and disgraced star of the psychodrama known as ‘Partygate’ said, “Ok, Darry, I said I’ll do it. I’ll do it, don’t worry.”
In the end, the planned assault never happened. But, when the tape emerged, Johnson sought to laugh it off, claiming he was only humouring his chum. His then-editor Max Hastings took a dimmer view and disciplined him without giving Johnson the boot. I wonder if Hastings ever privately muses that if he had given his young Brussels staffer the sack, the course of British history may have been changed for the better.
Collier anticipated an apology. But Johnson doesn’t do apologies, just witness his embittered, graceless Number 10 resignation speech that omitted the ‘R’-word.
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The First Slice of Cakeism
Over the years, I’ve encountered Johnson at various political, charity and social events. One Brexit encounter sticks in the memory. We were on opposite sides of a very early debate on the issue when a young woman in the audience asked how the UK could afford to exit the single market and the customs union and achieve the sunny uplands being heralded by Johnson and his allies.
The answer to that young woman’s question exemplified the ‘cakeism’ bluster and boosterism we have since come to know so well and at great cost. “The Europeans need us far more than we need them,” he reassured her. “They’ll give us the Brexit we want and we’ll still get the benefits of the single market and the customs union as we go our own way too.”
He either knew it was palpable nonsense or a blatant lie. At its most charitable, this was a sign of Johnson’s lazy disregard for detail, leaving that to the likes of Dominic Cummings while, with the support of his cheerleaders on the Conservative right and in the pro-Brexit Tory newspapers, Johnson could indulge his flamboyant ‘jolly joker’ persona and pose ad nauseum in front of that battle bus with its bullshit “£350 million a week for the NHS” slogan.
Undoubtedly, Boris and his ‘Heineken man’ charisma was a big factor. For many traditional Labour supporters who voted Leave, contempt for the austerity policies of David Cameron and George Osborne and the sinking feeling of being left behind, together with the immigration issue, were critical. Johnson looked like an unusual celebrity politico; not your run-of-the-mill Westminster suit.
It was a myth, of course, as more recent history has proven. But it was a masterclass in bogus personality marketing, since exposed by showing Johnson to be the personification of elitism, privilege, cronyism, and self-entitlement. He hid all this brilliantly and millions of reasonable people swallowed it for so long, partly because they wanted to believe it.
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From Brexit to Regrexit
The last dozen or so major opinion polls reveal support for Brexit and the Johnson Government’s handling of it is now consistently in the minority, some showing margins well into double digits.
To a degree, this reflects a growing awareness of the messages of most economists and many business leaders and analysts – that Brexit will increasingly cause far greater and sustained damage to the UK economy than COVID. Indeed, the pandemic did gift Boris Johnson and his Government a spade with which to half-bury the truth about a Brexit that, for all the boasts, is not nearly “done”.
To an even greater degree, the current cost of living crisis is exponentially expanding the ranks of disillusioned Leavers via soaring bills, broken promises, hospital waiting lists, the indignity of the food bank trip, while Johnson’s Brexit is still the time-bomb that could rip apart the very fabric of the UK.
In simple terms, the clear consensus among the majority of experts is that Brexit alone will mean UK economic growth could be stunted for up to 15 years, with a GDP performance at the bottom end of the world’s 22 most advanced economies, a similar rating for overseas investment in Britain, higher inflation rates, and slower recovery prospects compared to the EU generally.
The result? The average UK worker will be substantially poorer, quite apart from the negative impact of the Ukraine war and its unpredictable duration and economic fallout.
I winced as Johnson gloated over Keir Starmer’s misguided, outdated, and needless pronouncement that Labour would not only never seek to reverse Brexit but wouldn’t consider either rejoining the single market or the customs union, despite all the expert evidence it would make eminent economic sense.
The Starmer statement was clearly aimed at reassuring remaining Brexit devotees in the Red Wall. The timing, not long before the Johnson defenestration, was certainly unfortunate in the sense that it reopened old wounds and rifts within Labour. And with the polls shifting against Brexit, even in disillusioned, Boris-betrayed Red Wall seats, why the hell bother?
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It seemed curious, too, when influential Conservative politicians, such as Tobias Ellwood and the arch Brexiter and former Conservative MEP Lord Daniel Hannan, have floated the idea of exploring rejoining the single market and customs union without fully rejoining the EU. Predictably both were publicly savaged by Johnson loyalists and the Conservative right inside Parliament. Privately, however, some more thoughtful Tory MPs echo their thoughts.
The emerging tale of the opinion polls suggests that the public could be ahead of the political class in painfully recognising the world in 2022 as a brutally different place from the one in 2016, or even 2019, and the hard Brexit of Boris Johnson is more toxic than triumphant.
If Starmer had played his cards better, he could have nicked that famously successful ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ Tory election slogan designed by Saatchi and Saatchi for Margaret Thatcher in 1978/79. Only this revised version would read ‘Brexit Isn’t Working’.
As a senior Johnson loyalist turned defector put it to me: “Boris took particular delight in his ‘Captain Hindsight’ tag for Starmer and laboured it for all it was worth it. But if Starmer has any sense, he’d U-turn on that speech and cast himself as Captain Foresight. Boris might feel he’s being betrayed all over again, but this Government can’t afford to go into the next election pretending or campaigning on Boris’ Brexit record as a sacred legacy ticket.”
Maybe Boris fears that himself? Hence the 15 July post-downfall splash headline in the slavishly loyal Daily Express “BORIS MESSAGE TO NEXT PM: ‘YOU MUST FINISH JOB ON BREXIT’”.
This was based, I’m told, on a personal briefing suggestion by the ‘big dog’ himself. Close to tears, faithful Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries apparently rushed to implant the idea among lobby journalists that Boris could yet return as a future prime minister (presumably after a Conservative election drubbing). It’s a thought Johnson himself may harbour. After all, his hero Churchill was the ultimate political Comeback Kid.
Paul Connew is a media commentator and broadcaster, former national newspaper editor and co-author and editor of the new book, ‘Boris Johnson: Media Creation, Media Clown, Media Casualty’. Above is a lightly edited version of one of the chapters.