Notes From the Margins…

The Resistible Rise of Boris the Clown

  • June 26, 2019
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Yesterday morning I watched Boris Johnson give two absolute car crash interviews on LBC and Talk Radio.  It was hard to know which of them was the worst: the one in which he refused to answer Nick Ferrari’s question regarding the date of his ‘Boris and Carrie’ photo, or the one in which he mumbled hallucinatory gibberish to his astounded interviewer about painting buses for a hobby.



In both interviews Johnson was clearly lying and dissembling, as he usually does whenever he’s exposed to anything approaching serious scrutiny.  But what was disturbing about these performances was the absence of any pretense that he was doing anything else.

There was no evidence of any preparation, no attempt to come up with answers to difficult questions, or even pay lip service to the suggestion that he should look ‘prime ministerial’ or dispel the question marks surrounding his character and competence.

Johnson knows the Tory membership will vote for him no matter what he says or does.  All he has to do to maintain that following is go to garden parties in Surrey and bloviate about ‘optimism’ and ‘determination’ and not paying the £39 million and the Tory Brexit cultists will go ga ga and weak at the knees.   When it comes to the country he claims to want to ‘unite’ however,  he doesn’t even bother to turn up to explain himself.  And when he does he feels able to  say or do anything he likes because, hey what? it was  good enough for Eton and the JCR, and good enough for the Tory Party,  and that means it’s good enough for the rest of us, and if not, yah boo, sucks.

All this is clearly a jape and a bit of a lark for Johnson – and to those who enjoy watching their country being flushed down the toilet, but to those who don’t, the prospect that such a man should become PM is a grim testament to our ongoing political implosion, and just because Johnson is a clown does not mean that he isn’t dangerous.

Steve Bannon didn’t boast about writing his speeches for nothing, and his followers aren’t supporting him for nothing.   Today Team Boris has been playing up the possibility that he will ignore parliament,  in the event that parliament votes against no deal.  First up on the Today programme was Dominic Raab, announcing that any motion from MPs against no deal would have ‘zero effect’, because Johnson would simply ignore it.

And here is Arron Banks’ sidekick Isabel Oakeshott, the journalist who gives journalists a bad name, nodding approvingly at a similar suggestion elsewhere:

Johnson and his followers – and the Brexit Party which supports the same deal even if it doesn’t support no deal – are playing an old game here.  In effect they are using a manufactured political conflict between the ‘will of the people’ – a ‘will’ defined by them –  and the ‘Westminster elite’ in order to degrade and bypass the institutions of representative democracy, while all the time claiming that they are acting in the name of ‘democracy’.

I thought of Johnson last night, while watching the Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa’s superb documentary The Edge of Democracy, about the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and the arrest of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on corruption charges.  It’s a terrific piece of work, part-personal memoir and part-political indictment, which traces the events of the last three years that led millions of Brazilians to vote for a fascist-politician who openly praises the country’s 21-year dictatorship and would clearly have no compunctions about bringing in another one.

Clearly there is a very specific Brazilian context behind this outcome, but there are also certain things that we can recognize over here: the brazen dishonesty of the congressmen who manipulated democratic procedures in order to bring down Rousseff while simultaneously avoiding legal scrutiny for their own crimes and misdemeanours; the  ability of the ‘populist’ right to use social media and ‘hot button’ issues about gender equality, white victimhood, and elite corruption to generate rage and hostility towards democratic institutions, to the point when millions of Brazilians were prepared to elect a politician previously regarded as a clown, who actually celebrated the man who once tortured Rousseff when she was a member of the revolutionary underground.

The Brexit circus is a long way from dictatorship and Johnson is not Bolsonaro, but the direction of travel is clear.  For the radical right, Brexit is a battering ram in the ongoing ‘war’ against ‘globalism’, multiculturalism and liberal democracy,  and now a rightwing movement that includes the Tory Party and also reaches beyond it, is seeking to reconfigure British politics on Bannonite lines.

It remains to be seen whether the bus-building clown who lied so brazenly yesterday has the competence or the ability to lead the kind of ‘coup’ that people like Oakeshott and Raab are proposing.  But the danger that Johnson poses is due as much to the hopes placed upon him and the constituency that he is trying to reach as it is to his own capabilities.

He may fail, but if he does then Farage and others will seek to take his place.

We need to wake up to this, and whatever the failings and imperfections of our antiquated democracy, we need to resist the Poundland putschists who would like to destroy it if it doesn’t give them what they want.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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