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By Federico Larsen
Finally, the gauche leader of the brexiteers achieved his main goal. Boris Johnson became Britain’s prime minister after a political career that, according to many, aimed at that office from the very first minute, even before Brexit even existed in the minds of the English. Opposite 10 Downing Street, the residence and headquarters of all the British heads of government, he reaffirmed the eccentric plan that allowed him to become the star of his country’s politics, and move from the silent and almost shameful support of the conservative on foot, to a solid candidate to replace the resigning Theresa May. “We are going to prepare the country to leave the European Union on October 31,” Johnson said. And he has already taken the first steps to do so.
A popular aristocrat
Alexander Boris of Pfeffel Johnson is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable characters in British politics since time immemorial. Son of the English aristocracy, he was formed along with his brother Jo to join the exclusive elite that discusses “high politics” in the halls of British power. Secondary school in Eton -founded by Henry VII in 1440 and forming 19 prime ministers, princes, diplomats, academics and military-, and university in Oxford. By leveraging her contacts, he managed to work as a journalist for the prestigious Times, from which he was quickly dismissed for inventing a quote about a supposed lover of Edward II.
It was again his influential friendships that allowed him to enter as editor of the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper where he worked for 19 years and which allowed him to become a public figure. He debuted as a correspondent in Brussels, from where he learned to stimulate the distrust of the British towards European politics, without skimping on free interpretations or open falsehoods. Such as when he alarmed his countrymen by announcing the European Community’s intolerable decision to ban shrimp-flavoured French fries, or the embarrassing imposition of a one-size-fits-all condom for all European citizens. This is how he became deputy director of the Telegraph, and in 1999 editor of The Spectator. Meanwhile, his father, an acclaimed conservative writer and MEP from 1979 to 1984, a former employee of the World Bank and the European Commission, continued to defend the fervently Europeanist sector of British conservatism.
In 2001, Boris achieved his first term as a Member of Parliament for the traditionally conservative Henley-on-Thames district. There he continued to cultivate a burlesque profile, at the limit between caricature and the seriousness of his investiture. As when he called “piccaninnies” – a racist and offensive name for black children – the Africans who approached Queen Elizabeth during her tour of the Commonwealth of Nations in Africa. Or as when she compared Hillary Clinton to a “sadistic nurse in a mental hospital. Such racists, misogynists and homophobes that, however, she moderated with public facts and positions, as when she voted in favor of the law that allows adoption by homosexual couples, something not so discounted among the Tories.
His figure grew until, in 2008, he became mayor of London, where he had the opportunity to show his skills in public management. “Johnson’s governments in the city had the cosmetic notes that all right-wing governments have that want to look progressive,” he explained in dialogue with L`Ombelico del Mondo Fernando Sdrigotti, a professor of Latin American and Spanish literature at the University of London, where he has lived since 2002.
“There was a lot of work on the aesthetic level of the city, or vanity projects that had a very high cost, and that perhaps was not justified. Even today, the system of public bicycles that can be rented in London are known as “Boris bikes”, and the 550 Routemaster bought under his administration to recover the classic two-story London buses, retired under the previous mandate, continue to circulate in the streets. “The Routemasters cost 350,000 pounds each, double the cost of a normal buses,” Sdrigotti said. “There was a project to build a bridge, for which 53 million pounds of consultation was spent and never built. All very nice things but at the level of infrastructure in the city in the end very little was done and a lot was cut. As in the case of the police, fire stations were closed, autonomies were sold, subway ticket offices were closed. They were administrations that had a very strong repercussion from the point of view of the city’s infrastructure, embellished with these vanity projects, and we are still paying the consequences of that.
After two terms at the head of London’s mayoral office, Johnson descended into the arena of national politics by supporting the leave campaign in the referendum on the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU), which was held in May 2016. There it once again revealed its ability to spread distorted truths, albeit on much more complex issues than french fries and condoms.
Johnson transited halfway around England on a bus entirely plotted with the number 350: according to his team, that was the amount of millions of pounds (equivalent to USD 435 million) that Britain spent daily on contributions to the EU, and which were taken from the coffers of the rundown National Health Service (NHS), the historic pride of the British system. Also famous was one of his campaign phrases: “Voting for the Tories will make your wife’s breasts grow and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3”.
In spite of having been the mayor of the city with the greatest support for the permanence of Great Britain in the EU, Johnson achieved from that moment on a national projection that earned him a great political capital. “London is a bubble, here the idea of going out is not very popular, but if you go to other localities in the country you are going to find an accumulated anger, wanting to hit the ground because something has to change,” said Sdrigotti, who, in a very good article recently published in Crisis Magazine, underlines the popular profile and aristocratic origin of Johnson.
“And almost all the communities that have voted to leave the EU have suffered austerity policies over the last 40 years. Therefore, there is a social issue that shifts from the need for a change of policies within the country to the need to leave the Union. For example, Wales: a part of the UK that voted clearly to leave the EU is one of the parts of the UK that receives the most money from the European Union. But it is also one of the parts that suffered the most austerity policies from the British government”, he exemplified.
With the victory of Yes in the referendum on Brexit, the resignation of then Prime Minister David Cameron and the assumption of Theresa May, Johnson became the chancellor of the United Kingdom. He was the first to pay tribute to the victims of the Falkland war on Argentine soil, during the 2018 G20, among other things.
His mandate as foreign minister was recognized more for his role than for his achievements. Faced with the imprisonment in Tehran of an Anglo-Iranian citizen, Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, accused of espionage, Johnson publicly assured that she had traveled to the Islamic Republic “to teach journalism to these people,” a phrase that was used against Zaghari Ratcliffe to sentence her to five years in prison. Johnson apologized, but Zaghari Ratcliffe is still in an Iranian prison.
The course of May’s government, and its failed attempts to secure approval of an agreement negotiated with the EU to make Brexit effective, saw Johnson switch sides. He resigned as minister and led the sector that fiercely opposed May’s plan until it fell. This is another of Johnson’s characteristics: his nose for political opportunity seems to be greater than his institutional and even ideological loyalty.
Johnson’s new government
Johnson managed to become prime minister thanks to the British institutional system that was also harshly questioned. When it comes to voting, the British do not directly choose a candidate for prime minister, but a party that then internally defines who will be the leader who will take the reins of the Executive. With the resignation of Theresa May, the Conservative Party began internal voting to replace her from her position as party leader, a role that coincides with that of prime minister. Thus Boris Johnson became head of government, with the explicit backing of only 0.14% of the British electorate.
Party members can end up being much more valuable than a good election campaign for someone who wants to climb to the top of British power. The buffoonish Johnson knows this well, and in recent years a sufficiently attractive image has been built to attract voters dissatisfied with leadership among the Tories.
As the liberal and sensible conservative suit had already been assumed by David Cameron (prime minister from 2010 to 2016), Johnson exploited the figure of the charismatic leader, the one who speaks to the voters’ impulse and not to their conscience, the pragmatic one “who says what others don’t say”. Many times this profile has even been above ideological convictions. In a book published in 2016, writer and journalist Tim Shipman claims that, at the start of the Brexit campaign, Johnson had two editorials written for the Daily Telegraph: one for the UK’s exit from the EU, and one against. According to Shipman, the current hardcore guru Brexit waited until the last moment to define himself in favour of the leavers, for a simple calculation of the political advantages that this would bring him within the party.
The new prime minister finds himself at the same crossroads as his predecessor, that of endorsing his position at the ballot box and obtaining the popular mandate which, for the time being, he lacks.
Johnson, who boasts among his ancestors a general dismembered by orders of Kemal Atatürk at the beginning of the 20th century, meanwhile presented a cabinet with two fundamental characteristics: a clear profile in favour of the hard Brexit -matized perhaps by some individualities such as Gavin Williamson or Mark Spencer-; and a cosmopolitan composition, with several ministers of foreign origin, such as the nationalist Priti Patel, new interior minister and daughter of an Indian Sik family, or the new British-Pakistani finance minister, Sajid Javid.
“What he is doing is putting people who campaigned to get out of the EU,” explained Sdrigotti. “So far what we see is that this is a cabinet designed to get out in any way possible. Yes, it is true that there is a complex message. British politics is a little more complex than American politics; there is more multiculturalism, even within the right.
The challenges it will have to face are many and very important, and there is already some scepticism about its chances of success. He promised to leave the EU in 100 days at all costs: “Do or die”, he said. Very little is known about the plan he has formed to cushion the deficit of 30 billion euros a year that this would cause if no agreement is reached with Brussels on a common tariff policy.
If a Brexit were to be reached without an agreement, from 1 November trade between Great Britain and Europe would be governed on the basis of the provisions of the World Trade Organisation, introducing barriers and tariffs where they do not exist today. In addition to the increase in the price of imports – Great Britain imports half of the food it consumes from the EU – there would be a customs chaos which would lead to a shortage of basic necessities.
In 2018, the British government published the “No Deal Guidance Notes”, a document that measured the consequences of a Brexit without an agreement with the EU. The outlook would be very serious: the fall in GDP could reach 10.7% in just 15 years. The most affected would be the pharmaceutical and automotive industries: a loss of approximately 20% of each. The pound would fall by 25% and unemployment would double.
Johnson, however, remains firm in his position of leaving on 31 October, but for that he will necessarily need the approval of Parliament. And for now he is far from having the votes needed to avoid a swamp like his predecessor.
The road to an orderly Brexit – with or without agreement – will also depend on the decisions that Johnson will take on other foreign policy issues. The first major issue will be the release of the British ship Stena Impero, captured by Iran in the context of the conflict unleashed by Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the 2015 pact on Iranian uranium enrichment. The May government remained close to the position of its European partners, Germany and France, who are trying at all costs to keep the agreement negotiated by Obama alive. But Johnson, very well seen by Trump although there is no real political-diplomatic closeness, could decide to lean his external action on Anglo-American relations, in view of possible conflicts with European governments because of a hard Brexit. The United Kingdom and the United States are now close to consolidating a special relationship, but there is still a long way to go before it comes out to play in the international order.
This is compounded by internal challenges. A hard Brexit would imply by default the establishment of a border between the Republic of Ireland, which would remain within the EU, and Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom. Such a situation would mean reviving the ashes of a century-old conflict, which has already had some serious episodes of violence over the past year.
Brexit also revived the independence intentions of the Scots. The failed referendum in 2014 had a favourable outcome for the United Kingdom because of the uncertainty that would open up for the Scots about their European future if they were to separate from London. But now that it is the British who want to leave the EU, Scotland is preparing to propose once again its independence and permanence in the EU. An open front months ago, on which Johnson has not yet taken clear measures.
In short, Johnson’s election is more than ever a bet for the UK. Because, like all bets, it has a good chance of going wrong. But it also has the certainty of having a helmsman who appears to be determined and to have a plan. It must be consolidated as soon as possible if it does not want to end up in the uncertainty that has governed Great Britain since 2016.