July 1. 2016
Boris Johnson–The BREXIT Buffoon
by D. D. Guttenplan*
THE problem with spending your whole life pretending to be a buffoon is that eventually people start to believe you.
The British are spared of this Brexit Buffoon
Back in April, when the possibility of Britain actually voting to leave the European Union seemed remote, two newspapers commissioned a poll asking which political figure readers would most like to dine with. Boris Johnson, who had recently announced his support for Brexit, was the winner by a wide margin: 38 percent of respondents said they’d prefer his company, compared with 18 percent for the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and just 12 percent for the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron.
This morning, I found myself wondering how many had changed their minds, for Mr. Johnson — or Boris, as he’s universally known here — now seems more like the sort of date who’d order a lavish meal and the best wine on the menu and then walk out, leaving his companions with the check.
A week ago Britain had the fifth largest economy in the world. By the weekend, after Britons had voted by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the European Union, it had slipped to sixth place, behind France. Mr. Cameron, who had staked his political future on the vote, resigned.His successor, it was widely assumed, would be Boris Johnson.
The tousled blond figurehead of the Leave campaign had been seen as prime minister in waiting since his return to Parliament last year. He and Michael Gove — like Mr. Johnson, a journalist turned Tory politician — were the intellectual heavyweights of the campaign, widely expected to become next-door neighbors in government, with Mr. Johnson as Prime Minister at No. 10 Downing Street and the Goves in No. 11, the residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Michael and Sarah G0ve
The Goves had other ideas. On Wednesday, Mr. Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, a columnist for The Daily Mail, inadvertently leaked an email indicating her distrust of Mr. Johnson. “You MUST have SPECIFIC assurances from Boris OTHERWISE you cannot guarantee your support,” she admonished her husband. She also reminded him that both Paul Dacre, The Mail’s powerful editor, and Rupert Murdoch “instinctively dislike Boris but trust your ability enough to support a Boris Gove ticket.” (Before he became a member of Parliament, Mr. Gove was an editorial writer for Mr. Murdoch’s Times).
Yet in her own column that day, Ms. Vine gave no hint that Mr. Gove had any plan to supplant Mr. Johnson as favorite to be the next Conservative leader and Prime Minister. The same could hardly be said of Boris, whose ambition was as broad as his indiscretions.
Playing the clown served Mr. Johnson well, though. It created a cushion of public indulgence around his persona, even as the Old Etonian plotted his next career move. The young reporter who was fired by The Times in 1988 for fabricating a quotation became the editor of The Spectator in 1999. The newspaper columnist who in 2002 wrote scornfully of “flag-waving piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” was elected mayor of one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities in the world in 2008.
Along the way, he fathered two children out of wedlock. In 2013, an Appeal Court castigated him for the “reckless” conduct of his “philandering.”
We can’t say we weren’t warned. When Mr. Johnson took over at The Spectator, his friend and biographer, the political journalist Andrew Gimson, remarked that it was like “entrusting a Ming vase to an ape.” Somehow, though, none of the buffoonery or scandal slowed him down. It was just Boris being Boris.
He even got away with an extraordinary degree of flip-flopping on Brexit: from “finely balanced” in February to all-out in April to his latest, post-referendum column for The Daily Telegraph, in which he assured readers that “Britain is part of Europe, and always will be.”
Recklessness doesn’t get near it. On Thursday morning, after destroying the political career of his old school chum Mr. Cameron, wrecking the British economy and possibly breaking up Britain, Mr. Johnson announced that he wouldn’t be sticking around to clean up the mess he’d made. His erstwhile ally, Mr. Gove, delivered the coup de grâce as he announced his own candidacy for the Conservative leadership: “Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”
Until yesterday, Mr. Johnson seemed to have an ability to outrun boring facts and bad publicity only surpassed, perhaps, by one Donald J. Trump. Boris will not be Britain’s prime minister any time soon, and probably never, so what next?
A break from British politics seems like a good idea. Although he gave up his American passport to avoid paying taxes, Mr. Johnson was actually born in New York City. Perhaps Mr. Trump would take him on as a warm-up act — or even a running mate.
*D. D. Guttenplan is The Nation’s editor at large.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 1, 2016, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Boris the Clown Bows Out. Today’s Paper|Subscribe