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The trouble with Boris

August 10, 2018

Is the joke at last on Boris Johnson?  His multiple gaffes, political mistruths and misjudgements would have sunk most other politicians years ago.  Johnson’s career as a serious front line politician has been living on borrowed time. Now, maybe, surely, his time is up.

Johnson has survived as long as he has as a politician and columnist partly due to his self-deprecating charm and humorous lines. Anyone who’s had any dealings with him will know that the self- deprecation is skin deep and internally he has the bags of self-confidence possessed by most Old Etonians. Since 2016 he has been one of the heroes of Brexiters.  His late decision to back Vote Leave was in itself an act of self-promotion and belief, knowing he would be one of the few well known faces of the Brexit campaign.  As a Remainer, he would have been overshadowed by that other possessor of Etonian swagger, David Cameron.

Theresa May gave him the chance to deliver the Brexiters’ vision of global Britain.  He turned out to be the worst Foreign Secretary since 1945. His eventual resignation was another act in the Johnson playbook, escaping responsibility for the government’s Brexit failures and positioning himself at the head of hard Brexit malcontents and then for a challenge to Theresa May.

His Telegraph column on the clothing choices of Muslim women was no doubt meant to be the start of the next stage of achieving his destiny in Downing Street.  The column was the usual Johnson blend of comedy and politics.  But it’s blown up in his face.  It was a little too obvious to everyone that the mocking of face-veiled Muslim women as “letter boxes” or “bank robbers” was really a shrill and nasty dog whistle on immigration, masquerading as comedy.  He probably gave more thought to those words than the rest of the article, seeking lines that would be noticed, rather than penning a serious column on culture clashes in a liberal society.

Brexit has obvious economic consequences.  But the 2016 referendum also exposed deep seated social divisions, which were exploited to the full by the Leave campaign. The success of Trump across the Atlantic later that year showed that exploiting social fears, spreading “fake news” and deploying other underhand campaign techniques could work to devastating effect.  We know now that there was a huge amount of cross over between the Leave and Trump campaign techniques.  Trump’s associates, such as Steve Bannon, are keen to make Britain the next front in their culture wars.  Johnson, Gove, Fox and Farage see themselves as his British generals. Britain’s first past the post electoral system (for Westminster) lends itself perfectly to a polarisation of society, with a right wing party stoking up fears about immigrants and championing economic nationalism.  I’m surprised they’ve not already borrowed Trump’s slogan and called their movement ‘Britain First.’

Liberals, social democrats and others who believe in an open and diverse Britain must be careful how they respond to the rise of identity and culture based politics. I’ve written other articles on this blog site about how we should respond on policy issues.  But one thing that should definitely be avoided is an over-reaction to every provocation. There’s a tendency among far too many liberals to express their hurt and to show in public how they feel offended at the slightest barbed comment.  There’s often a rush to label someone a racist, homophobe or transphobe just for expressing an opinion or making a poorly worded joke.  If the words are uttered by a political rival then there’s palpable glee in the trashing of their reputation via social media.  I’ve been called homophobic and racist on several occasions by rivals on the political left.  The over censoring of political speech ends in the stifling of legitimate debate, most obviously on immigration. Over sensitive criticism of genuine extremist politicians plays into their hands, giving them more publicity and strengthening their appeal among the disaffected voters whom they are targeting.

Some of the criticism heaped on Johnson has been over the top.  I guess many of us feel he’s got away with so much for so long that a heavy pummelling is justified.  But in my opinion his comments aren’t racist and aren’t a hate crime. They are culturally insensitive, rude and calculated to appeal with those who do have a problem with Muslim immigrants, which is bad enough. The criticism isn’t just from liberals and the left. Moderate Conservatives are desperate to block his path to the top.

Johnson’s reputation may well have sunk among his political and commentariat peers. But polls show that millions of voters have misgivings about Muslim women covering their faces, even if they confuse a niqab from a burka. They may tell reporters that Johnson shouldn’t use insulting language but privately they fee such issues need an airing. At this moment in time Johnson may calculate that he’s advanced his standing with the section of the public that might vote for his brand of politics.  But if the Conservative Party finds that he’s breached their code of conduct then his words will have backfired spectacularly.

Finally, one of the problems with Boris Johnson is the over familiar use of his first name. It gives him the air of a jovial fellow who we can laugh along with. News presenters have said “Boris will be Boris” thereby excusing behaviour that would be frowned upon or just considered weird if it came from any other public figure. So let us all resolve to refer to him in the same way as we would any other politician.  It’s the first and easiest step in the battle to stop his attempt to inject American culture wars into our political debate.



I wrote a blog  the day after Trump was elected, reflecting on some of the lessons that should be learned by liberals from his success and the Leave result in our referendum –

6 Comments leave one →
  1. christian martin permalink
    August 11, 2018 9:32 am

    I cannot agree with your conclusion that Johnson wasn’t racist in his remarks. The charge of racism is not for the media headline-grabbing comments used in his article it is reached for the multiple examples over the last few years. This calculated comment was not intended to encourage positive colloquy nationally but moreover another example of his duplicitous and arrogant indifference to hurt whomever, however, whenever whilst walking over them to get to where he wants the be.

    The sheer nastiness of the intended effect of such calculation was sadly evident this week in Bristol where a bus driver told a Muslim woman in a Niqab to get off the bus. Johnson in his remarks was appealing to that unthinking reaction with his words and across the land we now have swathes of people further emboldened and justified to act on his intentionally affective choice of words.

    The same large group of people stirred up by the lies and misinformation about immigration and brexit! The same people who believe brexit has legitimised their right to physically articulate their narrowminded phobias! Nope, this was not about a debate on immigration by Johnson (that was a pretend insincere justification) it was about ensuring he was talked about, given column inches and airtime to stir up the debate and appeal to the Bannon base of the uneducated bigots that live amongst us and permeate in every decent progressive society. It was not a joke. It was not funny. How he is dealt with and how brexit is concluded will serve as a marker for where we are heading as a country and how far we want to reverse dangerously all that has been gained.

    This was not a liberal expressing liberal ideas it was a bully throwing out carefully constructed sentences that on face value too many have excused as a poor joke but below the surface it’s true intent hit its targets, resonated, triggered a ripple that will cause further division and fear. As with historical mistakes before – Johnson is hoping that others will act on his words to cause a wave of dangerous dissent that will build, energising and persuading a majority that he can lead them….not into the light but to the right! And I don’t want that to happen and the Tory investigation into one of their own will pull up nothing, will further strengthen his position amongst the belligerent and backward thinking backbenchers of his party…..the Police should be investigating every incident that has arisen, every abusive comment shouted at Muslim women in the past week (and there have been countless reports of women being called letterbox) because these are all attributable to his column, his comments and his calculation. He is responsible for these reactions with his inciting ‘joke’ – he has to be held accountable by the Police and the law for his encouragement of hateful responses.

    • Paul permalink
      August 11, 2018 9:53 am

      Well summed up, probably put better than my post (I didn’t read yours first) but I think the sentiment is the same.

    • August 11, 2018 10:16 am

      Thanks Christian. I agree with virtually everything you say about him. He is indeed arrogant (my old Etonian point) and doesn’t care who he trashes on his way to personal glory. But I don’t think he is an overt racist. It’s a powerful charge tha should be reserved for people who really do believe in the superiority of their race over others and wish to harm or at least subjugate the other.

      • Christian martin permalink
        August 11, 2018 10:22 am

        But the collective examples of his behaviour do add up to him bearing prejudicial views against other races. How much weight of evidence is needed to tip the scales to a charge of racism?

  2. Paul permalink
    August 11, 2018 9:49 am

    Crikey the Beeb have got a lot to answer for, I did wonder for a number of years why they tried so hard to ‘normalise’ Johnson and his nasty views (just like they did for Farage).

    I think your wrong though ‘The column was the usual Johnson blend of comedy and politics. But it’s blown up in his face’. It’s done exactly what he and his nasty mates wanted, make May look like a lefty Liberal, whilst its Johnson that’s standing up for the White working man and representing the 17m leave voters (not everyone who voted leave is racists but you can bet your life every racist voted leave). When the leadership challenge comes, Johnson can now command a decent % of the Tory and UKIP vote. Expect over the coming weeks more MPs to support Johnson, a few stories about May and immigration. When EU negotiations come to the spikey issue of FOM the lines between remainer May & the Libs & patriotic Johnson have been drawn. Whatever May comes up with it will be varying degrees of worse than we have already have. Making Johnson’s position nice and easy, it’s worse not because we left but because we didn’t leave. 3 birds with one stone, Tory leader, appeal to the Kippers and a GE win (unless they get rid of JC which is unlikely).

    The revengeful side of me wants the hardest of hard Brexits, but it’ll be a last minute cobbled together deal that sort of suits everyone and no-one all at the same time.

    • August 11, 2018 10:19 am

      Paul, I think we are in agreement. As I say, his words were chosen carefully and have generated the reaction he wanted.

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