Boris told such dreadful lies
It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.
His desk, which from its earliest youth
Had kept a strict regard for truth,
Attempted to believe each scoop
Until they landed in the soup.
James Landale in 1994, on the occasion of the end of Boris Johnson’s time at the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels bureau, as quoted in Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition by Sonia Purnell (Aurum Press, 2012)
The lies to the Right have it.
For liberals and left-wingers of a pessimistic bent, that is the political upshot of 2016.
In the wake of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton in the American presidential election, soi-disant ‘progressives’ have proclaimed the dawning of the ‘post-truth’ era. The theory goes as follows: a toxic brew of ‘fake news’ on social media, tabloid scare stories about immigration, and impossible pledges from power-hungry politicians have delivered the electorates of Britain and the United States into the clutches of bigots and demagogues, bringing the anglo-saxon world to the brink of crisis, and setting us, perhaps, on the road to fascism. How else to explain the voters’ refusal to rubber-stamp polite society’s preferred political outcomes?
Surely they wouldn’t have voted for Brexit unless they truly believed the EU was poised to admit Turkey? And had they doubted ‘our NHS’ would be the recipient of an extra £350 million a week, then presumably that podgy toff Dave would still be prime minister?
In this view, the voters are always ‘more sinned against than sinning’. They’re not bigots (the less charitable, but similarly condescending left-liberal take on Leave voters), just ‘insecure’ and easily gulled. Because if they weren’t, then the alternatives would be rather too unpalatable for pro-Europeans to swallow.
What if Britain voted for Brexit because two decades of unprecedented immigration have had effects not captured in immigrants’ ‘net contribution’ to the public purse? What if the Eurosceptics’ obsession with such abstract notions as the sovereignty of Parliament resonated more profoundly than the single market? What if the English language will always make the Atlantic Ocean appear a less alien crossing than the Channel? What, simply put, if culture ultimately trumps economics?
For most of the other 27 member states, the European project is rooted in the shared trauma of centuries of continental slaughter and despotism. In Britain, especially England, a myth of near-unbroken economic, social and political progress since the Acts of Union of 1707 means that the popular argument for Europe has had to be made in other terms, primarily economic. Hence the significance of the Common Market in the 1975 referendum, and even more so the single market forty years later.
Unfortunately markets can go down as well as up (as financial advisors – unlike chancellors of the Exchequer – are duty-bound to mention). And, regardless of whether the fault lies at home or abroad, Britain’s unsteady and unequal economic record over the past four decades has not added weight to the pro-European cause. Worse, the grass no longer looks greener across the water, as it did when the UK was deemed the ‘sick man of Europe’ in the 1970s. The Eurozone, to invoke William Hague’s 1998 metaphor, has indeed become ‘a burning building with no exits‘.
Nor is Europhilia’s secondary promise as powerful as it once was. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall the then European Communities offered ‘strength in numbers’ in a continent still menaced by the spectre of communism; conservatives, liberals and social democrats alike regarded Europe, alongside NATO, as a guarantor of their freedom and security. Today, following the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, the squalid spectacle of the so-called ‘Jungle’ at Calais, and a spate of terrorist attacks in France and Germany, some regard Britain’s membership of the EU as itself an existential threat.
Seen from these perspectives, Remain was always going to be a tougher sell than Yes was in 1975. But given Leave won the referendum by just 1.9 per cent, the result clearly wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Perhaps if pro-Europeans had put their case in positive political and cultural terms, things might have gone the other way.
During the campaign, our own Sam Harrison argued:
A project as grand as the EU deserves eloquent champions: politicians with the philosophy, wit and nerve to construct arguments that soar above GDP and the European Arrest Warrant. Quite possibly such arguments would hover majestically for but a moment and then come crashing earthward, the idea of a federal Europe exposed as the elite folly its naysayers claim it to be. But in the process the voters would, at least, have been presented with a truthful choice of destinies, not harangued into believing the referendum is primarily an economic question. If their decision were to leave, that Britain somehow no longer fitted, so be it. C’est la démocratie.
And so it was.
23 June 2016 was not a victory for ‘post-truth’ demagogues: an Ipsos MORI poll conducted shortly before the vote revealed that only 19 per cent of those surveyed believed the campaigns were ‘mostly telling the truth’. The awkward fact – for both sides – is that Brexit was a failure of British Europeanism. After more than half a century of trying – or maybe not trying – the most positive political case it could muster was little more than ‘don’t let’s be beastly to the Poles’. The rest was all Project Fear.
Except, except … there was one way in which ‘fake news’ may have changed the course of British history in 2016: the part it played in the making of one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.
It is well known that Johnson’s career as a journalist got off to an inauspicious start. His brief stint as a trainee reporter on The Times, in 1987-88, left his colleagues there in little doubt that he lacked the dogged determination of a born newshound. But it was his attribution of a fictitious quote (about Edward II’s ‘catamite Piers Gaveston’) to his own godfather, the historian Colin Lucas, that led the ex-Thunderer’s then editor, Charlie Wilson, to show him the door.
Fortunately, the posh are big believers in second chances, at least for members of their own class. So when the disgraced young hack contacted Max Hastings, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, to ask for a lifeline, he landed himself a job on the paper’s leader-writing desk. Within a year he had been promoted to its Brussels bureau. And in hindsight, the timing looks portentous.
In September 1988, a speech by the president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, to the TUC’s annual congress, had prompted Ron Todd, leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, to quip that the ‘only card game in town at the moment is in a town called Brussels’. Johnson arrived there just in time to report on all the key rounds. Even better, Europe was about to have an explosive effect on politics back home.
A fortnight after ‘Frère Jacques’ had charmed Britain’s unions with his promise of a ‘social’ Europe, Margaret Thatcher had offered a very different vision for the community’s future. Speaking in Bruges, the prime minister had warned that ‘We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.’
A year later, the Berlin Wall fell, and, despite Thatcher’s hostility, the unstopped urge toward German re-unification quickly gained an unstoppable momentum. A new world order beckoned, and by November 1990, with the Cold War all but over, the Iron Lady was also for toppling: she was forced to resign as prime minister by her own party, in large part over her ever-hardening line on Europe.
The following November an obscure historian called Alan Sked founded the Anti-Federalist League, to campaign against the next great move toward European integration, the Maastricht Treaty. (Two years later the League changed its name to the UK Independence Party.) In February 1992, the government of Thatcher’s successor, John Major, signed the treaty, and, in April, went on to win a general election, with a record number of votes. Then, just five months later, ‘Black Wednesday’ saw the new government reverse its flagship economic policy, by withdrawing sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.
The following spring, Thatcher – with support from, among others, former Labour minister Peter Shore, Liberal Democrat MP David Alton and the Sun newspaper – threw her weight behind a campaign for a referendum on the ratification of Maastricht, pouring further fuel on the Eurosceptic fires now blazing on Major’s backbenches. But on 1 November 1993, the treaty entered force, creating the European Union. By that point the Tory Party was irrevocably split on the issue. Even before the ascent of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair nine months later, the Major government was almost certainly toast.
Johnson remained the Telegraph‘s man in Europe throughout this tumult, until early 1994. Upon arrival, he encountered a British press corps that was broadly sympathetic to the community. Perhaps spying a Eurosceptic gap in the market, he began instead to file reports that took a strongly critical line. It was claimed that this made him the Iron Lady’s favourite journalist; certainly he cultivated a devoted readership on the Right of her party. As he later put it on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, he was
sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party. And it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power.
Not that Johnson’s Brussels reporting was forensic investigative journalism, or principled polemic. His oeuvre owed more to Yes Minister, or even The Men From The Ministry, than it did to the legacy of W.T. Stead.
For this was the heyday of the ‘curviture of the banana’ tradition of Brussels-bashing. The community’s wine lakes may have been drained, and its butter mountains melted (the late 1980s were great years to buy ghee), but there was still much fun to be had at the expense of the Eurocracy, provided the writer had a keen eye for the absurd and a creative relationship with the actualité.
Johnson’s stories were frequently entertaining: the banning of prawn cocktail-flavoured crisps; the harmonisation of condom sizes; a two-mile-high Euro-skyscraper. But his reporting was not altogether unserious, and there were occasions when he could genuinely claim to have changed the political weather. Front-page Sunday Telegraph claims that Jacques Delors was planning to scrap the rotation of the EU presidency among the union’s member states, and further strengthen the power of Brussels, probably contributed to the victory of the ‘Nej’ campaign in Denmark’s first referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, in June 1992. And, in turn, that result emboldened Eurosceptic movements elsewhere, not least in Britain.
Today’s Remainers might hold up Johnson’s work in the early 1990s as a prototype for ‘fake news’, but this would be to miss the point: its power lay in its wit. No doubt Telegraph readers of a more Blimpish temperament were incensed by the pettifogging bureaucracy and Machiavellian scheming Johnson ‘uncovered’ in Brussels. But many, surely, were just tickled. He made the EU a laughing-stock, and (contra Adam Ant) ridicule is something to be scared of, at least in the political sphere; as is a politician who knows how to wield it.
Many people have questioned whether the Eurosceptic Johnson of these years should be taken at face value. After all, the Johnson clan is steeped in Europeanism, and as recently as January this year it was being reported that he had confided privately: ‘The trouble is, I am not an “outer”‘. His Brussels journalism and his decision to campaign for Leave might, from this perspective, be understood as the same shtick employed to the same end: self-advancement.
Such lack of principle ought not to be admired, but it wouldn’t make Johnson unique among politicians. Famously ‘decent’ Jeremy Corbyn has also faced criticism for perceived slipperiness on Europe. For much of his political life Corbyn has been a Bennite Eurosceptic, but after becoming Labour leader he discovered a hitherto unsuspected urge to defend Britain’s EU membership. Presumably that had little to do with the overwhelming support for Remain among Labour MPs, the trade union leadership, and his own supporters?
But unlike Corbyn’s volte-face, Johnson’s mattered. And it mattered because, since leaving Brussels, he has transformed himself into a political celebrity.
The humorous Eurosceptic Johnson of the 1990s was followed by variations on the theme, rather than wholesale reinventions. There were his show-stealing appearances on the BBC’s Have I Got News For You; his controversial, but commercially successful, editorship of the ‘The Sextator‘; and, of course, his more recent role as entertainer-general while mayor of London.
Along the way there were also numerous high-profile scandals and setbacks: ‘Guppygate‘, allegations of marital infidelity, that humiliating trip to Liverpool, and his sacking as shadow minister for the arts by then Tory leader Michael Howard in 2004. But to his detractors’ immense irritation, front-page stories that would have killed other political careers appear merely to have wobbled Johnson.
The source of his astonishing Teflon powers is, of course, ‘Boris’: the most well-honed political act of the age, and one of those rare instances of politics and popular culture eliding to produce charisma, rather than humiliation. How it works, perhaps not even Johnson fully understands, but work it has, and to much more profound effect than anyone ever anticipated.
Prior to his sacking by Howard, a culture brief – a job at the ‘ministry for fun’ – had seemed about the right level of political aspiration for Johnson. Westminster was then dominated by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown: ‘serious’ politicians, about to win a third successive term in government. There was little the Tories’ could do to avert that, but their defenestration of Iain Duncan Smith as leader the previous year, and subsequent elevation of Howard, an experienced former secretary of state, suggested that they were at least beginning to appreciate the importance of looking ‘serious’. In this world, the clownish dimension of the ‘Boris’ character appeared to be a handicap.
Under David Cameron, Johnson was given yet another second chance, as shadow higher education minister. But his parliamentary career continued to underwhelm, so when he later emerged as the Conservative candidate for the 2008 London mayoral election many assumed he would compare poorly with the two-term incumbent, Ken Livingstone. (Although Lord Redken was looking tired in the post, he was unarguably devoted to the capital, and was himself a wily alumnus of HIGNFY.)
Even after Johnson won that election – with the largest personal mandate ever achieved by a UK politician (a record he lost to Sadiq Khan in 2016) – he remained ‘unserious’. Opponents were able to console themselves with the thought that the mayoralty bestows few significant powers, while even some Tories welcomed the prospect of a part-time mayor content to leave the detail to his more credible deputies.
What the role does bestow, of course, is the biggest political podium in Britain outside Downing Street, and, after twenty years as a journalist and celebrity, Johnson was even better placed to turn this to his advantage than Livingstone.
It was easy to poke fun when ‘Boris’ showed up at the closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, awkwardly hoisting the Olympic flag; it was even easier to overlook that he was being watched by a live UK audience of 6.8 million viewers. Similarly those photographs from the 2012 Games of the newly re-elected mayor stuck on a zip wire, waving Union flags: hostile commentators spied buffoonery, or a cynical PR stunt, but many voters saw only fun, of the Dad’s Army or Last of the Summer Wine variety.
Indeed, much of Johnson’s public life has given the impression of a classic British sitcom, and like the nation’s comedians he has had to learn which gags are no longer acceptable. In this regard, one of the greatest opportunities he seized during his eight years as mayor was that of embracing the capital in all its multi-ethnic, polymorphously perverse glory.
Which is to say that, among other stunts, Johnson was pictured wearing a pink Stetson at a gay pride parade. For all the many column inches his critics spend condemning his past support for Section 28, or his antipathy toward civil partnerships, there is now an instant, unarguable visual rejoinder. London enabled Johnson to ‘detoxify the brand’, if you like, but unlike David Cameron he managed to do so without alienating his supporters in the Tory shires.
The most significant change during Johnson’s eight years at City Hall took place in Westminster, however: all the ‘serious’ politicians disappeared. Blair and Howard had left frontline politics before his mayoralty, and after Labour’s defeat in the 2010 general election Gordon Brown was forced to do the same. Despite the Great Clunking Fist’s warning that a financial crisis was ‘no time for a novice’, the country was, henceforth, to be run by ‘plausible young men‘: Dave, George Osborne and the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.
This new breed was youthful and evidently lightweight, while its opponents were even less convincing: Ed Miliband as leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition; and out in the wilderness, mobilising his ‘People’s Army’, Nigel Farage. The election of Jeremy Corbyn to succeed Miliband in 2015 may have reversed the trend toward ever younger leaders, but it did nothing to dispel the notion that Britain’s political class had reached a post-war nadir.
Even so, there was still a tendency to focus on the clown in the ‘Boris’ persona. In February this year, as David Cameron’s renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU was drawing to a close, and the pressure on Johnson to reveal his hand was mounting, the thought remained: even if he did back Leave, surely a mayor was no match for a prime minister? (Especially a prime minister who had just pulled off a surprise return to Downing Street.)
Our Sam, just a day before the referendum, repeated this very mistake:
To believe recent polling, it could go either way. Except the polls aren’t asking the right questions. In the run-up to last year’s general election it seemed as if the UK was headed toward a hung parliament, with Ed Miliband as prime minister propped up by the SNP. And yet the Labour Party consistently trailed the Conservatives when the voters were quizzed on leadership and economic credibility. Were those same two questions being put about the rival camps in this campaign, I suspect there would be little doubt as to the likely result on Thursday.
Crudely put, the choice in 1975 was Wilson or Benn. Today it is Cameron versus Boris – a Boris with Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, John Redwood and Farage skulking in his wake.
The analysis was sound, but it failed to appreciate quite how serious and popular Johnson had become during his mayoralty. And the comparison with Tony Benn was plain wrong. Benn was an ideologue who scared at least as much as he inspired; Johnson has conscientiously shirked ideology, and who could ever be scared of ‘Boris’?
When Johnson finally came out for Leave on 21 February, the attendant media circus was for once in proportion to the significance of the moment. The following day, when Cameron made his House of Commons statement on the UK’s new ‘special status in the EU’ – the outcome of his re-negotiation with the European Council – it was Boris’s response that led coverage of the Leave side: ‘Can I ask my right honourable friend the prime minister to explain to the House and to the country in exactly what way this deal returns sovereignty over any field of law-making to these Houses of Parliament?’
Thus the pattern was set. The theme was to be ‘control’. And Boris would be the frontman.
Since the vote to Leave on 23 June Nigel Farage has been quick to accept the honorific ‘Mr Brexit’; and the contribution to the result made by UKIP and Leave.EU – in particular, the unabashed fear-mongering about immigration – ought not to be underestimated. But as UKIP’s votes in the 2014 European Parliament election and the 2015 general election demonstrate (4.4 million and 3.9 million respectively) the People’s Army was never the mass movement a Leave victory depended on. What was needed was a coalition capable of mobilising the Tory vote, and of assuaging the fears of swing and undecided voters. Without Johnson, it is difficult to believe that those notorious horse-frighteners Farage, Gove and IDS could have pulled that off.
And there is data to support this view. During the referendum campaign the Electoral Reform Society commissioned extensive polling on the electorate’s attitudes and behaviour, including questions on the influence of individual politicians on voting intention. 29 per cent responded that David Cameron made them more likely to vote Leave, with only 14 per cent saying that he encouraged them to support Remain. The figures for Johnson were identical, the crucial difference being that Johnson was of net benefit to his side of the argument, rather than an impediment. (Farage persuaded 25 per cent of voters to support Leave, but also made 20 per cent want to stay.)
So, would the real Mr Brexit please stand up?
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum it was widely recognised that it was the blond wot won it (Nick Cohen’s wonderfully acid response to the result ought to be mandatory reading for all future students of British history). But events thereafter moved so rapidly, and chaotically, that the Johnson factor has since been overshadowed. In particular, the abortive start to his Tory leadership run – following his ‘betrayal’ by erstwhile Leave ally Michael ‘Et tu?’ Gove – brought the hapless element of the ‘Boris’ character back to the fore.
Now ‘serious’ Theresa May is in Number 10, and Farage has gone on to even greater heights of notoriety, as ‘First Pal’ to President-elect Trump. Meanwhile, Johnson’s boyhood dream of becoming ‘world king’ looks to be in tatters. Again.
But let’s not count him out too soon. As foreign secretary, Johnson currently occupies perhaps the easiest of the four great offices of state, and to boot the prime minister has chosen to spare him the responsibility (and blame) for negotiating the end of Britain’s EU membership. When May’s lacklustre Commons performances, and the emptiness of ‘Brexit means Brexit’, finally sink in on the government benches, handing her former rival so cushy a brief will no longer seem such an astute move. Whether he comes out for ‘soft Brexit’, ‘hard Brexit’, or both having Brexit and eating it, Johnson may yet emerge as the next prime minister of the United Kingdom.
For now, the man who tipped the scales in favour of Leave, and so changed the course of history, will have to content himself with Lion & Unicorn’s award for Politician of the Year (living).
Other award-winners this year: