In 1977 Derby County Football Club, champions of England two years before but then in decline, were drawn away to fourth division Colchester United in the fourth round of the FA Cup. They were held to a draw in Colchester, and therefore the teams replayed the tie in Derby.
During the first half of the game, Derby’s Welsh international Leighton James dribbled the ball over to the opposition corner flag and played various tricks with it, a common timewasting tactic of the period. This made even match commentator Barry Davies, a smooth professional who never said too much, vent his frustration by exclaiming, “It’s come to this has it? Playing around in the corner against a fourth division team?”
I dread to think how Mr. Davies, who is still living, would describe the way the United Kingdom has selected its new Prime Minister. The party which came fifth in the last nationwide election has asked its remaining members to choose between two candidates with track records of gaffes and policy failures.
They have selected BoJo the Clown, formally known as Boris Johnson. Her Majesty the Queen will now be told by his predecessor (someone called Theresa May, remember her?) that Mr. Johnson has the confidence of parliament, and should therefore be appointed her next Prime Minister. Her Majesty will then be expected not to burst out laughing, or swear profusely, when she hears this.
It’s come to this, has it? Metaphorically playing around in the corner in order to BECOME a fourth division team? Because that is what Johnson’s election by his party is designed to achieve, by an ailing band of once-proud democrats who are so aware of their own impotence that they would rather have Barabbas than anything resembling a way, a truth or a life.
Getting your own back
The Conservative Party may still be the largest in parliament, but since it threw way its majority at the last parliamentary election it has lost touch with the people. It used to think of itself as the Natural Party of Government. Now it is all about which kind of Brexit it wants, if any, and which particular prejudice is used to justify that position.
The more the country gets tired of the whole business, and wants to leave things as they are, the more the Conservatives have become an isolated, ill-understood clan. But by selecting Boris Johnson, they have shown that they do not care about this.
Boris has spent his whole career happy to be a standing joke to get paid, or trample on those who get in his way. Respected political parties in mature democracies do not select such people as leaders.
But the Conservatives have done just that – to stick two fingers up to the world. They have said, in effect, “We don’t care who he is, we don’t care what the consequences are, we are going to go down with this moron’s ship so we can go out in the blaze of glory we think our history deserves.” Their history does indeed deserve such a blaze of glory. But does Boris?
Reality is for non-Etonians
The first joke BoJo the Clown made on being appointed was to suggest that he has a domestic policy agenda. He wants to do the sort of stuff Conservatives used to do – provide opportunities for all, reform taxation, that sort of thing. This man of words must have spent at least ten minutes verbalising this in his head, imagining himself standing there in front of an audience.
The problem is that all this came from the man who has insisted that the UK will leave the EU on October 31st, even if that means leaving without a deal. The reason he had to suggest a domestic policy programme is that Brexit has so dominated the political agenda that there has been neither time nor opportunity to address any other issue.
By insisting on the October 31st leave date, Boris himself has ensured that this will continue. The criterion for being Prime Minister is not being leader of the largest party but having “the Confidence of the House”, i.e. a majority of the elected MPs will consistently support a government led by that person. But the Conservatives do not have a majority of MPs, being kept in power by a “confidence and supply” agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland.
Even the artificial majority created by that agreement is likely to disappear very soon, as one Conservative MP is facing criminal charges and the party is likely to lose the forthcoming Brecon and Radnorshire by-election. So even if all the Conservatives support Johnson, he is unlikely to be able to get much, if any, legislation through parliament, even without a Brexit deadline.
However he has chosen to tie himself to one, and to leaving regardless of the terms. He will never get away with it. Several Conservatives have already vowed to bring down any government which tries, including a Conservative one – and even Brexiteers in other parties will not publicly defy their own parties to support a No Deal Brexit.
So everything will still be about Brexit, with the Remainers now far more motivated than Leavers, and having more support within parliament and without. Boris is as likely to have “the Confidence of the House” as he has the confidence of anyone who has fact-checked his articles, and that illusory confidence is likely to be put to the test as soon as practically possible.
No longer scared
If Johnson loses a confidence vote in parliament, or cannot get anything done, his government will fall and an early election will be the only way forward. Such an election is likely to result in the Conservatives losing a great many seats.
They have the advantage that the main opposition Labour Party is not particularly popular, largely because it refuses to take a clear position on Brexit. But although the other alternatives in the UK as a whole, the Liberal Democrats and Greens, have big credibility problems they are likely to both gain seats and provide more serious opposition than Labour is doing, because it will be easier for Conservative voters to switch to these parties.
The Brexit Party of Nigel Farage will also make a big dent in the Conservative vote: it may not win a seat, but will take enough Conservative voters, and some Labour voters, with it to let in non-Conservative candidates.
Boris therefore hopes that, faced with this arithmetic, his own colleagues will eventually rally round him. But he has upset too many of them, too often, to bank on that. Most of the rebels have nothing to lose, as they see no careers under him anyway. They would consider bringing his government down as an act of self-affirmation, their own version of going down in a blaze of glory, and will not be averse to being seen as martyrs for the conservatism their country once knew.
Theresa May has already lamented that she was dealt the “bad hand” of having to deal with Brexit. Johnson claimed in his first speech that if he can get Brexit done he will unite the country. It is as if he lives inside his newspaper columns, in which he invented many of the lies about the EU which he disowned until just before the referendum unable to grasp that the world outside doesn’t automatically do what he says.
The Conservative Party members who have elected him probably see Boris as a Donald Trump-like figure, an outsider who offers something different to the tired old lies and backroom bribery of conventional politics. Many Americans have come to realise that being an outsider doesn’t mean you are above playing the same games, with worse intent. But Boris supporters knew this all along, and have never hidden the fact.
Unlike Trump, Johnson does have a previous track record in politics. He was elected an MP after gaining a following with his lucrative newspaper columns and television appearances, despite concerns whether he could “do serious”. As ever, he proved to be a dangerous joke, eventually being kicked out of the government for making rude remarks about people from Liverpool, amongst many other things. But he then used that very notoriety to his advantage when the boring politicians had nowhere else to turn.
Boris’ return from the political dead began when he was selected as Conservative candidate to be Mayor of London. They needed someone who could take on Ken Livingstone, the veteran left-winger who had himself become a major media figure, though often one of hate.
As Livingstone had been the first directly elected Mayor of London, and had won as an independent when not selected by Labour, his campaign and methods were the only blueprint for success. His opponents had to find someone well known to the public from the media, even if they were not seen as credible by that media, as Livingstone hadn’t been in his far left days as the controversial leader of the old Greater London Council.
That gamble paid off. Boris was elected Mayor, and was seen as having done a reasonable job because he put himself above what he was responsible for, by covering himself in bluster and pompous humour. Eventually he returned to parliament and to higher office than before, as Foreign Secretary.
It is an open secret that Theresa appointed him to this role to show up how incapable he was, not because he would contribute anything. But no matter how many gaffes he made he was still just being Boris, the darling of those who don’t have to justify their opinions with things like facts.
During this leadership campaign it was suggested several times that yet more mistakes would work against him. Police were called to his home during an altercation with his girlfriend, but this was blamed on “Remainer neighbours” desperate to report him. He insisted that the hated EU was forcing Isle of Man kippers to be sold in plastic bags, when the Isle of Man, a Crown Dependency, is not part of the EU, and it was the UK government which introduced the plastic bag rule.
But none of this hurt him in the end, because too many people feel abandoned by their politicians. Conservatives never used to, as defenders of the existing political order. But now they feel themselves increasingly marginalised, their old values having been stolen by other parties or shot to pieces by disputes over Brexit. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, however extraordinary it is that such an hour would ever come.
Fight to everyone’s death
All bets are off now. All the divisions Johnson says he wants to heal are going to become even greater with him as British Prime Minister. The very fact of having a clown in charge will embolden his enemies to do anything they can to stop his every scheme, even if some of them might be beneficial.
Parliament has already passed amendments to prevent it being shut down to force Brexit through, as Johnson had threatened. Remainers who have drifted into that position out of weariness, or confronting the reality of life since the referendum, might have gone along with a no deal Brexit suggested by other candidates, but not a big bad joke who they will feel is in no position to lecture them about what they should think or want.
Already there has been talk that the UK’s democratic system has been undermined by the Prime Minister effectively being chosen by the 165,000 or so Conservative Party members, when the world has moved on so much such their party was elected the largest. When the man they have elected is Boris Johnson, the opposite of what a political leader is expected to be, this process will be questioned even more, and with it the credibility of the UK itself, which the Brexit drama has already put under considerable strain.
There are times when you can’t just joke your way out of anything. Boris Johnson will soon discover that he has created one of those times. Even if he is soon removed by his enemies, they will not be laughing, and neither will his once proud country, which he will drive ever more rapidly from former superpower to a BIGGER joke than he is.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.