Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian newspaper. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
So who is the man who forced British Ambassador Kim Darroch’s resignation, even if he’s not yet Britain’s Prime Minister?
Blond, bouffant, boorish: meet Boris Johnson. Or perhaps President Donald Trump – with the thatched locks, rotund frame and fragmented speaking style, it gets harder and harder to tell them apart. One has achieved a lifetime goal of his nation’s highest office, while the other seems on the brink. Darroch clearly felt he had no choice but to resign after Johnson wouldn’t commit to retaining him in the post after the unauthorized disclosure of the ambassador’s secret cables calling the Trump administration “inept.” Outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May had offered Darroch her full support, but Johnson, who is pally with Trump, already calls the shots in Westminster.
After years as a journalist, media star and politician, Johnson is now the leading candidate in a run-off race to become leader of the British Conservative Party, following Theresa May’s resignation. And because the Conservative Party holds a (painfully slim) plurality in the British House of Commons, the leader elected by the roughly 160,000 grassroots members traditionally becomes the new Prime Minister. (The party’s sitting Members of Parliament themselves have selected two candidates to face their members – Johnson and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.) To many of the rest of the nearly 67 million British people, that feels unfair. But it’s the same system that brought to power May herself (though her final opponent conceded before the members’ vote) and Labour’s Gordon Brown after the 2007 fall of Tony Blair.
The upshot of this system is that British political parties often elect leaders who rally their base more than they appeal to the country at large. That’s one reason why Johnson, a man who has defended British colonialism and described non-white subjects of the Commonwealth as “pickaninnies,” (a comment for which he later apologized, then backtracked and defended), looks set to win big.
What worries British moderates – including many in the Conservative Party – is that Johnson reminds them all too much of another bombastic leader who whipped up the worst sentiments of a largely white male base in a primary election, but went on to find that much of the rest of the nation was happy to join in at the general election. We could be about to see the release of “Trump II: This Time He’s British.”
As with Trump’s GOP primary run, many moderate Conservatives have said they’ll leave their party if Johnson wins; we wait to see whether they’ll show more commitment to this promise than many of the so-called Never Trumpers. (Plenty of MPs said they’d never let Johnson onto the final shortlist of candidates. They were nonetheless cowed by threats of the base’s anger were he excluded, promises of jobs and a meticulous whipping operation.)
Others say they’re not sure which they fear more: Johnson winning the leadership election and then losing the next general election to the far-leftist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, or Johnson winning the leadership election – and actually obtaining a fresh mandate to run the country.
Many British commentators have already drawn the Johnson-Trump comparison. (Especially when Steve Bannon, the former Trump guru, popped up to claim he’s been giving advice to Johnson.) The Financial Times’ Philip Stephens points out that both revel in telling bare-faced lies. (By the time the newspapers have fact-checked, the news cycle has moved on – so who cares?) And, at the Guardian, Gaby Hinsliff argues that this is the consequence of a society that has forgotten the concept of shame. When it comes to shamelessness, little beats Johnson’s U-turns (or EU-turns) on the subject of Brexit.
Once the Daily Telegraph’s EU correspondent, where he fed that readership’s existing Euroscepticism with nonsense scare-stories about EU overreach, he then became a pro-EU Mayor of London, only to pivot back to Euroscepticism just as the Brexit campaign began to gather steam. Notoriously, he is reported to have written two articles the night he decided to back the Brexit campaign, one arguing for, one against, so he had both ready to go when he finally made his decision the next day.
At the New York Times, the sociologist Will Davies has pointed out that this has allowed Johnson to ride the wave of an electorate convinced that the complexity of renegotiating Britain’s biggest trading agreement is, in fact, an elitist conspiracy – that it has only taken so long to negotiate an exit deal because “Britain’s Treasury Department, the Bank of England and Downing Street itself are now conspiring to deny Britain its sovereignty.” Johnson’s voters are people who don’t like to be told that leaving the EU involves compromises, that government has to make difficult decisions. Trump, too, trades on a narrative of economic victimhood – and a pretense that decisions about fiscal responsibility can be brushed aside by the roar of a rally.
But even darker shadows than mendacity, shamelessness and fiscal populism now hang over Johnson’s campaign. After years of a public image as an entertaining clown – Johnson, like Trump, had his big break on TV – stories of the Conservative leader as a bully, cheat and a selfish womanizer have begun to emerge. Remind you of anyone? His former boss, Max Hastings, writes in the Guardian: “Almost the only people who think Johnson a nice guy are those who do not know him.” Two weeks ago, the police were called to the flat Johnson shares with his latest girlfriend, after the Guardian reported that neighbors had recorded a woman screaming “get off me”. (Police acknowledged responding to an incident but said no one was harmed.)
Does any of this matter? Not for Trump, and probably not for Johnson. Whether it’s the report of an affair with an employee, (Johnson called the report “an inverted pyramid of piffle” but then his Conservative boss sacked him as a cultural affairs spokesman for lying about it), or the time he was taped agreeing to help a fraudster friend beat up a journalist (he claims he never followed through), or Hastings’ claim that as a magazine editor, Johnson essentially tried to blackmail him, ‘threatening dire consequences in print if I continued to criticise him’ (he has not yet commented) – by now, most of the Eurosceptic conservatives likely to vote for Johnson know he’s a bit of a bastard. The problem is, as the old saying goes, he’s their bastard.
In the land of Johnson-Trump, gratuitously insulting foreign partners is a mark of virility.
Rumours that you’ve fathered children by multiple women are a sign you’re an alpha male. (Last month, Johnson backer Johnny Mercer MP told the BBC that the exact number of children Johnson has fathered is “entirely a matter for him” and an “entirely inappropriate” subject for public discussion.) And a willingness to play dark and dirty is evidence you’ll pull out all stops to promote your nations’ interests – who cares about little matters like human rights or the rule of law?
Like Trump, Johnson has been open about his ambition for the premiership for many years. Like Trump, he’s been accused of chronic laziness when it comes to actually handling the details of government – most disastrously, for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman whose sentence in an Iranian prison for alleged spying was extended after Johnson, as foreign secretary, seemed to confirm Iran’s accusations against her instead of denying them. (Johnson’s critics allege that he failed to read his briefing notes.) But what drives Johnson if it’s neither an intellectual interest in the details of policy, or an instinctive sense of national service? Perhaps the same thing as Trump: a chronic insecurity.
When Johnson’s reputed former mistress described his political motivation in 2016, she could have been describing Donald Trump’s thirst for ever-more celebratory rallies: “There is an element of Boris that wants to be Prime Minister because the love of his family and Tory voters is not enough. He wants to be loved by the entire world. He would send himself into space if only to find new planets whose inhabitants would love him, too.”
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Unlike Trump, however, Johnson may find the long-desired job – and the love of Tory voters – isn’t his for long unless he sharpens up his act. The latest EU deadline for a Brexit deal runs out on October 31, 2019. Anti-Johnson Conservatives have threatened by that date to bring down any government he runs if he hasn’t secured a deal. It’s easier to grift through an election campaign than it is to grift through government.