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Boris Johnson uses today’s Telegraph to trail what will doubtless become a leadership bid, and his agenda for post-referendum Britain contains some remarkable claims. Not in the form of proposals, but by its lack of them. If Johnson has his way, Brexit is going to involve inactivity on an industrial scale. He envisions a ‘balanced and humane points-based’ immigration system, but that’s for the extremely indeterminate future – and everyone can meanwhile look forward to ‘intense and intensifying’ co-operation with Europe, and opportunities to live, travel, work and study on the continent just as they please. British businesses will enjoy uninterrupted ‘access to the single market’. The only apparent change, which will happen ‘in no great rush’, will be the UK’s ‘extrication’ from the European Union’s ‘extraordinary and opaque system of legislation: the vast and growing corpus of law enacted by a European Court of Justice from which there can be no appeal’.

The programme sounds so laid back that it’s tempting to wonder why we committed national hara-kiri in the first place. But Johnson’s proposals obscure a lunge for power as disingenuous as it is opportunistic. The only pledge that’s even arguably within his power to achieve is a points-based immigration system, and we’ve had one of those since 2008. Every other European activity he promises to preserve, from residential rights to the single market, will have to be the subject of fraught negotiations; and the legal measure he mentions, apparently based on a blog post written by his wife a couple of months ago, demands constitutional unravelling on a scale that would keep lawyers and civil servants in lucrative employment for decades to come.

Johnson knows all this. As a few sceptics have already observed, he almost certainly hoped to lose the referendum by a whisker, which would have left him perfectly positioned to snipe at David Cameron, but spared the tedious business of actually amputating the United Kingdom from Europe. The plan went awry, because he’s too natural a demagogue: like Jeremy Corbyn’s charismatic twin, he put his case too irrepressibly to attain the precise balance between plausibility and unpopularity that heroic failure would have required. Now that he unexpectedly finds himself at Downing Street’s threshold as a consequence, he needs to buy time – and his meaningless manifesto in the Telegraph is designed to do just that.

Worried Remainers might take comfort from this, especially because almost everyone who knows Johnson attests to his many liberal and Europhiliac instincts. The problem is that his gamble for the sake of personal ambition has raised the stakes far higher than he could ever have anticipated. On the day in February when Johnson chose to throw in his lot with Michael Gove rather than David Cameron – a decision he said was taken after veering between the two sides ‘like a shopping trolley’ – a poll gave supporters of the EU a 15 per cent lead. Had Johnson campaigned with less panache, Brexit would probably have fallen short of a majority; and if he had plumped for Remain in the first place, the UK would almost certainly still have a future in the EU.

The political achievement implied by that observation carries a concomitant responsibility. The Vote Leave team achieved its victory by inflating expectations wherever potential votes could be found: not just with its implied promise of £350 million more to spend on the NHS each week, but also by feeding fantasies of sealed borders and immigrant repatriation that anyone non-white who came of age in the 1970s knows to recognise with cold fear. Over the last few days, supporters of Brexit have tended to dismiss these concerns – and the multiplying reports of racist incidents on social media – as the bleating of anti-democratic sore losers. But Johnson is probably not among them, and his insistence in the Telegraph that the referendum result was inspired by a belief in democracy rather than anti-immigrant sentiment reflects his hope of taming the dangers that he has helped loose. Unfortunately, it is very probably too late.

I distinctly remember Johnson’s self-deprecating response when a friend we have in common congratulated him on his appointment as editor of the Spectator in 1999. Paraphrasing Keats’s epitaph, he mumbled that fame meant nothing because all lives are ‘writ in water’. I find it as impossible now as I did then to gauge how he squared that sentiment with his ego. Against recent events, however, the words have assumed a peculiar truth. Upheavals frequently throw up trailblazers – Jean-Sylvain Bailly in revolutionary Paris, Alexander Kerensky in pre-Bolshevik Moscow, Shapour Bakhtiar in Iran in 1979 – who are swept aside by the causes they championed. Such parallels probably appeal to Johnson’s sense of self, but he has personally unleashed nationalist forces that won’t be restrained any time soon. It remains to be seen if he will ride the beast or be devoured by it – but whatever happens, it isn’t going to be pretty.


  1. hatboxdesiato says:

    Probably spot on this. In this mediated world of smoke and mirrors I can’t see how there can be better politics than this manipulative farce

  2. Martin Pearce says:

    “Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

    (Harry Frankfurt, “On Bullshit”)

  3. Simon Wood says:

    I read that Boris piece with jaw dropped to the floor of Tesco’s in Streatham while my daughters were ice skating.

    The “Telegraph” had pulled out a slivet for the front cover. Its semi-English caught my eye. Boris’s English isn’t that good.

    “I believe that this climate of apprehension is understandable.”

    It makes you think that nothing is really understandable to this oaf. He talks in a machine-translated, “latinate” way then bungs in Daily-Maily, kidditext words like “upside”.

    There’s a faffing-around, Prince-Charles element, too:

    “We must reach out, we must heal, we must build bridges…”

    “… a Britain rebooted, reset, renewed…”

    As he wrote that, England were putting on their boots to face Iceland. They showed a similarly shallow national character.

  4. bluecat says:

    Meanwhile, people not unaligned to the unfolding Labour leadership coup were spreading the rumour that Corbyn had voted Leave. This despite his spoken and tweeted announcement from outside the polling station that he’d just voted Remain. It then mutated into a story that, as Huffington Post headlined it on Monday afternoon, “Corbyn refuses to deny voting Leave” – as if anyone who disbelieved his initial statement would believe a subsequent denial, and as if he hadn’t been a bit busy on Monday.

    So far, so predictable. But while I’m pretty confident that Corbyn voted Remain, I wouldn’t be surprised if Boris and Gove had also voted to stay in, their dismay at winning was so palpable.

    But, what the hey? The 17 million or so who voted for Brexit were being told almost from the moment the polls closed that they weren’t going to get any of what they had voted for anyway. That £350 million a week for the NHS emblazoned on the battle bus? Not a promise, according to Iain Duncan Smith, a man whose record of mendacity is as long as, and partly consists of, his CV. A fall in immigration? Nope: probably a rise, actually. Possibly not even a Brexit, and in any case, says Boris, there’s really no rush. In other words: thanks for putting Boris where he’s always wanted to be, in pole position to become Prime Minister. Now bugger off, there’s good chaps.

    But somehow what matters – as multiple times the value of the UK’s annual contribution to the EU is wiped from the economy in a couple of hours; as that “magic money tree” the Tories had spent 8 years claiming Labour believed in, suddenly bore a forced harvest, as the Bank of England pumped imaginary sums into shoring up the currency; as the Liberal Democrats announced they would campaign for a second referendum, or as many as it would take until we got the answer right; and as the Parliamentary Labour Party sets about disenfranchising their members and supporters by moving to remove the leader they elected less than a year ago – is that we have “taken back control”.

    Living in Southern Italy in the 80s and early 90s I commonly heard people saying “the problem is, our political class is corrupt, a failure.” It shocked me then, even though it was the end of the Andreotti era, and the first signs on the horizon of the rise of Berlusconi.

    I am not at all glad to be able to say the same thing now about my own country.

  5. Mickstick says:

    These are very dangerous times, for we seem to have abandoned any values. Farage’s Immigration poster was appallingly and abominably racist, and yet went uncensured, especially by Johnson and his crew. I know that it’s all discourse and therefore relative, but those lies detailed above do matter for they swayed a referendum that was quite evidently perceived as not very serious by those who registered protest votes. And now, because Farage has gone without savage demolition and has been presented by even the half-decent media as a credible politician, we have reached the point where Polish kids are invited to go home, and Poles and others abused in the street. This is, is it not, reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s? In order to paper over the cracks in a party for which 25% of the electorate voted, Cameron was prepared to sacrifice the country and destroy hope and a future for all. Why does this heinous crime seem not to matter?

    • snowleopard says:

      BBC news gave huge air time to Farage at the EU, beaming his nasty and rediculous views into our houses of the UK. Please lets have no more rubbish from him supported by our media

    • gary morgan says:

      “[I]t’s all discourse and therefore relative.” What ARE you saying? I think plenty of propositions were being made and needed vigorous opposition, not some sanguine ‘postmodernist’ inertia. There are lies and if you haven’t noticed, or see them as all the same, more fool you.

  6. Frank McMahon says:

    If the Tories elect Boris, they will be foisting on us a man to whom I would not give £1 to go and buy me a pint of milk.
    Meanwhile, Labour self-immolates in a blaze of sub-Marxist ideological purity, unless….

    • Tanvyeboyo says:

      Unless what, Blair comes back before or after Chicot report?

      • Frank McMahon says:

        Blair’s time has passed. But let’s not trash the considerable achievements of the last Labour government because they were insufficiently socialist. If ever the country needed a strong Labour voice with a principled agenda to protect the frightened and vulnerable, it is now. And under Corbyn’s leadership, it will not happen. Fraudulent claims and lies have been fed to the voters during this campaign. The country is in crisis. Power and influence come from the political centre with a radical and sound programme, not from purist splinter group.

        • Mike Hall says:

          Do you really mean to imply that Blair and Blairites would provide “a strong Labour voice with a principled agenda” ???!!! The very people that hollowed out the Labour Party??!!! That lied to take us into a war? That played populist cards on criminal justice? That pushed privatisation. That followed Thatcher with a few sticking plasters? Give us a break! It’s precisely the neoliberal ‘centre’ that abandoned and marginalised the former industrialised areas whose people voted Leave in a misplaced revolt against their fate. Corbin has a principled agenda that needs support, not sniping from the sidelines from right-wing careerist MPs and their supporters.

        • fbkun says:

          The result in Labour’s heartland would have been the same (or even more in favour of “Leave”) if an enthusiastic pro-EU neo-blairite had been leading that party instead of Corbyn. Many of Labour’s constituencies may well be lost to Ukip in the next general elections. Why would voters who have been betrayed by Labour’s thatcherite policies listen to that party anymore ? At least, Corbyn didn’t betray his ideas or ideals.

        • Alan Benfield says:

          “Insufficiently socialist”?

          When did Labour during the Blair years ever advance a socialist or even social-democratic agenda in the EU or at home?

          I must agree with both the above replies that those at the bottom of the economic order were left further and further behind during the Blair governments, which, rather than genuinely improving workers’ rights, applied the sticking plaster of supplementary in-work benefits to top up inadequate wages. Coming on top of that, they further did nothing to improve provision of affordable housing, a policy since exacerbated by the subsequent coalition and Tory governments.

          While much anti-immigrant feeling has been whipped up by the Brexit-supporting press and politicians (even in areas which have seen little immigration), perhaps the immigration agenda pushed by the Brexiteers would have had less traction were it the case that people in parts of the country genuinely affected by a large influx of EU migrant workers did not really feel that the presence of these migrants was putting pressure on local services and displacing local people from jobs and housing.

          While much of this can be laid at the door of the last two governments, it began with Thatcher but continued throughout the Blair years.

          • Greencoat says:

            ‘While much anti-immigrant feeling has been whipped up by the Brexit-supporting press and politicians (even in areas which have seen little immigration)’

            That last phrase always amuses me. After all, there is little cannibalism in my area but I am still opposed to it.

  7. Atique says:

    The unpleasant upsurge in racism and the inevitable violence that accompanies it will change how the world sees England. That is a pity. But there has always been a wide gap between the poor and the educated.It was quite obvious to newcomers. When I was a student there in the 70’s at Leeds, one could feel the animosity in the poorer working class areas. Even then it was common for poor land ladies to ask when one was planning to go back. I was happy to get the hell out of there, eventually. In the US we will have to dig in and fight Trump, who seems to have injested English misery and bile like some loathsome leech. Do not send Boris back to us.

  8. lanncas says:

    “Had Johnson campaigned with less panache, Brexit would probably have fallen short of a majority; and if he had plumped for Remain in the first place, the UK would almost certainly still have a future in the EU.”

    USA Today described how Johnson’s “quick sense of humor and outlandish ways” endeared him to Londoners when he was mayor. But is that all it took to convince 17 million people that the UK should leave the EU? Seems there were other extenuating circumstances, as well; none mentioned here.

  9. Alex Morrison says:

    We shouldn’t give Johnson too much credit. This fiasco originated in Parliament with the framing of the Referendum question.

    There was no clear popular vote. The problem is that the Leave proposition was underspecified.

    Remain was clear, i.e. stay in the EU and the single market, take advantage of the concessions that Cameron negotiated.

    By contrast, Leave has many variants. Let’s call the main ones Brexit Light (i.e. leave but stay in the single market), Brexit Max (leave completely) and Brexit NHS (leave the EU and spend an extra £350 million a week on the NHS).

    In regard to the leaders of the Leave campaign it’s now clear that Johnson and Gove were campaigning deceptively and covertly for Brexit Light, Farage for Brexit Max (and presumably no-one actually believed in Brexit NHS).

    I’d like to ask those on the Leave side what mandate it is exactly that they think they have.

    And to the UK Parliament ‘Your folly has got us into this mess. Now you have to get us out of it.’

    An article expanding on this thought here: https://medium.com/@alex__morrison/night-thoughts-on-the-eu-referendum-c327e5bfc7cd#.9zxu8t9gw

  10. pembury 12 says:

    The only reason Leave won was because the Commission refused to consider an immigration cap. Meanwhile they roll out the barbed wire around their national borders and some are about to declare they won’t have Muslims entering their country.

  11. commonsensefred says:

    The result has wasted the last 2 years of my working life and cost me a huge amount of money – however it was almost worth it to see the expression on Johnson’s face when he realised his £3 million book advance had disappeared overnight!

  12. chirchillsghost says:

    I concur that BJ’s rhetorical and campaigning skills were a key factor in the Leave victory. With a few notable exceptions – mainly Scots or octogenarians – the Remainers could not hold a candle to him. As a student of Churchill’s speeches, Boris combined Anglo-Saxon vocabulary with Greek rhetorical techniques to lethal effect.

    But this was far worse than Bullxit. Churchill used his speeches to unite and inspire a nation to fight on against the ultimate evil. Johnson used those same skills to divide a United Kingdom and unleash racist and xenophobic forces of evil which may indeed consume both him and the country he claims to love. Perhaps most disingenuous of all was the early claim that the EU was equivalent to Hitler and that Churchill would have been a Leaver. Nothing could be further from the truth … and he knew it.

    Winston’s moral compass was firmly set to true North. Boris’ turns with the winds of fortune.

    • gary morgan says:

      Well you are perhaps too kind on Churchill, who infamously likened his 1945 rival Atlee’s fellow Laborites as like the Gestapo. He too wasn’t above some pretty dubious rhetoric though I broadly agree with you.

  13. IPFreely says:

    Listened to some thoughtful experts on a German discussion programme yesterday. One said “I have been following the TTIP negotiations for years now, and they are a kid’s game compared to what the Brexit discussions will be. Ten years at least! ” What annoys me most about this drama is the despicable way that the PLP have turned on Corbyn and now want to ditch him. Cameron will get a fat job with some international concern or tour the world like Blair, boring his paying guests with interminable speeches. Where will it all go? A week on and it’s safely in the hands of our fearless leaders. They make Chamberlain ( Neville of course not Austen) look like a political genius.

  14. gary morgan says:

    As ever, interesting and, as ever, Johnson (I refuse to cal him the faux intimate other name) has surprised us with his resignation, standing upright the while like Monty Python’s brilliant parody ‘The London Casebook of Sgt Rene ‘Doubty’ Descartes’in which the stabbed ‘tec thinks he’s alive therefore……
    The one thing I knew – didn’t we all know, really? – was that Johnson is entirely unfitted to be a candidate for the Tory leadership. His incontinence, his false immodesty, his hail-fellow-well-met schtick was exposed with exemplary clarity by Eddie Mair in his welcome stint on the ‘Andrew Marr Show’ in which his unwillingness to allow Johnson his ‘glamour’ (in its Scots’ sense as employed by Tom Nairn) succeeded completely in eviscerating his ghastly Higher English air of entitlement masquerading as bloke-friendly populism.
    Now what to do about the very, very ambitious Gove and his equally ambitious wife………
    Gary Morgan.

    • michael bosley says:

      Quite so. Johnson could hardly have done a more effective exposee *of himself* as a helpless narcissist than he has done over the course of the past year.

      Having made an exhibition of trashing the quad to show off how he *owns* the whole place, he’s now leaving it to the college scouts to clear up the mess.

      And yet people still prefer him to the slimy sidekicks who followed him round, snickering.

  15. Graucho says:

    Well now there’s an outside chance that Mrs Gove is going to run the country.

  16. Shakespeare says:

    Is it not clear that Boris Johnson was never in favour of Brexit? He only came out for Brexit in the hope of losing narrowly to Cameron, thereby weakenng Carmeron and giving himself the chance to take over as PM. Thank about his reactions afterwards: Why did he announce only seconds after polling closed that he thought Brexit had lost narrowly. Wisful thinking, Mr Johnson. Much to his horror he won, which explains why this publicity-seeking buffoon was so subdued the next morning. From then on it was keep down, say nothing, keep quiet until an opportune time comes to announce his candidacy “modestly”. Gove got wind of this and (with Cameron and co’s connivance?) decided to scupper him at the risk of being called a “traitor”. Shakespeare couldn’t have written a better plot! In the end Gove has done us all a favour.

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