‘The readiness of the English to apologise for something they haven’t done is remarkable,’ Henry Hitchings writes in Sorry! The English and their Manners (2013), ‘and it is matched by an unwillingness to apologise for what they have done.’ Boris Johnson presents a classic case. He’s the sort who’ll gabble apologies on entering a room or sitting in a chair, an upper-class tic that gives the impression of excessively good manners. By mumbling vague apologies and failing to individuate his words, Johnson creates an aura of harmless stupidity that makes him seem like a friendly, slovenly underdog to a nation with a soft spot for incompetence.
Cummings’s triumph over Javid illuminates the government’s likely trajectory. Burke Trend – a career civil servant in the Treasury before he became cabinet secretary in 1963 – once remarked that whatever the prevailing economic theory, the general ethos of the Treasury was fixed: ‘Spending money, like eating people, is wrong.’ This entrenched conservatism has occasionally been praised – Keynes thought it a bulwark against madcap governmental wickedness – but has more often frustrated politicians of both left and right intent on reshaping the economy. Bringing its political wing under his influence suggests Cummings is eager to break the Treasury’s taboo, and serious about realising the Conservatives’ so far vague spending pledges, to firm up their potentially volatile electoral coalition. If he is serious about Whitehall reform, he also underestimates its complexity and intractability. The Treasury’s inertia is not caused by a few indolent spads at the top, easily replaced.
When the trailer for the movie Cats came out last summer, it was met with euphoric, gawping revulsion. The whole look of the thing was dazzlingly askew; the hybrid animation used to turn the actors feline had created something that viewers wanted both to watch and to look away from. Dislikes outnumber likes on YouTube by nearly three to one – but the video has been watched more than 16 million times. The trailer appeared days before Boris Johnson became prime minister. The film itself was released immediately after his general election success in December. Rumours suggested that it was being edited and rejigged right up to the last minute. It was said that it was being held back from reviewers for as long as possible. The hope seemed to be for either a word-of-mouth success that would bypass critical opprobrium or a cult triumph that would revel in it. Johnson’s electioneering worked along oddly similar lines.
In his speech immediately following the defeat of the government’s programme motion last night, Jeremy Corbyn said that the Commons had ‘emphatically rejected the prime minister’s deal’. Johnson, in his response, proclaimed his joy that parliament had got behind a deal, but lamented its relapse into delay. That two diametrically opposed politicians can look at the same vote and both interpret it as a victory suggests little progress has been made. In truth, neither was right: 19 rebel Labour MPs voted for the second reading of Johnson’s bill in the hope of finding a way through the mire; but most of them voted against the attempt to bounce the deal through with minimal scrutiny. It is unclear that an amended bill would be acceptable to the government, and unlikely that an unamended bill would pass third reading. MPs don’t seem resolute so much as exhausted. In this, at least, the Commons reflects the country.
The important thing for Johnson is to have someone else to blame. If a withdrawal agreement isn’t signed before the end of October and he provokes the EU into refusing another extension, then he can blame them for the turbulence that ensues. If he finds himself obliged to seek and accept an extension, then he can paint himself as the standard-bearer of Brexit, having offered a harder deal than May’s, but with his hands tied by a sinister cabal of Europeans, parliamentarians and spider brooch-wearing judges. Johnson calculates that a clear history of confrontation will keep the bulk of Brexit Party votes behind him, and deliver the ‘People v. Parliament’ election he believes he can win.
Boris Johnson announced last week that Parliament is to be prorogued days after MPs return from their summer recess: both Houses of Parliament will stand empty for five weeks. A new session will begin on 14 October. A Queen’s Speech debate typically takes a week of parliamentary time, which leaves just over six sitting days until the Brexit deadline. Across the press, opposition politicians have described Johnson’s power grab as an affront to democracy. The speaker of the House of Commons said it was a ‘constitutional outrage’. The thousands of people protesting in cities and towns across the UK on Saturday were clearer and bolder: they called it a coup.
Boris Johnson is on a law-and-order kick. Since coming to power, he has promised to recruit 20,000 new police officers, create 10,000 new prison places, and restore blanket stop-and-search powers. It’s a headline-grabbing reversal of the cuts to police numbers made by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and continued under May; it also does away with May’s reforms to stop-and-search, one of the few unalloyed goods to have come from her otherwise authoritarian Home Office, though already substantially reversed under Sajid Javid. Alongside his new home secretary, Priti Patel, who spent a significant part of her early career agitating for the return of the death penalty, Johnson promises a culture of fear for criminals.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s greatly overestimated aide, promises that however Parliament tries to constrain the prime minister, even by toppling the government, he will force through Brexit on the promised departure date. The hope is to turn Brexit into a runaway train, with Vote Leave cadres guarding any access to the driver’s cab.
Boris Johnson has mugged and gurned his way into Number Ten, through a leadership contest with a virtually preordained conclusion. It is hard to imagine how he could have lost – perhaps a hostage video with the queen in a grimy basement would have swung the needle away from him a few points – but harder still to imagine how he might govern.
Energy and optimism have been the watchwords of Johnson’s press ambassadors since his victory was announced; the man himself continues to duck press scrutiny. The stress on sunshine and optimism makes Tory politicians and hangers-on sound improbably like wide-eyed Californian acolytes of The Secret, but without any solution to the problems that felled Theresa May it is hardly surprising that his defenders fall back on voluntaristic brio.
It looked so unlikely to rational-minded commentators a few months ago as to make one wonder whether the entire historical process might, in fact, be governed by mere irrational chance. That would be anathema to most academic historians, who like to think that we can perceive order in events where ordinary folks can’t. Johnson’s elevation, however, suggests that anything can happen.
The accidental factors contributing to this astonishing outcome are obvious. That it should have come down in the end to a vote among fewer than 160,000 of the most reactionary people in Britain – the rump of the Conservative Party – is the most egregious.
A new edition of Boris Johnson: The Beast of Brexit is published today. The late Heathcote Williams composed his ‘study in depravity’ more than three years ago, when Johnson was still mayor of London: before the 2016 EU referendum, before Johnson’s careless talk condemned Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to an Iranian jail cell, before the police were called to a domestic dispute at his girlfriend’s flat, before he said his hobby was making model buses out of old wine boxes, before he became prime minister. But Williams’s portrait is as true a likeness of its subject now as it was then.
Orbán has been described by his biographer Paul Lendvai as a ‘master tactician, gifted populist’ and ‘radical and consummate opportunist’ – remind you of someone? Anyone familiar with Boris, however (and I was a close acquaintance for 25 years), will know that the parallels are misleading. Johnson isn’t a nationalist strongman in the Orbán mould. He’s a lot more cavalier than that.
The race to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore as prime minister, is formally underway. Ten candidates passed the 1922 Committee’s nomination threshold, and now enter a series of ballots of Conservative MPs to whittle them down to two, who will face a ballot of around 100,000 party members with an average age somewhere around 65 (according to the Bow Group’s estimate). The rest of us can do nothing but watch with impotent horror.
William Davies, 8 March 2018: The political weather in Westminster has been made over the past two years by Boris Johnson, a man whose only apparent goal is to make the political weather.
The background to the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – a young mother imprisoned in Iran apparently for no good reason, though careless remarks by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove haven't helped – is not unusual, and not very favourable. Part of a diplomat’s job is to support British subjects who get into trouble abroad, including those who get into trouble with the law. But diplomats cannot intervene in foreign courts, any more than foreign governments can intervene in ours. I am no Iran expert, but the country has been the target of espionage, sabotage and even murder and it is no surprise if its vigilance sometimes appears like paranoia. Anglo-Iranian relations are poor; diplomatic relations have only recently been re-established; we do them no favours; they are unlikely to do us favours.
As posturing over Brexit has given way to negotiations, the European Court of Justice is looming large. The prospects for EU citizens resident in the UK, uncertain enough to begin with, have been obscured by the government’s insistence that ECJ judges won’t be determining their rights. Even the court’s regulatory role over nuclear research is one judicial pretension too many for London: Theresa May has committed the UK to withdrawing from the European Atomic Energy Community as well as the EU, because the ECJ sorts out Euratom disputes.
So Boris Johnson is the foreign secretary. Heir to the mantle of such as Castlereagh, Palmerston and Halifax. Christ. It hasn't taken long for the new PM to stiletto expectations. If there was one by-blow of Brexit that could command general approbation, it was surely the toppling of Johnson, a clown with a plank who belatedly discovered the plank could do some damage, before getting a pratfall from his straight man. Now Theresa May's spoiled even that.
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.
In 2011, Theresa May told the Conservative Party Conference that the Human Rights Act needed to be restricted. One of the examples she gave of its alleged excesses was an ‘illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat’. Except she was making it up, or at least grossly exaggerating one small part of a case into its entire rationale. In March 2013, she created another stir by suggesting that the next Tory election manifesto should include a promise to dump the European Court of Human Rights. This forced old school Conservatives such as Kenneth Clarke to defend the Strasbourg body – which was just what she wanted, as it would make them more unpopular with Europhobic Tory voters, while boosting her own Eurosceptic credentials. May’s speech on Brexit earlier this week needed some xenophobic noise to camouflage her pro-EU stance in the referendum campaign; human rights were once again her target.
'I sometimes argue with my friend Heathcote Williams about his use of pornography as a means of attacking his political enemies,' Francis Wyndham wrote in the first issue of the LRB (25 October 1979): It seems to me an irrelevant weapon in any context, and in the hands of a man with Heathcote’s anarchistic, optimistic, nearly utopian convictions it becomes puzzlingly inconsistent. His polemical essays have been appearing, often unsigned, in the underground press over the past decade … They abound in fantastic, and often very funny, descriptions of the people he disapproves of (such as Mrs Thatcher, Enoch Powell, Ian Paisley, the Royal Family and Jesus Christ) engaged in eccentric forms of sexual intercourse. Williams's unsigned pamphlets still appear, forty years on, though there's less eccentric sex in them than there used to be. His latest is Boris Johnson: The Blond Beast of Brexit – A Study in Depravity.
Politicians’ fictional namesakes aren’t hard to come by: as well as George Osborne in Vanity Fair, there’s a one-legged vagabond called Tony Blair in Uncle Rutherford’s Nieces: A Story for Girls (1869), and in David Cameron’s Adventures (1950), the eponymous hero is kidnapped in Aberdeen and sent to work on a plantation in Virginia. In Agent of Chaos by Norman Spinrad (1967), Boris Johnson is the unlikely leader of the Democratic League, an interplanetary resistance movement fighting against the totalitarian regime of the Hegemony, which has turned the entire solar system into a surveillance state. Their political efforts are hampered by his bumbling nature. ‘Boris Johnson was quite willing to babble on – and did so at every opportunity – but the man was a fool.’
The text of Boris Johnson's speech at Bloomberg headquarters on Wednesday has the following helpful subheadings: 'The European Nightmare', 'The Solution – Reform and Referendum', 'But Be Prepared for a New Future', 'The Dream'. The first part of the speech is devoted to the nightmare of EU health and safety regulations (truck drivers must not drive for more than nine hours a day etc), but Britain could have ‘a great and glorious’ future if it leaves the EU. London is already ‘the America of the European Union’ (because it's a place of ‘massive opportunity’, not because it’s one of the most unequal cities on earth).
Last week, Boris Johnson gave the third annual Margaret Thatcher lecture, organised by the Centre for Policy Studies. Most of the spluttering that followed has focused on what the Mayor of London is supposed to have said about the impossibility of equality, his remarks about IQ, and his comparions between people and cornflakes.
Six cyclists have been killed on London’s streets in the last fortnight. On 5 November Brian Holt, a hospital porter from Aldgate, was hit by a lorry on Cycle Superhighway 2 in Mile End. On 7 November a man died after a collision with a bus in Croydon. Last week Francis Golding was hit by a coach at the corner of Southampton Row and Theobalds Road. He later died in hospital. On Wednesday morning a woman was hit by a heavy goods vehicle as she cycled round Bow roundabout, where two other cyclists have died this year.
Political party gatherings in the UK are no longer conferences, but telly-fodder rallies. The members show up, apparently of their own volition, and sit there like mannequins, a studio audience tasked to chortle, applaud, boo, pout concern and ovate on cue. As it’s going out in real time, it has to be got right in the first take. Even Triumph of the Will had to fake up some sequences in post-production. In a banner over the entrance to Birmingham's Symphony Hall, and plastered across the lectern, was the legend ‘Britain Can Deliver’. When and why did this intransitive, wholly generic use of deliver catch on, as if the UK were a nation of milkmen or obstetricians? Whether delivery is welcome rather depends on what’s being delivered. One can imagine a Tory conference anno 1770 under the strapline ‘Britain: Delivering Slavery throughout the Empire’. In his speech David Cameron had the gall to puff the fact that Britain had ‘led the world’ in abolishing slavery, having practised it with gusto for 150-odd years beforehand, and tossing in the towel only after losing the American colonies.
There are people, the Independent’s Steve Richards among them, who while deploring individual fatuous remarks will yet proclaim serious admiration for the mayor of London. Can such indulgence survive his call, amid the froth of Olympic rapture, for 'the kind of regime' he 'used to enjoy, compulsory two hours' sport every day'? My recollection of PE at school is of being shouted at and bullied by men in tracksuits – I preferred algebra – and we had only an hour and a half a week.
Last Thursday the Times launched a campaign to ‘Save Our Cyclists’. It was also the first anniversary of the death of 28-year-old Dan Cox, killed on his bike by a lorry at Dalston Junction. A memorial walk traced his last journey across the city. A ‘ghost bike’ near the spot where he was hit has been painted white and adorned with flowers and a copy of Kafka’s The Trial.
The invasion of the Boris bikes is complete. They stand on street corners, corralled like docile, futuristic horses in their blue harnesses. They’re good bikes – sturdy and solid – with a rather pleasing sit-up-and-beg riding position the better to survey the road around you. Undocking them is also quite fun, like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The name has become universal, which is only to be expected, launched as they were with all the pomp the bicycling mayor could muster. It’s not that we’ve forgotten that the bikes were originally Ken’s idea, but that Boris is a far more visible cyclist. The official name, ‘Barclays Cycle Hire’, was never going to take off, despite the lurid corporate livery.
Cyclists, unlike motorists or pedestrians, tend to notice other cyclists. When I was working as a bike messenger, Jon Snow was an almost permanent fixture of Gray's Inn Road, shuttling to and from the ITN building. I saw David Cameron, for all his eco-trumpeting, only once. He was going down Whitehall with the telltale wobble of the amateur enthusiast. There was a car following, though whether it contained a change of clothes and briefcase I couldn’t say. And then there was Boris Johnson. A regular pick-up from the Angel going to Burlington House on the Strand would send me down Rosebery Avenue, where I’d often see him emerging from Amwell Street. On a particularly slow and dismal day I chased him down and said: ‘Giz a job.’