Boris Johnson: Profile of a Jester in Serious Times

Podcast available here: https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/37-boris-johnson-profile-of-a-jester-in-serious-times

Boris Johnson has become the new prime minister of the United Kingdom, replacing the wildly unpopular Theresa May, who had failed in her attempt to convince her fellow MPs to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, which is the basis for Britain to exit the European Union. I have extensively commented on the Brexit debacle (Liu 2016a, Liu 2016b, Liu 2018, Liu 2019), which has been consuming all of the political vacuum in Westminster. Is Boris Johnson going to be the savior of the UK by delivering the Brexit that he had campaigned so hard for in 2016? This time the Conservatives have voted for a party leader, who is truly committed to Brexit unlike May, who had campaigned for remain and then promised Brexit, but had no guts to push through a no-deal Brexit, because a majority of MPs rejected it.

When Johnson put himself up as PM candidate he promised that he would take the country out of the EU by the deadline October 31, which is in only about three months. In that time period, he pledged to return to Brussels and negotiate with the EU leaders to nix the withdrawal agreement and negotiate a new one. How does a new withdrawal agreement look like? Johnson wants to get rid of the backstop, which is the controversial provision that in the event of not negotiating the political status of Northern Ireland, it would remain inside the customs union to keep the border open between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which had fought a civil war for many decades until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Re-introducing border checkpoints could result in a flaring up of new hostilities, which everyone wants to avoid. The backstop, however, comes at the cost of severing the union of the UK by separating Northern Ireland from Britain (which consists of England, Scotland and Wales). The backstop was an important reason for many conservative MPs to reject May’s withdrawal agreement.

It is not clear whether Johnson will be more effective in getting rid of the backstop. Johnson knows that the UK is in the relatively weaker negotiating position and claims that he has two weapons against the EU. First, he wants to threaten to suspend the 39 billion pounds that May had promised to pay to the EU in the event of the Brexit. Second, he announces to the public that he is willing to walk out without a deal. The default position is a no-deal Brexit. To soften the blow of a hard Brexit, Johnson had instructed the Treasury department headed by loyalist Sajid Javid to calculate the likely cost of- for instance- publicly subsidizing farmers for losing export market share because of an introduction of EU tariffs on British farm products. The costs of a hard Brexit are hardly calculable and will more than offset any payments made to the EU that Johnson claimed are a saving to the British treasury (which will be legally challenged by the EU). But Johnson has good experience of not being very truthful and lying easily, which may be a “good” skill to be a politician and stay in power, but is doubly devastating for a Britain facing an uncertain future.

Johnson knows that he received the mandate based on his hard Brexit promise, and he will have to pull it through if he wants to remain in office beyond October 31. He came to power because he could make the British public feel good about itself, promoting the British contributions in science and technology, business and industry. But promises will puff up very quickly if a hard Brexit results in economic calamity. Johnson might be quite intent in pulling the trigger, because he seems to be most worried about the political fallout of not doing Brexit. The EU parliamentary elections rendered one third of the seats to the Brexit Party under Nigel Farage, who threaten the Tory political base, which is mostly Euroskeptic itself. Johnson rightly fears that the Brexit Party could linger on and destroy the Conservative Party. By lingering the Brexit issue the remainer Tories are likely to back the Liberal Democrats, the only major party outside the Scottish SNP to explicitly back a second referendum and remaining in the EU. Several remainer Tories already broke ranks and joined an independent parliamentary group.

Johnson’s threat does not come from Labour, which has a party leader who himself is wavering over the Brexit issue. Jeremy Corbyn only half-heartedly backed remain, and would favor a soft Brexit, i.e. full alignment with the customs union, which is awfully close to Norway’s relationship with the EU: full access to the EU markets in exchange for complying with all EU regulations but having no representatives in Brussels to shape these policies. A soft Brexit is entirely pointless and even worse for the political climate than a hard Brexit. Now Corbyn, recognizing the limits of the soft Brexit position, has said that any new negotiated deal must be subject to a second referendum with “remain” as an option on the ballot paper. But Corbyn would then still have to decide which side of the campaign to back. He said he would campaign for remain, but he said if he were PM now he would still negotiate a withdrawal agreement that would be subject to a referendum. Where is the logical consistency? But the ball is still in Johnson’s court as his negotiations and deliberation with the EU will set the stage for what might come next.

To understand how Britain got to where it is today, it might be useful to dig into Johnson’s biography, which I primarily drew from Wikipedia. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born on June 19, 1964 in New York City to Stanley Johnson, an economics student in Columbia University and Charlotte Fawcett, an artist from a liberal intellectual family. He comes from a very illustrious family. His maternal grandfather was the lawyer Sir James Fawcett. His maternal great grandmother was Elias Avery Lowe, a paleographer, who was a Russian Jewish immigrant to the US. His Russian middle name Boris was given to him by his parents after they met a Russian emigre. His paternal great grandfather was a Circassian-Turkish journalist and politician Ali Kemal, a secular Muslim, who served in high roles in government opposing Kemal Ataturk, for which he was sentenced to death. The family name Johnson came from his British paternal great-great grandmother, Margaret Johnson, who was also Ali Kemal’s mother-in-law. Ali Kemal’s wife Winifred Brun (daughter of Margaret Johnson) passed away in childbirth, so son Osman Wilfred Johnson and daughter Selma Johnson were raised by Margaret Johnson in England. Selma returned back to Turkey as an adult, while Wilfred Johnson stayed in England and wed Irene Williams, daughter of the aristocrat Stanley F. Williams of Bromley, Kent and the German-French Marie Luise Freiin von Pfeffel, which is where Johnson got his second surname from. Via von Pfeffel, Johnson is related to all the royal families of Europe including the Queen of England. Wilfred Johnson’s eldest son was Stanley, Boris’ father.

Johnson’s multinational heritage should make him quite immune from racist sentiments, but in truth he has made racist statements against dark-skinned people or Muslims when it suited his political career and to gain media attention. On the other hand, he is quite liberal when it comes to immigration policy compared to the nativist Home Secretary turned prime minister Theresa May.

Stanley Johnson worked for the World Bank, became a post-doc researcher at the LSE, the European Commission as director of the pollution/ environmental division and served as Member of the European Parliament from 1979-1984. As a result, Johnson lived in different places growing up, including New York, Oxford, London, Connecticut, Washington DC, Nethercote, Brussels. Johnson grew up to become extremely competitive. He has three younger full siblings and two more half-siblings from his father’s second wife Jennifer Kidd. His self-declared dream was to become the “world king”. It turns out that UK prime minister was the more realistic goal that he could settle with.

In 1977, he was awarded the King’s Scholarship to study in Eton College, an elite independent boarding school, which produced many other prime ministers and political and economic elites of Britain. His best friends were other upper-class men Darius Guppy and Charles Spencer who also accompanied him to Oxford and stayed as friends during his adulthood. Johnson became editor of The Eton College Chronicle and became a secretary in the school debating society. After taking a gap year in Australia teaching English and Latin, he won a scholarship to read Classics in Balliol College, Oxford (1983-7), where he made acquaintance with other elite graduates, who became influential figures in the Conservative Party, such as David Cameron, William Hague, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Nick Boles. Johnson played rugby for Balliol and joined the Old Etonian club called Bullingdon Club, which is known for its drunken vandalism. An aristocrat can screw up many things and not get punished.

Johnson co-edited the satirical magazine Tributary, and became a secretary in the Oxford Union, but was really keen on becoming the Union president. He failed in his first attempt, but with the help of his friend Frank Luntz he campaigned directly to the middle and lower middle class student body to win the plurality of votes. He also associated with the Social Democratic Party and Liberal Party, who themselves lacked a powerful charismatic candidate, even though his sympathies were clearly conservative. Once in power, it was not clear what Johnson did as Union president and some complained despite his rhetorical flourish that he lacked competency and seriousness. The class clown put himself up, presents himself as a great candidate and was promptly elected Union president. This pattern shall be repeated in his mayoral run in London and now the run for the premiership.

Upon graduation, Johnson’s first job was for the management consultancy LEK Consulting, but his true passion was in journalism. Via family connections he got a job in The Times in 1987. Only a few months into his job, he wrote an article concocting a quote from his godfather Colin Lucas, later vice-chancellor of Oxford, about the supposed homosexuality of King Edward II, who ruled in the early 14th century. Johnson was sacked from his job, but coming from a well-to-do family he got his second chance at The Daily Telegraph, because he knew the editor Max Hastings from his student days in Oxford. In 1989, Johnson was appointed to the Brussels bureau of the paper, where he worked for five years. In that time, he was supposed to report on the work of the European Commission, and was a foremost Euroskeptic. He often invented facts and supposed policies of the EC to discredit it for his British readers. As a member of the fourth estate, he had a substantial impact on British public opinion, fanning the flames for anti-EU sentiments, which began to tear apart the Tory party. Cutting his teeth in Brussels gave him ammunition to attack the EU in the Brexit referendum campaign decades later.

As far back as the 1980s, Tory premier Margaret Thatcher used the anti-EC sentiment to pressure the EC to reduce the tax payment of the UK to the EC budget. The UK played no leading role in the integration of Europe, did not join Schengen or the Eurozone and did not advocate for the expansion into Eastern Europe. The EU is essentially a Franco-German project to avoid a repeat of World War II, while the British only decided to join the EC in 1973 after they felt the increasing economic isolation after the fall of the British Empire. Johnson knew how to exploit the pathos (emotions) of the people to attain political power. Margaret Thatcher liked Johnson’s euroskepticism, but her successor John Major was annoyed by it, spending much time trying to refute Johnson’s falsehoods. In 1994, Johnson returned to London and became a political columnist.

By this time, Johnson wanted to launch his political career. In 1993, he wanted to be a Conservative candidate for MEP in Europe but could not find an open seat. He turned his attention to the House of Commons, where the Conservative leadership placed him in a Labour safe seat in North Wales, so Johnson lost the election in 1997. Having gained credibility, Johnson was given a regular column for The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph’s sister publication. He was also given a column for testing new cars on GQ. In 1999, Conrad Black, the proprietor of the Telegraph and Spectator offered Johnson the editorship of The Spectator in exchange for recanting a desire to run for political office. Johnson agreed, but that was, naturally, a lie, not the first he would tell. Under Johnson’s editorship, the right-wing publication added leftist writers and cartoonists, but he was accused of avoiding serious issues and was regularly absent from the office, meetings and events. He was also criticized for not censoring racist and antisemitic language in the magazine. He was fired from the editorship in 2005.

Johnson’s ultimate goal was to be in politics. In 2001, Michael Heseltine, a high official of the Thatcher and Major administrations, stepped down as MP for Henley, a safe Conservative seat. Johnson promptly ran for the seat and won it. Just like as an editor for a news magazine, Johnson was not a particularly responsible MP, attending just half of the Commons votes. He generally followed the party line during votes, but was more liberal on social issues. Part of the reason was that Johnson retained the editorship during part of his MP career. To relieve stress, he took up jogging and bicycling and put himself into scene for ostentatiously biking the streets of London. The 2001 elections entrenched Tony Blair’s Labour Party in power, and ushered in a leadership contest between Iain Duncan Smith and Kenneth Clarke. Johnson backed Clarke because he disliked Duncan Smith. Duncan Smith won the leadership contest, and Johnson promptly instrumentalized his Spectator to wage attacks against the new Conservative party leader. Duncan Smith was a weak party leader, who lacked the charisma in the media and the dispatch box. He was further weakened by mishandling expense reporting, which resulted in his resignation. Duncan Smith’s successor was Michael Howard, who instantly recognized Johnson’s charisma and promoted him shadow arts minister and deputy chairman of the Tory party.

Johnson remained a controversial figure. In 2004, Simon Heffer, a Spectator journalist wrote that the crowds were responsible for the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, a football match where scuffles and fights broke out resulting in 96 fatalities and hundreds of injured. Howard demanded Johnson, as editor, apologize for the comments, which he refused. Even worse, the media found out that Johnson had an affair with Petronella Wyatt while denying it. Howard sensed a political scandal and demanded Johnson’s resignation. Johnson refused and so Howard sacked Johnson. In the 2005 general elections, it was still Johnson who could have a last laugh. While Johnson increased his majority in his constituency, the Conservatives lost a third consecutive term against the Labour party, so Howard stepped down. Johnson promptly backed his fellow Bullingdon club member from his time in Oxford, David Cameron to lead the Conservative Party. Cameron himself was a new crop of politician, working his way up in the party by working in the Conservative Research Department and Special Adviser to the Chancellor during the Major administration. Cameron won his MP seat in 2001, the same year as Johnson. Although Cameron got the top job, because of Johnson’s own ambitions there was constant jostling for the top job right up to the point when Cameron became prime minister.

Cameron appointed Johnson as shadow minister of education, citing his popularity with students. In 2006, he campaigned as rector of the University of Edinburgh, but his support for the top-up fees damaged his campaign and he came third. By 2007, Johnson had set his sights on the mayoralty of London. The post had been introduced in 2000 as part of devolution reforms that gave more powers to municipalities, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The Conservative Party backed Nick Boles, but he withdrew from the campaign. Cameron then publicly endorsed Johnson, who would also leave Westminster if elected mayor (thus keeping him out of the leadership race with Cameron). Johnson promised to reduce youth crime, make public transport safer and to replace the old city buses. He targeted his campaign at the outlying London suburbs, which tend to vote Conservative, arguing that the suburbs were neglected by the Labour-led city. Johnson won the mayoral election against the incumbent Ken Livingstone. What probably decided the election was Johnson’s lack of seriousness, and his ability to make people laugh.

Johnson was a celebrity mayor, and was embroiled in political scandals over unaccountable use of public money and appointing cronies to influential positions. Johnson kept his campaign promise of converting the public transit buses. He introduced the cable cars to cross the River Thames. The infrastructure projects were funded from rising fares, which were raised by 50% under his rule. He also endorsed Livingstone’s public bike rental scheme, which he dubbed the “Boris bike”. Johnson administered the London Olympics in 2012, which was negotiated by Livingstone, and he became world famous for getting stuck on a zip wire while waving two British flags. Johnson introduced the London Living Wage and endorsed the amnesty of illegal migrants. Johnson has been claiming credit for reduced crime rates under his rule, even though the number of police officers declined and serious youth crime was a category of crime that increased. Johnson was a passionate defender of the City of London, the financial heart of the British economy, denouncing higher taxes on wealthy earners.

Johnson’s leadership style as mayor was of a laid-back nature. Johnson had no patience for policy details and instead stuck to high-profile prestige projects like his city bikes or the city buses, which he promoted in photo-ops and ribbon-cutting. He instructed his deputies to implement and work out the details. The important people in Johnson’s cabinet were Eddie Lister, his chief of staff, who has also been leading the transition time for his arrival as prime minister. Will Walden was the City Hall spokesman. Richard Barnes, Victoria Borwick and Roger Evans served as Johnson’s deputy mayors. James Cleverly was the leader of the Conservative Party in the London Assembly (and now chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without portfolio in the Johnson cabinet). Johnson also kept on Labour officials, who had expertise in their field like Peter Hendy, the head of the London transport authority, and Neale Coleman, the mayor’s head of policy. While not caring much for policy details, he was an amicable leader, who makes his subordinates feel good and listened to. He disarms and charms, which allows him to get people on board for his policies (Payne 2019).

Johnson’s charisma and ability to argue allowed him to defeat Ken Livingstone a second time in 2012. He decided not to run for a third term as London mayor. He had his eyes set on Downing Street 10. During his mayoral term he sought candidacy for a safe Conservative Seat in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, which is a western borough in London. In May 2015, he was elected MP. For prime minister David Cameron the 2015 general election was a vindication. The Conservative seat share increased and Cameron could quit the coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats to form a single-party government. The irony for Cameron was that he won the general elections not on the back of the success of his track record but because of his 2013 promise to implement a referendum on the UK to exit the European Union.

Upon entering office, the Conservative backbenchers immediately put pressure on Cameron to put the referendum on the table, because the pro-Brexit UKIP under Nigel Farage was making inroads into traditional Tory districts. When the EU refused to grant special protections for the City of London regarding tightening financial regulation, Cameron knew that he faced heightened pressure on the EU referendum, although the City refused Brexit because it could result in the loss of financial capital from London.

After the 2015 general election, Cameron traveled to Brussels to negotiate renewed terms for UK’s membership. It was a bunch of legalese and some minor detail changes. The UK would not become part of the EU’s intention for advancing “an ever closer union”. The UK could also introduce an emergency break on welfare benefits for EU nationals residing in the UK, which would require these EU nationals to live in the UK for a duration of at least 4 years before they could claim benefits. This legalese is very important to understand why Brexit was successful. The English voters didn’t give a shit about Cameron’s renegotiation with the EU. They were angry about being neglected and experiencing a defunding of local government services because of the austerity in Westminster. The only way to punish the UK administration was to vote against the expressed wish of the government leadership, i.e. vote for Brexit. David Cameron and most of his government ministers, including George Osborne, Theresa May and Sajid Javid campaigned for remain, mainly on economic grounds.

The high-profile Brexit supporters were Michael Gove, justice secretary, and Andrea Leadsom, the energy secretary. But the most important leader of the Brexit campaign was Boris Johnson. He was funny and entertaining, and he could draw on his intimate knowledge of Brussels and the EU to re-heat his old prejudices against the EU technocrats. The most important promise, which turned out to be a huge lie, was the promise written on the side of the Brexit campaign bus, “350 million pounds will be returned to the NHS”, i.e. instead of paying the EU contributions the money would directly flow back to the austerity-battered health services. Being on opposite sides of the campaign put a sharp relief between the leadership in the Conservative Party. PM Cameron campaigned on remain, but was overshadowed by the much more charismatic Johnson. Did Johnson truly believe in Brexit? Was he simply out for the top job? One can never know. The only true silver lining in Johnson’s ideological repertoire is a general liking for the rich and powerful and promoting himself. No matter, the Brexit vote meant that Cameron’s premiership was over. Before the vote he promised to stay on as leader regardless of the outcome of the referendum, but everyone knew that he lacked legitimacy had he done that. On the night of the referendum, Gove and Johnson appeared in front of TV cameras and gave a terse speech. There was no relief or happiness in their face. Did they recognize the gravity of what their “victory” meant?

Johnson had calculated clear leadership chances with the end of Cameron’s tenure. But right at that moment, his believed ally Michael Gove withdrew his public support for Johnson to stand as Conservative leader. A devastated Johnson did not run the risk and abstained from a leadership campaign. The only two names that stepped up were the Home Secretary Theresa May, the Remainer and clear favorite, and Andrea Leadsom, another Brexiter. Leadsom campaigned for one week and then dropped out, realizing the lack of broader support in the party. May ran effectively unopposed and became the new prime minister. When putting together her cabinet she appointed Johnson as foreign secretary, much to his surprise. May was committed to Brexit, perceiving the referendum result as a mandate for Brexit. As a remainer herself, she appointed a cabinet that was evenly balanced between remainers like the chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond and the Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Brexiters like Boris Johnson as foreign secretary, and David Davis/ Dominic Raab as Brexit secretary, a newly formed government department. May, rightly, perceived Johnson as a threat to her rule, and by appointing him foreign secretary he would be spending most of his time traveling the world and meeting foreign leaders as opposed to rally the pro-Brexit Tory backbenchers to pressure May to embrace a painful hard Brexit.

May called a snap election in May 2017, perceiving a wave of support for Conservatives who were riding high in the polls as UKIP became marginalized with the Brexit referendum successful and Nigel Farage stepping down as its leader. She believed that by increasing the Tory seat margin, she could ignore the hard Brexit backbenchers in her party and have an easier time passing a withdrawal deal negotiated with the EU. She badly miscalculated and lost the tiny seat majority, forcing her into a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Northern Irish DUP, which put additional pressure on May to never accept a backstop solution that could sever the ties between Britain and Northern Ireland. May had no vision and lacked any rhetorical skills. Not surprisingly, she refused to participate in TV debates with the other candidates, and deserved to be defeated in the polls.

Johnson’s time in the foreign office was filled with gaffes and diplomatic mistakes like reciting Rudyard Kipling’s poem Mandalay praising British rule over Burma while visiting a temple in Myanmar. The British ambassador told Johnson that the poem was not appropriate. May could afford these gaffes because at least it would keep him out of Westminster. But in July 2018, May forced through the Chequers agreement, which states that the UK would remain in the single market for goods and otherwise cooperate very closely with the EU. It promised an open border in Ireland and no internal border in the UK. The Chequers deal was the basis for the withdrawal agreement with the EU. David Davis and Boris Johnson resigned from the cabinet, citing the overly concessionary terms of Chequers. Johnson returned to parliament as backbencher, and now he was free to criticize the May government. The formidable opponent could now ready himself for a leadership challenge. In the mean time, he signed up to write well remunerated columns for his former employer The Daily Telegraph, where he made more anti-Muslim gaffes, saying that wearers of the niqab look like letter boxes or bank robbers. He also used the column to continue his attacks against May’s Brexit policy and Michel Barnier, the EU Brexit negotiator.

To survive politically, May had to pass the withdrawal agreement signed with the EU to proceed with the Brexit and negotiate the next phase of the UK-EU relationship. The problem was that the House opposed it, because the opposition voted against it nearly unanimously, and the Tory remainers and Tory Brexiters hated the deal. The withdrawal agreement was voted down three times, and a no-deal Brexit was blocked by parliament. Shortly before March 31, the Brexit deadline, May returned to Brussels to seek for an extension of the deadline. Her credibility was destroyed. She had no Plan B and two months later she tendered her resignation as prime minister and party leader.

Johnson wasted no time in throwing his hat into the ring for the Conservative leadership. The conservative MPs gave the plurality of votes for Johnson, while the foreign secretary, Johnson’s successor in the office, Jeremy Hunt ranked a distant second. In the leadership hustings, Hunt presented his strong Brexit stance, but lacked the charisma and credibility of Johnson, who was not afraid to call for a no-deal Brexit in the absence of a deal. Johnson made the Tory party members feel good about Britain and good about Brexit. Don’t be afraid! Relish the opportunity of Brexit! Britain will negotiate amazing trade deals! Britain has great talent, great corporations and great innovators! In short, make Britain great again! No Tory party leader perhaps since Margaret Thatcher had such natural charisma. In times of extreme national peril the people wanted a risk-taker, an optimist and a charismatic leader, even if he has a buffonish, clown-like appearance. Two thirds of the Tory members voted for Johnson, making him the next prime minister.

When setting up for his leadership ambition, Johnson wrote a book on his role model Winston Churchill, who- in Johnson’s telling- single-handedly defeated Nazi Germany, which wanted to create a proto European Union under German leadership. If Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, had become prime minister after Chamberlain’s resignation in 1940, Britain might have surrendered to Nazi Germany instead of fighting against it. With Britain’s fall, Hitler could have smashed his entire military force against the Soviet Union (instead of roughly 80%, with the remainder in the western front and some in Africa), and the Nazis would have dominated Europe unopposed. There is no irony in Johnson’s hint that he compares Nazi Germany’s pan-European ambition as on par with the European Union ambition (Kampfner 2014). True, the EU is not built on racism and antisemitism, but is built on weakening national sovereignty and it is dominated by Germany instead of Britain. (The first point is not even very truthful, because Angela Merkel, the strongest EU leader, promoted intergovernmentalism over EU federalism. The second point is accidental and occurred after German reunification in 1990.)

Translated to today, Johnson believes that he is the new Churchill that Britain needs. Instead of referring to the Nazi bombers raining down their bombs over British cities, he is referring to the restrictive EU legislation that is diminishing British greatness. Now is the time to throw off the chokehold of the EU. But there is a risk. Johnson staked his entire premiership and quest for power on the promise of Brexit, which he campaigned so vigorously for. His opportunism had served him so well in the past, because he could paper it over with his affability and charisma. I doubt it will save him this time. Johnson has reached the apex of power and thus his childhood dream. But getting to the top is not even the biggest challenge. It is to remain in power, and for that he now has to deliver on Brexit by October 31. Jeremy Hunt asked him whether he would step down if Brexit did not happen, and Johnson refused to answer the question, arguing that he did not want to give the EU any ammunition to steer toward their desired result. But the pressure will mount. Johnson is a much better orator than May was, and he might be able to hold onto power, possibly also because the Tories have no better leader in reserve. If Johnson can’t translate his rhetorical flourish and can-do spirit into a desirable reality for Britons, the Brexit party and Liberal Democrats will soak up the political vacuum and Johnson’s political career might also end prematurely.

Johnson’s “war cabinet” (again, leaning on his role model Churchill) consists mostly of Brexiters, the most important of which are his foreign secretary and deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, home secretary, Priti Patel, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and head of the cabinet office, Michael Gove, the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg and senior aide Dominic Cummings, who led the Vote Leave campaign in 2016. Rees-Mogg has been the chairman of the European Research Group, the hard Brexit Tory backbenchers. The only high-profile cabinet member, who was a Remainer, is Sajid Javid, who was promoted Chancellor of the Exchequer. He is tasked with reserving treasury funds in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and he is fully aligned with Johnson’s vision unlike his predecessor Hammond, who stridently opposes a no-deal Brexit.

Let me end with some speculations on where the UK is potentially headed. There is a chance that Johnson actually fears no-deal, and he could call for snap general elections which could justify another delay in Brexit. Johnson is currently lacking the mandate to rule because he had not fought a general election as leader. With the defections of Tory moderates to the independent group the 13 seat majority margin for the government has been reduced to 2. He has the charisma to take on Corbyn, who is populist in his program, but his position on Brexit is too weak. He has defeated a popular Labour candidate twice in the London mayoral elections. On the other hand, Johnson noted his reluctance to support a general election without Brexit proceeding. The hard Brexit will be economically harmful to Britain and it could sweep the Labour Party back to power. In any case, even if the Tories increase their vote share, it does nothing to move the needle in the negotiations with the EU.

Johnson can sing the empire song, “Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves.” Britain no longer has an empire, but he makes the people feel like they still have it, similar to right-wing populists in other countries. Will his optimism and confidence be enough to “liberate” his British people and get Brexit over the line (and help him retain power for the long term)? I doubt it, but keep your popcorn ready.

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