Boris Johnson’s False Optimism

Boris Johnson adresses the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, England, in 2017. (Phil Noble/Reuters)
Theresa May’s foreign secretary tried gamely to paint a rosy picture of Britain’s future at yesterday’s Tory-party conference, but it was hard to believe him.

‘It is time to stop treating the [Brexit] referendum result as though it were a plague of boils or a murrain on our cattle or an inexplicable aberration by 17.4 million people,” Boris Johnson said in a characteristically tub-thumping speech at the Tory-party conference yesterday. “It is time to be bold and to seize the opportunities, and there is no country better placed than Britain.”

Johnson has been dogged for weeks by assertions that he was “on maneuvers” against Prime Minister Theresa May. Last month, after an uncharacteristically quiet period, he intervened in the press to promote a vision of Brexit that was positive, focused on trade and British derring-do. May has been put in many no-win interviews, in which it’s implied that she is too weak to fire him from her cabinet. (Firing him in response to the media’s pleas would, of course, make her look even weaker.) A number of speakers in and outside of the Tory conference have pointedly made fun of him.

But today, Johnson was able to remind the Tory faithful of his charisma, something in short supply at the top of the party right now. He constantly struck a cheerleading note. He talked about the success of British values across the world, and took shots at Labour: “It is thanks to the triumph of conservative values you are allowed to become a millionaire in Cambodia without being dispatched for re-education by some Asiatic John McDonnell,” he said.

Recently, a positive outlook has been seen as attractive in conservative politicians. This little bit of wisdom is something conservative intellectuals often believe, I think, because pessimism is native to our imagination. We would like to think that our representatives should be more cheerful than we are. And Johnson’s speech went down very well in the room.

But I wonder. Sample some of the Johnsonian optimism. Roll it around in your own mouth. “We can win the future because we are the party that believes in this country,” he said. Britain is “a society that welcomes talent . . . a society that does not judge you for where you come from or your background or how you live your life,” he claimed. And? “We lead the world in bioscience and fintech and some branches of AI and cybernetics. . . . We are going to crack global warming with British clean technology and British green finance.”

I’m too melancholic for such popular political rhetoric to appeal to me. But even if this optimistic register is suitable for a London mayor or for Boris himself, it seems completely unsuited to the moment. “Welcomes talent”? Sure, lots of French financiers fleeing Paris choose London, the one British city with substantial economic opportunities, but millions of Britons couldn’t afford to live there even if they somehow managed to find a job. “Bioscience and fintech”? How many voters work in that space? A society that doesn’t judge you? No British person could possibly believe this.

The political earthquake of Brexit was initiated by millions of people who lost their faith in the leadership class of their country, which campaigned fanatically for remaining in the European Union. Some acknowledgement of their dissatisfaction and their skepticism seems to be the the order of the day. Jeremy Corbyn acknowledges it by promising massive left-wing changes. Johnson seems to be trying to avoid it with happy claptrap.

How believable is the “lion” that Johnson hailed in his speech when the Brits are trying to grab a little cash from Brazil by selling their only naval ship that can be used in an amphibious assault, the HMS Ocean? Besides that, what exactly do the English plan to sell in the fantastic free-trading global market that Johnson describes? Some old Georgian row houses? The Russians have already bought all of those.

Johnson is fundamentally correct that the media and the establishment have been talking down Brexit, even as their predictions of imminent doom have all turned out to be false. And he clearly is still the star of the party for many members at the conference. He has always been rumored to be somewhat more awkward and introverted when the cameras are turned off. My bet is that he is more pessimistic about the future in private, too. He protests too much.


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