Boris Johnson, the Brexit Illusionist

Boris Johnson talks with reporters at the European Council in Belgium in May. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
Does he know what he’s doing?

The single biggest issue facing the final two Tory prime-minister contenders, Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson, is whether they will take Britain out of the EU by the next deadline (Halloween, October 31).

Brexit has already been delayed multiple times, and while it is tempting to blame this on Theresa May, the reality is less straightforward. Owing to its Remain-heavy arithmetic, Parliament is in total deadlock. Worse, as The Economist recently explained, “the remorseless logic of Brexit has shoved a stick of constitutional dynamite beneath the United Kingdom — and, given the difficulty of constitutional reform in a country at loggerheads, there is little that can be done to defuse it.” This is because, unlike the United States, the British constitution is a living document. If Parliament, or the Speaker of the House, wants to find a way to block Brexit — they can.

Since the European Union knows the problems Westminster faces, it has little motivation to compromise. Their Brexit deal is set in stone, they say; take it or leave it. Johnson is equally uncompromising. He told Talkradio’s Ross Kempsell that Britain will leave on Halloween “do or die, come what may” — in other words, with or without a deal. Hunt is more reticent, perhaps more realistic; not that that helps him.

So, what will happen if Johnson becomes the next prime minister — which seems inevitable — and Brussels calls his bluff? Will he be able to deliver a no-deal Brexit? And if so, how?

Johnson has thus far failed to answer this question, on which his entire campaign rests. More remarkably still, his supporters don’t seem to care. In interviews and in media appearances, he is a masterful illusionist: asserting, distracting, then reasserting. In the same “do or die” interview, for instance, Johnson shifted the focus from his Brexit plan (or lack thereof) to a fantastical and implausible hobby of his.

A clip of his interview with Kempsell went viral and was picked up as a news story by the Guardian, the BBC, and many other outlets. Serious political commentators tried to understand why he had said this thing about making buses out of crates and painting little figurines of us all. One political scientist explained it as “so bizarre it’s mesmerizing.” And that’s exactly right.

“My Boris Johnson story,” a recent Spectator essay by the British journalist and broadcaster Jeremy Vine, illuminates Johnson’s illusionist tendencies further. Vine tells a wildly amusing story of Johnson appearing at a dinner he was scheduled to speak at — late, disheveled, and completely unprepared — and then delivering a speech that bore no relation to the event but that the audience adored. There was a dramatic twist: Later, at a different event, he saw Johnson tell an identical — again, supposedly spontaneous — speech. In fact, there are dozens of similar stories about Johnson, not least in Harry Mount’s The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson and Andrew Gimson’s The Rise of Boris Johnson. Vine wonders, “Is this guy for real?” Indeed, don’t we all.

As my colleague Sahil Handa pointed out, prior to this latest bus episode, if one had Googled “Boris Johnson” and “bus,” a rather different story would have popped up. Namely, the controversy surrounding his infamous bus pledge: During the Vote Leave 2016 campaign, the slogan “we send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead” was plastered on the side of red buses. This figure is now widely disputed. A private prosecutor even tried to take him to court over it.

Then there are the strange tactics he adopts with his private life. Last Friday, in the early hours of the morning, the police were called to a loud altercation at the home of Boris Johnson and his partner, Carrie Symonds — N.B.: a former Conservative-party head of press. A neighbor told the Guardian that they heard a woman screaming, “slamming and banging,” and Symonds yelling at Johnson to “get off me” and “get out” of the apartment. When the police arrived, Symonds and Johnson reassured them they were safe. The police promptly left, and the concerned neighbors promptly went to the press, generating yet another news cycle about Johnson rather than Johnson’s plan for Brexit.

For most politicians in the midst of a leadership race, this kind of press would be a fatal distraction. But the next day, at the Tory-party hustings in Birmingham, when the moderator Iain Dale, an LBC radio presenter, asked Johnson to comment on the incident, he dodged and ducked until the audience were booing Dale. Johnson accused Dale of wasting time and not giving the audience what they wanted. Let’s talk about Brexit! Let’s talk about my political character! He cried. Well, yes. Let’s . . .

Just as the incident was dying down, some days later a picture emerged of Johnson and Symonds in a country field. The couple were seated at deck chairs and staring fondly into one another’s eyes. On LBC, Nick Ferrai asked Johnson to say whether his campaign team had sent out the photo as a corrective PR strategy. Again, he refused to answer. “Newspapers and other media outlets, of course, are going to want to print and to speculate what they choose,” he said. (Johnson would know; he used to edit The Spectator and is a columnist for the Telegraph.) “The longer we spend on things extraneous to what I want to do, the bigger the waste of time,” he said.

But could wasting time be his strategy? In his book Intellectuals, another Johnson — Paul Johnson — explains that “most people are resistant to ideas, especially new ones. But they are fascinated by character. Extravagance of personality is one way in which the pill can be sugared, and the public induced to look at works dealing with ideas.” Boris knows this only too well. Britons, especially Conservative-party members, have endless appetite for eccentricity. And Boris brings his unique character to every area of his life. Arguably, it was the character of Boris’s prose as Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph in the 1990s that fanned the flame of conservative euro-skepticism. And again, his character, which helped to win the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum.

In a way, the question about Boris’s campaign strategy will be the same one Britons are faced with if and when he takes over Number 10: Does this guy know what he’s doing?


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