World

The Greatest Show in the West End

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets graduates from a West Midlands Police training centre in Birmingham, Britain, July 26, 2019. (Jack Hill/Reuters)
If nothing else, Boris Johnson’s time at No. 10 promises non-stop entertainment.

Whether Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, can deliver Brexit is unclear, but never before in its thousand-year history has Britain been led by a bankable, undeniable, tried-and-tested TV star. Welcome to the BoJo Show. It’s going to be a hoot.

A superannuated political hack once told me that the weekly sparring session called Prime Minister’s Questions [PMQs] was “the greatest show in the West End.” That was during the premiership of David Cameron, the P.R. man–turned–pol. Cameron was slick, smooth, and controlled, but the difference between him and Johnson is like the difference between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Britney Spears. If PMQs is intrinsically the best show in the best theater district in all of Europe, what happens when its star is an actual showman, a guy who owes his fame and ultimately his ascent to No. 10 to his many appearances on the comedic quiz show Have I Got News for You?

It’s been more than a quarter-century of hacks, flacks, and bureaucrats guiding the United Kingdom since the Iron Lady was chased out of Downing Street. Johnson’s predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May, was so boring that the only detail the political cartoonists could work with was that she sometimes wore leopard-print kitten heels. The Johnson era, however long it may last (and it may last quite some time, indeed), promises to be a giddy romp. Dull moments are hereby canceled.

“It is only with an effort that I can mahh-sta my feelings here, Mr. Speaker,” Johnson said in his impeccable upper-class accent as he warmed up the flamethrower at the dispatch box. Seated in front of him to receive punishment was the deeply stupid Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose first wife has said that in four years of marriage she never saw him read a book, not even a little red one. After Corbyn made the extremely Corbynesque claim that a free-trade deal with the U.S. would endanger Britain’s National Health Service, Johnson spanked him without mercy:

He speaks about trust in our democracy, Mr. Speaker.

And I have to say, the most extraordinary thing has just happened today. Did anybody notice today the terrible metamorphosis that took place, like the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers? At last this longstanding Euroskeptic, the Right Honourable Gentleman [Corbyn], he has been captured, he has been jugulated, he has been reprogrammed by his honorable friends, and he has been turned now into a Remainer! In all the flip-flops he has performed in his tergiversating career, that is the one for which he will pay, I think, the highest price. Because this party, now — this party, this government — is clearly on the side of democracy. . . . The reality now is that we are the party of the people. We are the party of the many and they are the party of the few.

After Johnson spent two and a half supercharged hours taking 129 questions from MPs, parliamentary observer (and theater critic) Quentin Letts wrote in the Times of London that Johnson “whacked and peeled and pummeled” Corbyn, “turned him into one of those troublingly pondish vegan smoothies.”

As if Johnson weren’t dazzling enough, he had assistance from the brightest new star in British politics, the exquisitely tailored, preposterously old-school, and unabashedly Wodehousian MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, whom Johnson tapped as leader of the Commons and who has denounced EU regulations as “stentorian sesquipedalian sentences.” When Rees-Mogg, whose speech is so upper-class he makes his fellow Old Etonian Johnson sound like one of the orphans from Oliver!, rose to speak, a Labour wag called out, “Resign!” “It’s a bit early,” he replied, before parrying jokey questions about his nanny and his reputation for being the world’s only living fossil. When a Scottish MP suggested Rees-Mogg wanted to dial back the clock to the Tudor period, he got his questioner and everyone else laughing by proving that old things can be good things: “I would point out that the House of Commons predates the House of Tudor: It started in 1265.”

The Conservative-led government isn’t particularly conservative — Johnson spent much of his first appearance in the Commons as PM defending various statist initiatives and vowing to rain more cash on the NHS. But the Tories figure to do a magnificent job of taking apart the vacuous neo-Marxists in the opposition, and making a case that is rarely made with such ringing confidence and crackling wit: Socialism can’t be allowed near the levers of power, in Britain or anywhere else.