Wednesday 14 February 2018

Boris Johnson's Cameroon Brexit

Boris Johnson's politics are, in my opinion, stupid. But when it comes to where it really counts - self-promotion - he undoubtedly has a flair for that, even if his bumbling, mumbling and public disassembling is contrived to cultivate a clownish character. It certainly worked for a while, securing him two stints as part-time Mayor of London and the epithet of most popular politician in the country. Now? Not so much. He is in contention for future Tory leader, certainly, but the referendum campaign exposed him as a serial liar, and the subsequent contest to be Dave's successor left him diminished. In a number of ways, by giving him the Foreign Office at the height of her pomp, Theresa May indulged in a rare act of mercy and allowed him a way to come back in the future. As she now thinks he and his coterie of hard right allies hold the whip hand, one wonders if she regrets this political kindness.

Still, to come back properly and getting his shot at the top Johnson has to present himself as something more than a schemer, which is what his double intervention over Brexit was about today. He got his place in The Sun and later on a much trailed speech in a room not much bigger than a phone box. Turning to the article first, Johnson - forever grasping toward a Churchillian moment - seeks to paint Brexit as a national endeavour, or as he calls it "the great project of our age". With challenges like mitigating climate change, artificial intelligence and automation, cheap renewable energy, persistent poverty and inequality, there is an infinity of much greater projects to choose from than placing trade barriers between Britain and the world's largest economy. But you can see what he's doing, he's trying to tap into the patriotism of The Sun's ageing and dwindling readership. He goes on to talk about the "grief and alienation" of many who voted to remain in the EU, and how Leavers like him shouldn't rub salt in the wound but "reach out to those who still have anxieties". That's fair enough, but the paper somewhat spoils the sentiment by running 'Pro-Brexit artists form union to stop luvvie Remoaners denying them work' directly underneath.

Johnson presses on by talking up the benefits of Brexit. One is that current security cooperation with EU member states isn't going to change - hardly a concern die hard remainers bang on about. On insularity, Johnson assures us that's not the case. Trips overseas are up, and loads of Britons live abroad, noting more live in Australia than the entirety of the EU. The source of these figures isn't given, though it's likely a Johnson bag carrier totted up the numbers (via the Daily Mail) of this UN migration report from 2014. I haven't got alternative numbers to show Johnson up, but there's certainly more, as the report suggests, than 720 Britons living in France. As he notes himself, while mayor he was proud 400k French citizens lived in London while we had exported just 19,000 to Paris. Hmmm. However, it's all very well prattling on about a global Britain when the Westminster consensus, and most existing serious research into the Leave vote locates its directed rebellion against establishment politics in the reaction against globalisation, with immigration and the EU stand-ins for inchoate anxiety and a felt normlessness - particularly among older voters. Johnson touches on the need to "exercise control" and floats again the fantasy of the Brexit dividend, but overall this liberal Brexit, which is how it was tipped, is hardly congruent with the paper's readership. Not least because The Sun have aggressively attacked liberalism in anything but economics for nigh on 40 years.

What about the speech? It's the same fare as the widely-trailed advance. Brexit wasn't and isn't a V sign from Dover's white cliffs (news to swathes of the leave camp), but a just desire for self-government. Indeed, it strikes an even more liberal tone by talking up ease of travel, of holding Europe close and seizing a global identity for Britain. But again, it's the discussion of economics that is most risible. The NHS is going to get more cash as per the infamous legend plastered on the side of that bus, and, Johnson argues, we must remember there are plenty of non-EU countries that have enjoyed faster growth in trade with the EU than the UK. Something, I might suggest, that has something to do with Britain's long-standing weaknesses, lopsided development, a virtual capital strike, and the studied absence of an economic strategy from Downing Street beyond cutting taxes for the wealthy and hoping for the best. And on and on it goes, adroitly and at times expertly wrapping candy floss rhetoric around the wrecking ball Johnson, May and the rest of their gang are going to drive through the living standards and livelihoods of millions. It might sound nice and look good, but the risk falls on our people, not the mob Johnson hangs out with.

As he says in his speech, not many people will change their mind on the basis of what he has to say but he feels duty bound to try and at least address remain concerns. What's the game here? Again, it's a matter of positioning, of our jolly old friend triangulation. Johnson's Brexit is qualitatively no different from the rest of the Tory hard right. He, Michael Gove, and Jacob Rees-Mogg are not just on the same page, they want the same thing. Unlike his Mogglodyte comrades, however, Johnson knows a hard Brexit, with all the bonfire of workers' rights and naked class rule they dream of cannot be baldly stated. And so he's learned a trick or two off his vanquished rival. Dave's liberal makeover of the Tories while he was in opposition was skin deep and only touched social issues (though ultimately his battle for equal marriage made UKIP a going concern, and therefore did for him), but his slick delivery, Blair-smooth patter, and ability to look the part - provided you didn't peer too closely - was enough to assuage the concerns of enough nice middle class people in the nice middle class marginals to vote for him in 2010, and stick with him in 2015. Johnson knows he has to keep the Brexiteers on board and pitch, again, to the same voters that turned to Dave. If you like, what the Sun article and the speech was is his trial run for a Cameroon Brexit, a rebadged socially liberal Toryism aimed at grabbing just enough votes.

Johnson's problem, however, is this is not 2010 nor 2015. Brexit happened and the general election condensed long-term inequalities and contradictions the Tories were almost entirely ignorant of until the strong performance of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour confronted them with the reality of their actions. With a Tory party dependent on an old and declining vote, their policies continue to lock younger people out of decent jobs and housing, and threaten at any moment to pull the rug from under the generation now in the middle of their working lives and are thinking seriously about their meagre future pensions. Tory short-termism has stiffed these generations and continues to do so. Johnson's foray into Brexit would have been good optics any time before 2015, but that belongs to another age. Now it just looks like a sad, trite and entirely cynical exercise of trying to remind the British public of who he is.

No comments: