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Boris Johnson: A poor man's Trump stumbling straight into trouble

Both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have a remarkable ability to get away with mistakes that would destroy any other politician, writes Peter Oborne
US President Donald Trump pats Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary, on the back as they participate in a session on reforming the United Nations (AFP)

On Wednesday, with the election of Boris Johnson as the next prime minister, Britain will get its own Donald Trump as national leader. A poor man's Trump.
 
Just like Trump, Johnson invents his own rules. Like Trump, Johnson makes racist remarks. Like Trump, American-born Johnson (he only recently gave up his US citizenship) is a pure opportunist.

A man without values.

Like Trump, he’s taken advice from the nationalist svengali Steve Bannon. Like Trump, he targets minorities.

They both have a remarkable ability to get away with mistakes that would destroy any other politician. Take Trump and Pussygate, when the president was caught bragging about assaulting women during his election campaign. Washington froze with horror. It was assumed Trump was finished. Wrong.

Like Trump, American-born Johnson is a pure opportunist

Likewise, Westminster assumed Johnson’s campaign for the Tory leadership was over when reports emerged of a late-night row at his girlfriend’s flat. Johnson brushed this episode aside. 

How do they do it? They rely on powerful allies in the right-wing press. Trump had Fox news to repeat his lies and excuse his indiscretions. When Johnson becomes prime minister, he will do so with the support of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire. He can also rely on the Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, signature newspapers of the Conservative establishment.

A break point

Johnson is the favoured candidate of Trump. Last week, the president told reporters: "He's a different kind of a guy but they say I'm a different kind of a guy too." 

The president meant that they display a comparable amoral political pathology. No wonder the two men get on. With Trump the senior partner of course. Older. More powerful. And even more shameless than his protégé. Johnson, the poor man's Trump, won’t mind this.

Johnson is a populist whose supporters treat British institutions with contempt. Another reason why Trump admires Johnson

If Johnson's vision of Brexit was to work, he would need the collaboration and support of the US president in order to get the transatlantic free trade deal that he and his fellow Brexiteers crave. This means that the emergence of Johnson, aged 55, as prime minister, is a break point in British politics.

Johnson is a populist whose supporters treat British institutions with contempt. Another reason why Trump admires him.

Johnson’s Brexiteers have little time for an impartial civil service, while his method of charismatic personal rule challenges - and may destroy - the system of representative democracy which has governed Britain since the Glorious Revolution in 1688. 

Indeed, Johnson has been careful not to rule out governing without parliament, a ploy which hasn’t been tried since Charles I did so with catastrophic results on the eve of the English Civil War. This would drag the Queen directly into politics. Another gross breach of constitutional convention. 

Working for Johnson

I worked for Boris Johnson for four years when he was editor of the right-wing Spectator magazine and I was his political correspondent. He has the most brilliant mind I have ever come across in either politics or journalism. He is astonishingly quick to master an argument and grasp its consequences. 

Historians will view British foreign policy during the Johnson era as a period of moral horror

He was a loyal boss who supported me when I got into trouble. But great qualities can be used for evil as well as good. And I fear that Johnson will use his to cause damage and destruction.

He will have been elected to the Conservative leadership by 160,000 members. This tiny band represents 0.2 percent of the voters. Of this band, 38 percent are over 66 years of age. 

And there are signs that the party has been infiltrated by heavily motivated Brexiteer fanatics over the last two years – more than 30,000 new members have joined in the past 12 months. A recent poll showed that 63 percent of Tory members think it would be willing to pay for Brexit with Scotland leaving the UK. 

Anti-Brexit supporters hold placards and flags as they demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament on 14  January (AFP)
An anti-Brexit supporter holds a placard and flag during a protest outside the Houses of Parliament on 14 January (AFP)

Sixty-one percent said they would rather see “significant damage to the economy” than no Brexit. And there is no question at all that the majority of these elderly voters are bigots. An incredible number, 56 percent, believe Islam is a threat to the British way of life.

Moral horror

Johnson, though a hugely intelligent man who was a fine mayor of London, a great international city, repeatedly panders to this narrow and self-appointed electorate. He’s referred to black people as “picanninies” with “watermelon smiles” and described Muslim women wearing the veil as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”. 

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Johnson will go down as one of Britain’s worst foreign secretaries.

Britain was the penholder at the United Nations Security Council during the genocide of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar army in alliance with sectarian Buddhist militias. Virtually no action was taken against the generals, while Foreign Office ministers defended the regime while the genocide was actually taking place.

Johnson’s response to the humanitarian disaster in the Yemen was equally bad. I witnessed an expert coming to him with creative solutions. He appeared to pay attention but nothing came of it. Once again Britain, as UN penholder to the Yemen, was in a position to play a role in bringing the conflict to an end. It did not do so. 

As a result, historians will view British foreign policy during the Johnson era as a period of moral horror. We all expected the first crisis facing Johnson to be Brexit. No, it will be the UK response to the Iranian seizure of the British-flagged tanker, Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz last week. How will Johnson react? 

Prudent voices will be urging the British prime minister to negotiate. A deal is possible if the UK releases the Iranian tanker Grace I, which was halted off Gibraltar two weeks earlier. Furthermore, Britain has another diplomatic card in the £400m ($499m) debt it owes to Iran from an unfulfilled UK tank sale from decades ago which it has so far agreed to repay. 

Intense political instability

But Johnson knows that by diffusing the Iranian row he will infuriate Trump’s United States at a time when he desperately needs US support for a Brexit deal.

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Which way will he jump? Johnson’s appointment as prime minister by the Queen will coincide with a growing split inside the Conservative party. Several cabinet ministers, including Philip Hammond and David Gauke, have already signalled they would not work with Johnson.

They may well be ready to side with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and vote for no confidence in a Johnson government.

Great Britain is entering a period of intense political instability. Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister, said recently that Johnson might be the last prime minister of Britain. He may be right. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.