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If Boris Johnson can’t deliver Brexit, his own side will turn on him

I have no doubt that Johnson wants a deal. The irony is that it will be a repeat of Theresa May's withdrawal agreement which he repeatedly denounced
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly on 24 September (AFP)

I begin to fear for Boris Johnson. 

Just over two months ago he - at last - secured, after a lifetime’s effort, the job he has craved since he yearned to be "world king" as a child. Since he succeeded Theresa May as British prime minister, Johnson has been defeated six times in parliamentary votes.

Six times out of six. 

He’s squandered his tiny parliamentary majority and now leads a minority government. His Tory party is split, with 21 MPs stripped of the whip. 

Johnson remains Conservative Party leader and British prime minister, but his authority is ebbing very fast and he is losing friends

He’s been thwarted in his plan to hold a general election and now there are troubling reports alleging that he may have been involved in serious malpractice when he was mayor of London. 

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According to the Sunday Times he secured funds for a small tech company run by a friend of his in what looks like irregular circumstances. So far, when questioned about this unedifying business, Johnson has brushed aside questions, while insisting he behaved with propriety

Yesterday came the mightiest setback of all. Johnson’s decision to advise the Queen to shut down (the technical term is prorogue) Parliament was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in a decision of momentous consequence. Johnson remains the Conservative Party leader and British prime minister, but his authority is ebbing very fast and he is losing friends. 

It took Margaret Thatcher 11 years to find herself in the position that Boris Johnson finds himself in today, fighting for his political life as his friends and allies ebb away.

Not the right person

He must be lonely. He is negotiating a divorce from his wife of 25 years. He cannot trust his closest political allies, like Michael Gove, the minister in charge of Brexit preparations. Gove is notoriously the most treacherous politician of modern times. 

Gove betrayed Johnson when he withdrew support from Johnson’s first leadership campaign at the very last minute, announcing that Johnson was “not the right person for the task” of running the country.

Relations with the Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid are poor, made worse by the fact that Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings sacked the chancellor’s special adviser, Sonia Khan, on 29 August.

Anti-Brexit activists, and demonstrators in central London on 10 September (AFP)
Anti-Brexit activists and demonstrators in central London on 10 September (AFP)

This was a humiliation for the chancellor and won’t have been forgiven. Javid has had the wind taken out of his sails by spending announcements made from Downing Street.

Maggie Thatcher’s downfall was prompted by the serial humiliations she heaped upon her chancellor, Geoffrey Howe. For the time being Javid is biding his time, but he will bite back.

Johnson is a loner. He has never been one for cultivating MPs in the Common’s tearooms. He can rely on no loyal base. 

Saving the Tory party

Tory MPs did not vote for him as Tory leader because they like him. They chose him for one purpose only: to save the Conservative Party from feared obliteration at the hands of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. 

If Johnson can’t deliver Brexit, his own side will turn on him. 

So who can he rely on? Johnson’s mentor, US President Donald Trump, stands by him. But Johnson would be unwise to rely on Trump. Trump only backs winners. Since relations with Javid are poor, Johnson is seen most often in public with the Home Secretary Priti Patel. This is a political marriage of convenience. 

Does Johnson have the self-knowledge to grasp that he is making a mess not just  of his life, but also of the country he governs?

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is clever. Johnson put Raab into the Foreign Office because he feared his Brexiteer credentials. I detect no warmth or trust. 

That leaves Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s "senior adviser". According to several reports, Cummings is the man behind Johnson’s strategy of confronting parliament, mocking the law and splitting the Conservative Party.

Dire choices

There’s a contradiction about the prime minister. While a loner, Johnson wants to be loved, praised, feted, and hero worshipped. I suspect he is starting to feel that Downing Street is a prison cell. Johnson was a brilliant journalist and columnist at the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator newspapers. Does he ever crave for those old days? 

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Does he even believe in Brexit? Johnson wrote two columns for the Daily Telegraph on the fateful day that he plumped to support Brexit. The other lucidly argued the case for Remain. Johnson is supremely gifted, a classicist who drops Latin and Greek quotations like pearls, can deliver a brilliant speech to 500 people impromptu and is brilliantly gifted.

But great gifts can be used for ill as well as good. Does Johnson have the self-knowledge to grasp that he is making a mess not just of his life, but also of the country he governs?

His choices are dire. As matters stand he is duty bound, if he cannot reach a Brexit deal, to follow the orders of Parliament and send a letter to Brussels on the 19th October demanding an extension to British membership of the European Union. 

Farce, then tragedy

That is a very difficult thing for Boris Johnson to do, as he has repeatedly pledged to take Britain out by 31st October. That is why there has been talk at Westminster that he could resign as prime minister rather than carry out such a humiliating task. Don’t rule it out.

But that could mean handing over to Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn - not a popular move amongst Johnson’s Conservative supporters. That is why I have no doubt that Boris Johnson wants, more than anything else, a deal.

And the deep irony is that a deal will involve a repeat of May’s withdrawal agreement which Johnson repeatedly denounced. His only hope now is to deliver that very deal. What a farce. In a reversal of Karl Marx’s famous aphorism, it’s a farce that can swiftly turn into a public and personal tragedy.

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

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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