Boris Johnson seems the opposite of Theresa May. The worst thing she ever did was run through a wheat field. The worst thing he ever did remains open to debate. But dark suspicious prompted Charles Moore, whom older readers will remember as a defender of family values, to ask: ‘Does it matter if our future prime minister is considered by some to be a sex maniac?’ (Not if it’s a sex maniac Moore supports, apparently.)
May is withdrawn. Johnson is outgoing. May will tell you how many children she has. Johnson won’t. May is viewed by the right as the head of a Remainer conspiracy. Johnson resigned rather than serve in her Vichy regime.
As whoever comes after her will be worse, there is a danger of romanticising Theresa May’s premiership. I already hear people saying we will remember her as the last sane prime minister before the charlatans took over. Only the perennial power of stereotypical assumptions stops them seeing that the quiet vicar’s daughter was as dangerous as the loud men who vie to succeed her.
Boris Johnson is Theresa May in everything that matters. The only difference being that Johnson’s charlatanism will contain his – and Britain’s – freedom of manoeuvre as the crisis deepens.
The fundamental failure of politicians since 2016 has been a failure to be honest with the public. As Sir Ivan Rogers says in a speech today, May refused to face ‘the scale, length and complexity of the disentanglement which Brexit entails’. Sir Ivan, who was Britain’s ambassador to the EU until he was forced out for speaking truth to power, sees the same process at work today. Johnson will appeal to Tory members, as May did in 2016. Like a bad England football manager faced with classy continental opposition, Johnson, like May, will maintain that the impossible is possible as long as we show enough passion.
Johnson’s ascent to the prime ministership will be greeted with ecstasy in the Conservative press, as May’s was. His first leader’s speech to the Conservative party conference will not dampen expectations or explain the difficulties of Britain’s position any more than May’s first speech did.
The next six months are alarming, not because we will see a break with the tactics of the failed May administration, but because the Tory right is offering a continuation of the failed May administration.
To take the most disgraceful example, Dominic Raab’s declaration that he would close Parliament to force through a no-deal Brexit is one of the most shocking statements I have heard from a British politician. He sounds like an over-ambitious colonel in a sub-Saharan hellhole than the potential leader of a mature democracy. According to the Times, Boris Johnson has assured the Putinists in the European Research Group that he would consider doing the same. It feels as if the rules of permissible democratic life have been torn up. Consider, however, that May fought Gina Miller all the way to the Supreme Court to stop Parliament having a say on Article 50. May called an election to crush ‘the saboteurs’ and in the dying days of her government wanted to rally ‘the people’ against Parliament. May tried her best to be a demagogue, it’s just that she was such a political inadequate no one noticed.
Or take the polarisation of debate. Because Tory members rather than elected MPs (or – heaven forfend – the electorate) will choose the next prime minister, the range of options available to Britain is shrinking like a puddle in the desert. No candidate supports remain. None supports keeping Britain in the single market and/or the customs union. Rory Stewart supports May’s Brexit, which by any standards is a hard Brexit, and for this, he is accounted a moderate.
No one, with the exception of Stewart, acknowledges that the EU will not change the withdrawal agreement. If I were a Conservative member, I would be furious about Johnson’s willingness to treat me as a fool. But then Conservative members like being treated as fools. For more than a year, May persuaded them to believe the echoingly vacuous slogans: ‘Brexit means Brexit,’ ‘a red, white and blue Brexit’ and ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. People who can be so easily fooled should not be allowed to choose what socks to put on in the morning, let alone the fate of a nation.
As for the polarisation and the flight to the extreme, Theresa May treated half the country as ‘citizens of nowhere’ the Daily Mail called judges ‘enemies of the people,’ and Amber Rudd wanted to name and shame employers who hired Europeans. Are they somehow superior to Johnson with his joshing racist asides? How can they be when May made him her foreign secretary?
In other words, Conservative Britain is being devoured by the monsters it bred. We could sit back and enjoy the spectacle were they not devouring the rest of us as well.
For all the similarities, I don’t see how the Johnson premiership can be a rerun of the May premiership. The deceits of this summer’s leadership election will turn into a bloody rendezvous with reality in the autumn. May in the end had to compromise as she, with shameful tardiness, began to understand the risks to the country. You’d guess it would be hard for Johnson to follow suit. His job is to either neutralise Farage or strike a deal with him. With his brays urging them on, his supporters have developed the Weimaresque language of betrayal and branded compromise as treason. They surely would throw the same charges at Johnson if he compromises. In any case, if Johnson tried repackaging May’s deal and selling it as his own – as he repackaged Ken Livingstone’s London cycling scheme and sold it as ‘Boris bikes’ – Labour would not accept it without committing to the customs union, and the right and Ulster unionists would not accept the Irish backstop.
As it is impossible to negotiate a ‘new deal’ by 31 October, Johnson, or whoever, could ask for another extension. There is no guarantee the EU would grant one, however, and in any case having led the British right up the hill, how could he march them down again?
He could go to the country on a no-deal platform. Even if he wins, the whole process will begin again. For as Sir Ivan says, there’s no such thing as a clean break for a country integrated into the European market. The EU will determine what emergency arrangements it grants us. We will return on bended knees begging for a trade deal as the effects of ending interdependence become clear.
The best way to picture Britain since 2016 is to imagine a man falling down a stone staircase. With every bounce, we sink lower. With every bounce, our injuries become more grievous.