John Oliver explains how Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, has succeeded – not despite his bumbling persona, but often because of it.
In the postindustrial wasteland, the working class embraced an old Etonian mouthing about unleashed British potential.
Donald Trump, in his telling, could have shot somebody on Fifth Avenue and won. Boris Johnson could mislead the queen. He could break his promise to get Britain out of Europe by Oct. 31. He could lie about Turks invading Britain and the cost of European Union membership. He could make up stories about building 40 new hospitals. He could double down on the phantom $460 million a week that Brexit would deliver to the National Health Service — and still win a landslide Tory electoral victory not seen since Margaret Thatcher’s triumph in 1987.
The British, or at least the English, did not care. Truth is so 20th century. They wanted Brexit done; and, formally speaking, Johnson will now take Britain out of Europe by Jan. 31, 2020, even if all the tough decisions on relations with the union will remain. Johnson was lucky. In the pathetic, emetic Jeremy Corbyn, the soon-to-depart Labour Party leader, he faced perhaps the worst opposition candidate ever. In the Tory press, he had a ferocious friend prepared to overlook every failing. In Brexit-weary British subjects, whiplashed since the 2016 referendum, he had the perfect receptacle for his “get Brexit done.”
Johnson was also skillful, blunting Nigel Farage’s far-right Brexit Party, which stood down in many seats, took a lot of Labour votes in the seats where it did run, and ended up with nothing. The British working class, concentrated in the Midlands and the North, abandoned Labour and Corbyn’s socialism for the Tories and Johnson’s nationalism.
In the depressed provinces of institutionalized precariousness, workers embraced an old Etonian mouthing about unleashed British potential. Not a million miles from blue-collar heartland Democrats migrating to Trump the millionaire and America First demagogy.
That’s not the only parallel with American politics less than 11 months from the election. Johnson concentrated all the Brexit votes. By contrast, the pro-Remain vote was split between Corbyn’s internally divided Labour Party, the hapless Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party. For anybody contemplating the divisions of the Democratic Party as compared with the Trump movement’s fanatical singleness of purpose, now reinforced by the impeachment proceedings, this can only be worrying.
The clear rejection of Labour’s big-government socialism also looks ominous for Democrats who believe the party can lurch left and win. The British working class did not buy nationalized railways, electricity distribution and water utilities when they could stick it to some faceless bureaucrat in Brussels and — in that phrase as immortal as it is meaningless — take back their country.
It’s a whole new world. To win, liberals have to touch people’s emotions rather than give earnest lessons. They have to cease being arid. They have to refresh and connect. It’s not easy.
Facebook reaches about one-third of humanity. It is more powerful than any political party — and it’s full of untruths, bigotry and nonsense. As Sacha Baron Cohen, the British actor, said last month of the social media behemoths: “The truth is that these companies won’t fundamentally change because their entire business model relies on generating more engagement, and nothing generates more engagement than lies, fear and outrage.”
That’s the story of Brexit, a national tragedy. That’s the story of Johnson, the man of no convictions. That’s the story of Trump, who makes puppets of people through manipulation of outrage and disregard for truth. That’s the story of our times. Johnson gets and fits those times better than most. He’s a natural.
“Brexit and Trump were inextricably linked in 2016, and they are inextricably linked today,” Steve Bannon told me. “Johnson foreshadows a big Trump win. Working-class people are tired of their ‘betters’ in New York, London, Brussels telling them how to live and what to do. Corbyn the socialist program, not Corbyn the man, got crushed. If Democrats don’t take the lesson, Trump is headed for a Reagan-like ’84 victory.”
I still think Trump can be beaten, but not from way out left and not without recognition that, as Hugo Dixon, a leader of the now defeated fight for a second British referendum, put it: “There is a crisis of liberalism because we have not found a way to connect to the lives of people in the small towns of the postindustrial wasteland whose traditional culture has been torn away.”
Johnson, even with his 80-seat majority, has problems. His victory reconciled the irreconcilable.
- His moneyed coterie wants to turn Britain into free-market Singapore on the Thames. His new
- working-class constituency wants rule-Britannia greatness combined with state-funded support. That’s a delicate balancing act. The breakup of Britain has become more likely. The strong Scottish National Party showing portends a possible second Scottish referendum on independence.
This time I would bet on the Scots bidding farewell to little England. And then there’s the small matter of what Brexit actually means. Johnson will need all his luck with that.
As my readers know, I am a passionate European patriot who sees the union as the greatest achievement of the second half of the 20th century, and Britain’s exit as an appalling act of self-harm. But I also believe in democracy. Johnson took the decision back to the people and won. His victory must be respected. The fight for freedom, pluralism, the rule of law, human rights, a free press, independent judiciaries, breathable air, peace, decency and humanity continues — and has only become more critical now that Britain has marginalized itself irreversibly in a fit of nationalist delusion.
The bombastic and narcissistic former mayor of London and foreign secretary is the favorite to become the next prime minister. Brexit here we come.
The front-runner to become Britain’s next prime minister is a portly white man with unkempt blond hair, an adoring base of supporters, disdain for Europe, a dodgy private life and a loose relationship with truth and principle. There are also differences between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, but the similarities have been much noted in some European circles, with no small misgivings.
The biggest difference is that Mr. Johnson, who is 55, has been around politics all his life, as a journalist, member of Parliament, mayor of London and foreign secretary. His forte has not been conservative conviction, major achievement or great vision, but one of the sharpest tongues in British politics.
Like Mr. Trump with his tweets and rants, Mr. Johnson delights his followers with outrageous statements that they take as straight talk — even when he has gone so far as to describe Africans as “piccaninnies” or to ascribe President Barack Obama’s opposition to Brexit to an “ancestral dislike” of Britain as the son of a Kenyan.
His most commonly quoted quip these days is the one summing up his position on Brexit as having one’s cake and eating it. Curiously, Mr. Johnson was initially unsure of his position on leaving or remaining in the European Union — an unpublished article he wrote days before he came out in favor of leaving made a strong argument in favor of staying. Mr. Johnson says he was simply sorting out his thoughts.
Once he did that, Mr. Johnson swiftly became a premier campaigner for “Vote Leave,” touring Britain in a double-decker bus emblazoned with the claim that Britain pays 350 million pounds a week into the E.U.’s collective budget. That the claim was false did not trouble Mr. Johnson. He was fired from an early job in journalism for making up a quote, and one of his journalism colleagues once wrote of him, “Boris told such dreadful lies / It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.”
All that has made for great political theater and has positioned Mr. Johnson as likely to defeat Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt when the roughly 160,000 Conservative Party members — 70 percent men, 97 percent white, average age 57 — vote for their new leader, who then becomes prime minister because the Conservatives control the largest number of seats in Parliament. The winner will be announced on July 23, shortly before Parliament goes into recess.
Mr. Johnson could still founder — his standing dropped after a well-publicized recent altercation with his partner, Carrie Symonds, that prompted neighbors to call the police. But the more likely scenario is that Mr. Johnson will become prime minister with three months left before the current Oct. 31 deadline to reach a separation agreement with the European Union and avoid a chaotic no-deal Brexit.
And so, once again, a question mark hovers over Britain. Campaigning for Conservative votes, which are largely pro-Brexit, Mr. Johnson has spoken of renegotiating Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, which Parliament rejected three times, while pledging that no matter what, Britain will leave the E.U. on Oct. 31. “Being ready to do so,” he wrote in an open letter to Mr. Hunt on Tuesday, challenging his rival to take the same position, “is the best way to convince our European friends that we are serious in these negotiations and to get a better deal.”
It strains credulity that the European Union would reopen the agreement or that any wholly new set of terms for leaving the union would pass Parliament — or that the E.U. would show any sympathy and patience for Mr. Johnson, whom the French newspaper Le Monde called a “small-scale Trump.” Whether Mr. Hunt, who has campaigned as the responsible adult, could do better is another open question.
The answer will not be long in coming. But if the chaotic history of Britain’s Brexit debate is any guide, whatever it is will only bring on the next vexing questions.
Johnson has repeatedly made the false claim that Britain paid £350 million each week to be in the European Union. The claim was famously touted on a Vote Leave campaign bus during the run-up to the Brexit vote.
.. In 2017, the head of the U.K.’s Statistics Authority sent Johnson a letter expressing his disappointment and telling Johnson it was “a clear misuse of official statistics” to say leaving the EU would free up £350 million (more than $440 million) weekly to spend on national healthcare.
In 2018, Johnson acknowledged that the figure was inaccurate — but he said it was “grossly underestimated.”
On his crowdfunding page, Ball stresses that he’s not trying to stop Brexit from happening. Instead, he’s targeting what he sees as the real threat facing society: lying, particularly the falsehoods that flow from those in power.
“Lying in politics is the biggest problem. It is far more important than Brexit and certainly a great deal older,” Ball wrote. “Historically speaking, lying in politics has assisted in starting wars, misleading voters and destroying public trust in the systems of democracy and government.”
He added, “When politicians lie, democracy dies.”
Ball says he wants to set a precedent by making it illegal for an elected official to lie about financial matters. If he’s successful, he says, the case could have a wide ripple effect.
“Because of how the English common law works, it’s possible that such a precedent could be internationally persuasive by influencing the law in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Canada and India.”
In Britain’s legal system, private prosecutions can be started by any person or company with the time and money to do so.
As the London-based law firm Edmonds Marshall McMahon (which was once involved in Ball’s case) states, “Other than the fact the prosecution is brought by a private individual or company, for all other purposes they proceed in exactly the same way as if the prosecution had been brought by the Crown.”