Boris’s blustering could be a watershed moment

by Will Hutton | 26.04.2016

Our own third-rate Donald Trump met his nemesis last Friday.  Barack Obama’s put-down of the harrumphing Boris Johnson, revealing an ever-deeper streak of unpleasantness as the referendum campaign goes on, was elegant, simple and effective. Yes, he had replaced the bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval office with that of a head whose choice he hoped his audience would understand – Martin Luther King. There was no malice towards Winston Churchill and Britain: he “loved the guy” and had placed his bust outside the Treaty Room in the White House where he walked passed it every day. This did not reveal some “ancestral dislike of the British Empire” because his family was “part-Kenyan” as Johnson had written – although Obama did not grace Johnson as a poor polemicist by naming him. Rather, there is only room on the table in the Oval Room for one bust. I have seen King’s bust there; it is noble and totally appropriate – and what the first black US president had to choose.

Johnson had not given much thought to the column that he must have written at double-quick speed for The Sun. He borrowed the criticisms of the US radical right about Obama’s alleged un-American-ness along with his moving of Churchill’s bust to smear the US president and so to try to discredit his appeal to the British to vote to stay inside the EU.  But Johnson, although he certainly has the gift of the gab, is less clever than he thinks. This stuff doesn’t work particularly well even in the US, outside the paranoid, semi-racist right. Indeed, a growing part of the Republican party is horrified where it leads – to the vicious extreme politics of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, wanting to build walls and fences and round up immigrants. It was always going to work less well in Britain beyond the similarly paranoid echo chambers of euro-scepticism – however well protected by an overwhelming right-wing press and a weak BBC. So it has proved.

The reaction must have taken Mr Johnson by surprise. After all, it was only a few hyperbolic words in an otherwise tired rehash of his position – the need to control porous borders, regain sovereignty, trade deals easily cut with others, spend the £350 million sent every week to Brussels on what we want, etc, etc. Doesn’t everyone know that colourful hyperbole is the political currency in which he trades as the self-licensed buffoon of British politics? But words matter, as does argument based on some relationship to fact. Johnson had overstepped the mark, disturbing even his own side.

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     It was not good tactics attacking a popular US president in these terms. It was unforgivably impolite for one thing. But beyond that, it betrays the ugly preoccupation with blood, ethnicity and race that simmers just under the surface of euro-scepticism – and which Leave knows it has to suppress to avoid being tarred as racist. The co-chair of Leave, Gisela Stuart, does not want Marine Le Pen to visit Britain, knowing it will further damage Leave by association.  Yet Africans for Britain, which had backed Leave because Britain outside the EU might be an easier destination for African and Caribbean immigrants, got the message and immediately resigned from the Leave campaign on learning of Johnson’s article. “We fear a takeover of the campaign by the radical wing which is likely to scapegoat immigrants,” declared the group.

    Johnson himself is currently refusing to appear on the Today programme for fear he will be asked uncomfortable questions. He must hope that bluster, more pantomime harrumphing, time and a few more good one liners will put some distance between him and the article. It is doubtful.

    Rather, it is a watershed moment. Johnson knows that £350 million does not leave the UK every week as he wrote in his Sun article (dismantled by InFacts); he has been told by the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Andrew Dilnot, that after the EU rebate and the money flowing back to Britain the real figure is closer to £190 million a week. It is still a high number, and had the advantage of being accurate – but Johnson doesn’t trade in fact. He trades in exaggeration, buffoonery and smear. Last week he was found out. It may prove to be an important moment not just for the referendum campaign, but for wider British politics.

    Edited by Jane Macartney

    2 Responses to “Boris’s blustering could be a watershed moment”

    • Boris Johnson seems to me as he talks like a mix of Ned Flanders (the Simpsons) and Glen Quagmire (Family Guy) with his “spiffle, balooney, piffle-paffle, etc” way of expressions, but in reality he looks to me like a mix between Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin (from the same TV cartoon characters).
      In practical terms: under many ways Boris Johnson reminds me of the “Bunga-Bunga” Silvio Berlusconi on its most populist platforms.

    • Will Hutton is spot on.

      Johnson is pretty ignorant about Europe. For example he thinks that one country can call an IGC.

      That was why he hired Gerard Lyons – at public expense – as a Eurosceptic economist to put an intellectual veneer on his own Brexit campaigning.

      When he was campaigning Lynton Crosby made sure Johnson was on message and made no gaffes. Similarly as Mayor his advisers have prevented any gaffes.

      But as soon as he is left without a babysitter, the gaffe was going to come – and it did, in the form of the nasty ‘part Kenyan’ comment.

      He has proved himself unfit for high office.