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The evil clown returns: Boris Johnson is not done haunting world politics

Posted by: John Phoenix

Britain’s most scandalous PM, who turned 60 this week, left a dark footprint on the UK and the world… and he may yet return

By Tarik Cyril Amar, a historian from Germany working at Koç University, Istanbul, on Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, the history of World War II, the cultural Cold War, and the politics of memory

@tarikcyrilamartarikcyrilamar.substack.comtarikcyrilamar.com

The evil clown returns: Boris Johnson is not done haunting world politics

FILE PHOTO. Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ©  Charles McQuillan-Pool/Getty Images

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, aka Boris Johnson, aka BoJo – former British prime minister, foreign secretary, mayor of London, leader of the Conservative Party (Tories), and, last but not least, member of Parliament – is hawking his forthcoming memoir. Under the title “Unleashed,” the publisher promises it will be like no other prime minister’s reminiscences before. That, for once, is something we could almost believe, even if it’s Johnson who says it. 

Indeed, BoJo’s career in politics – which, unfortunately, we have no reason to consider over yet – has left the imprint of something badly “unleashed,” something, that is to say, in the worst style of a monster movie: Think “Godzilla Comes to London,” but without the charm of make-believe. 

Where to even begin? Why not at the end: At this point, Johnson, the arch-Tory, is conspicuously absent from the ongoing British elections, although they are in full swing. Full swing, let’s not forget, toward a disaster for BoJo’s fellow Conservatives: Polling by The Economist predicts that the Tories will lose 179 seats of the 371 that they won in 2019; that is a reduction by almost half. Labour, on the other side, seems on track to win 381 seats or more. In other words, a historic landslide is looming, and it will bury the Tories. 

And yet, with a desperate battle for political survival afoot and despite half-hearted denials, Johnson is mostly silent, AWOL from the campaign trail. Certainly, one reason is his outsized, even by politicians’ standards, egotism. Johnson has never been one to take one for the team. Most likely still plotting a comeback, he is sitting this one out. And then, he also happens to hate Rishi Sunak, the current, extremely unpopular Tory prime minister. Watching from the sidelines as Sunak gets clobbered is an added bonus.

Some observers believe he is simply too busy making money with speeches and soon his memoirs, which are certain to offer plenty of lucrative indiscretions and sensationalism. And then, there was his recent 60th birthday as well, an occasion his long-suffering wife Carrie – fidelity has never been BoJo’s forte, not even in private life – marked by gifting him three wooden elephant sculptures. In some cultures, that animal stands for a memory that never lets go. 

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One reason that is not holding BoJo back, rest assured, is the fact that he is the single most scandal-ridden politician in Britain – and, within a British political establishment that is toxic with snobbishness, backstabbing, and corruption, that is quite an achievement.

The key reason why Johnson had to relinquish – at long last and after indecently obstinate resistance – first his premiership, in 2022, and then even his seat in the House of Commons, in 2023, is that he was caught out lying unbearably often. He was forced from his office as prime minister and, later out of Parliament, because of the scandal known as “Partygate”: During the Covid-19 pandemic, he had held illegal, boozy parties in his residence at Downing Street 10, while ordinary Britons were subjected to harsh restrictions; and then he kept denying the facts, blatantly and repeatedly lying not “only” to the British public but to the House of Commons as well. An especially appointed committee found that BoJo was in contempt of parliament.

Apart from egotism, contempt is perhaps Johnson’s most important character trait. Rules – whether legal or moral – are for others, and others only count as far as they can be used to feed Johnson’s insatiable cravings for fame, power, and, really, any form of gratification you can think of – and some you ought not to. 

A gifted populist with a knack for appealing to ordinary people, he is, in reality, almost a caricature of a spoiled, self-absorbed “toff,” a typical representative of the worst the British, or specifically English upper classes have to offer. He was born to and raised in privilege. After attending Eton he went to Oxford’s Balliol College. While an excellent college for the many who go there to actually study, that was not Johnson’s case. He was there for the exclusive Bullingdon Club, networking, and early-career politicking. Where another former British prime minister – tactlessly and misleadingly – ascribed “effortless superiority” to Balliol’s graduates, Johnson was of the “superior effortlessness” kind. 

BoJo has a carefully cultivated clownish side: the trademark, phony wild hair; the jocular guffaws; the well-rehearsed artificial upper-class stutter, so overdone it’s always slightly comical, if in a mirthless way. But this is an evil clown. Apart from his specific scandals, outsized as they have been, there are his policies that have done – it is true, often in complicity with others – immense harm both inside and outside Britain.

Not the only but the single most obvious example of his taking a wrecking ball to his own country, of which he claims to be a patriot, is his demagogic promotion of Brexit in 2016. He helped heap false promise on false promise. Anyone remember those hundreds of millions of pounds that would flow to Britain’s NHS after Brexit? Those “sunlit uplands” to follow? The UK’s future as “Buccaneering Britain,” a nimble, perky world trade power, unshackled from all that bad EU red tape to cash in wherever opportunity beckons? In 2019, when he led the Conservatives to a massive victory (enhanced, however, by the Starmerite wing of Labour sabotaging their own candidate Jeremy Corbyn), he made the one promise he kept, namely to “get Brexit done.”

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Yet once it was done, its real consequences – four years after formal Brexit completion in January 2020 – have turned into a great disappointment. The EU, let’s be clear, is as rotten as can be now: A submissive appendix to Washington’s declining yet scrappy NATO+ empire, undemocratic to the bone, wedded to elitist austerity policies, and stuck in a geopolitical and economic morass due to obediently following the US on its great Eurasian crusade against Russia. But that does not mean that leaving the Brussels monster was a good idea for Britain. 

In terms of geopolitics, Brexit has been useless because London is, if anything, even more belligerent toward Moscow than Washington, as its trailblazer role in permitting Ukraine to strike inside Russia with Western weapons has shown again only recently. So, no upside there.

Regarding the economy, a key if not the central issue for “leave” voters, Brexit has been worse than useless: By January 2023, studies summarized in The Economist found that Brexit had shaved 6% off British GDP and 11% off investments, as compared with models simulating a world without Brexit and that average food prices increased by around 3% annually in 2020 and 2021.

One can, of course, argue about the methods and data of these and similar studies. Moreover, assessing the real-world economic impact of Brexit is complicated by the fact that some British problems predated it – for instance, with productivity and investment – and that other factors have also intervened, foremost the Covid-19 pandemic and then the war in and over Ukraine and the West’s self-defeating response to it.

Yet two things are beyond doubt: Brexit has definitely not been the quick and almost utopian success that the Brexiteers, with Johnson among the most vocal, kept selling. And, second, this clear discrepancy between what was promised and what has happened, has made many Britons change their mind. In 2016, 52% voted for leaving the EU and 48% for staying inside. By now, a poll shows that over 60% think that the UK “was wrong” to quit, while less than 40% believe Brexit was the right decision. At least one British polling expert, John Curtice, considers the economy (and not anxieties about immigration) the main cause of this shift. 

If his contribution to Brexit has been the worst single blow Boris Johnson has inflicted on his fellow citizens, his meddling in the Ukraine conflict still stands as his most bloody fiasco. Brexit has blighted Britain, but the failure to avoid or end the war quickly has utterly devastated Ukraine. The long-term damage done by Brexit can, perhaps, be repaired in the future, either by Britain rejoining the EU (or, maybe, parts of it, for instance, Scotland) or by other creative maneuvers. And then, the EU itself is in so much trouble that its future is not entirely clear either. But the damage done in Ukraine is largely irreversible: the dead won’t come alive again, many of those displaced abroad won’t return, and the country is very likely to lose substantial territories forever.

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Yet, even while the conflict had already escalated to a larger scale, most of this could still have been avoided as of spring 2022. Then, between February and April, Russia and Ukraine almost reached a viable peace deal. By the time, these negotiations peaked in Istanbul, “a very real compromise,” was on the table, according to Aleksandr Chalyi: “We were very close in the middle of April, in the end of April, to finalize our war with some peaceful settlement.” But then, things fell apart, quickly and – at least until now – irreversibly: A peace agreement that could have been remembered as exemplarily rapid and effective was discarded. A war that could have entered history as bad and unnecessary but, ultimately, short and, comparatively, small was left to grow into the worst conflagration in Europe since World War II (yes, worse by far, already, then the Wars of Yugoslav Secession of the 1990s). 

BoJo played a role in this dreadful failure. He was not powerful enough, to be fair, to cause it on his own. In essence, he served – with enthusiasm – as a messenger boy for the US and its collective West. But that does not change the fact that he took it upon himself, of his own free will, to use his considerable skills of charm and flattery (A little more Churchill bombast, Sir?) to help persuade Vladimir Zelensky, the hapless president of Ukraine, to abandon the negotiations with the nearly finished deal and, instead, keep fighting. This has long and realistically been claimed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and by now been confirmed by David Arakhamia, a key member of the Ukrainian negotiating team (as well as a top Zelensky aide). Even a recent Foreign Affairs article on these negotiations, while trying hard to spin away from these embarrassing facts, could not help but confirm them.

The Foreign Affairs authors, Samuel Charap and Sergey Radchenko, are right, though, about the fact that the Ukrainian side did not have to listen to Johnson or the West in general. Zelensky, in particular, had what we now call “agency.” He could and should have put his country first, especially once he had seen two things: that Russia was not bluffing and that, at the same time, it was also ready for a reasonable compromise. In that sense, peace failed in the spring of 2022 because two histrionic egomaniacs met in the wrong situation and at the wrong time. One of them is about to publish his self-serving memoirs; the other is still busy avoiding picking up again where he left things hanging in Istanbul.

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