World, Politics

Boris The ‘Great’, the man behind the day that will live in infamy

A real-life version of Game of Thrones, seemingly blended with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and maybe more than a touch of Zombie Apocalypse as well, is now playing all day long in Great Britain, following the successful Brexit vote. As a key feature of this drama, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has been manoeuvring furiously to claim control of the British Conservative Party – and thus be able to declare himself the winner – regardless of what happens to the country’s economy. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.

He’s especially hard at work on this right now, following the fate of that particularly unfortunate Tory, David Cameron – the country’s new zombie prime minister. Cameron was outflanked by the defections of around half his MPs in Parliament, as well as a million or so more than half the peasants of the realm.

Of course, over in Labour’s corner, Jeremy Corbyn has now garnered his own problems, largely in response to his lacklustre efforts on behalf of the Remain camp, along with the animosity of others who just figure he’ll lead Labour into a life-threatening disaster in the run-up to the next parliamentary election. His leading followers keep quitting on him from his shadow cabinet, and even as this writer had taken a quick break for some supper, he learnt that Corbyn’s party had just passed a no confidence vote against him – 172-40. Undaunted, Corbyn announced that regardless of that rather definitive result, he’s staying put, in office. Or something.

Boris, or “Bojo” as some have called him affectionately, may yet be outflanked on his quest to become prime minister by Home Secretary Theresa May or even Secretary for Justice Michael Gove, among others, once the final voting is concluded. But, while the more public jockeying and backbiting continues, live, on television, Tory greybeards are already gearing up for their secret covens to sort out the timetable to select the successor to Cameron the Unfortunate.

Meanwhile, in one of several international sideshows closely tied to the drama in the centre ring in and around London, UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage (the political sidekick of Boris for the Brexit vote) brought the house down with boos and cat-calls with his speech at the European Parliament, where he has been a member of that body from Britain.

Watch: Nigel Farage booed and jeered as he addresses European Parliament (CNBC International)

And along the way, various of the UK’s wealthy barons, people such as Richard Branson, have been announcing to all who would listen that the value of shares in his airline has fallen by a third in the days since the beginning of this particular melodrama began with the Brexit vote. Commentators like Martin Wolf of the Financial Times have been on the airwaves decrying the long-term effects of Brexit, the British pound has been on a negative trajectory for days vis-à-vis other major currencies, and there have been sell-offs on the stock market (only partially ameliorated in the days following the vote) that shaved some real value from investor holdings – especially among financial stocks.

But rather than still more blow-by-blow descriptions of what is happening in Brussels, London and elsewhere, post-Brexit, now might be a good time to take a look at the man who would be king, er, prime minister, Boris Johnson. Now 52 years old, he was actually born in New York City when his father was studying in the US. One peculiarity of his lineage, especially given his vociferous attacks on the role of Britain’s EU membership in opening the floodgates to immigrants into Britain, is the curious fact that one of his grandparents was actually Turkish. By way of background, Boris Johnson’s paternal grandfather was the son of a Turk killed during the Greek-Turkish fighting after World War I and the partition of the old Ottoman Empire. Born Osman Kemal in Bournemouth to his English-Swiss mother, Ali Kemal died before his son’s birth. His mother passed away soon afterwards and he was taken in by his English maternal grandmother who renamed him Wilfred “Johnny” Johnson instead of the more exotic Osman.

Watch: BBC Who do you think you are – Boris Johnson

As a child, Boris attended Ashdown School and then went on to Eton College where he began using the name of Boris in preference to Alex, and where he began shaping the “eccentric English persona” for which he eventually became famous. After Eton, he went on to Balliol College at Oxford, as well as the European School of Brussels. After graduation, Johnson became a best-selling author and journalist before he transformed himself into a politician. His bestselling history of London received praise from critics, and his other popular books have been about Winston Churchill and ancient Rome. More recently, he served two terms as Mayor of London – including when the city hosted the 2012 Olympics – a position that kept him fully in the international public eye. Thereafter he re-entered Parliament in 2015 (after previous time there, 2001 to 2008).

Never one to shy away from a public snit fight, when the US taxman came a-calling he publicly said he would renounce his dual citizenship rather than pay capital gains to Uncle Sam from the proceeds of a house he had sold for a tidy profit. (US tax law requires payment of taxes on the earnings of US citizens wherever they reside, unless there are specific treaties preventing double taxation.)

Back during his years at Oxford, Johnson became a leading student politico as head of the Oxford Union and a member of the Bullingdon drinking club. That is one of those rich kids societies well known for local vandalism and destroying restaurants before coughing of the wonga to pay for the wreckage. In describing his emerging persona, Johnson drew himself as “a wise guy playing the fool to win”. Following graduation, he has recalled that after one week as a management consultant, he resigned, accounting for this decision by saying, “Try as I might, I could not look at an overhead projection of a growth profit matrix, and stay conscious.”

Faced with this understanding of his real self, he went into journalism instead. He started at the Times, then became the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent as his writing began to have a growing influence on Eurosceptic feelings among the right wing of British opinion. He became assistant editor there before taking the editorship of The Spectator from 1999 to 2005. Throughout his journalist career he has been dogged by a series of scandals and personal indiscretions, including made-up quotes and historically incorrect facts. Despite these flaws, his writing came to be known for its unique literary style, dotted with old-fashioned words, phrases, and humour, and designed to the conservative attitudes of what is called a “Middle England” readership in the UK.

Seemingly never one to ignore a fight, he once published an editorial that criticised Liverpudlians for being “overly sentimental” about the murder of Liverpool native Ken Bigley. Bigley had been held hostage in Iraq.

Over the years, Bojo’s supporters have praised him as an entertaining, humorous, and popular figure who has broad appeal well beyond traditional Conservative voters. On the other hand, his critics have accused him of laziness and dishonesty, and of using racist and xenophobic language. For example, in one column a decade and a half earlier, he used the words “picannies” and “watermelon smiles” in reference to Africans – even as he praised the UK’s colonisation of Uganda. On other occasions, Boris has fallen back on some clearly homophobic terminology, referring to gay men as “tank-topped bumboys” and arguing that it was “appalling” Blair’s Labour government had repealed a piece of earlier Tory legislation that had been intended to prevent the “promotion” of homosexuality.

At that time, Johnson had written, “We don’t want our children being taught some rubbish about homosexual marriage being the same as normal marriage” and he had called same-sex marriage a “ludicrous parody of the real thing”. Not content to rest on that position, in his volume, Friends, Voters, Countrymen, he added, “If gay marriage was okay … then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men; or indeed three men and a dog.”

Along the way, he managed to take a swipe at newly elected Barack Obama as well. (Should we detect a trend here?) When he heard the White House’s Winston Churchill bust had been moved from a place of honour given it by Obama’s predecessor, Johnson had written, “Something mysterious happened when Barack Obama entered the Oval Office in 2009. It was a bust of Winston Churchill — the great British wartime leader. It was a fine goggle-eyed object, done by the brilliant sculptor Jacob Epstein, and it had sat there for almost 10 years. But on day one of the Obama administration it was returned, without ceremony, to the British embassy in Washington. … Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.” Not surprisingly, besides contradicting the veracity of the account, his critics called his comment standard, garden variety “dog whistle racism”, a smear or worse.

Back at the beginning of his political career, when he became an MP in 2001, he quickly became shadow minister for culture, although he was pushed into resigning in the wake of the bad publicity surrounding an extramarital affair. Later on, he eventually was appointed shadow minister for education. That latter time, a further affair was deemed insufficient to drive him from that position, however. Along the way, while serving as an active MP, he also negotiated remunerative deals as a columnist. These writings and various television documentary efforts made him one of the highest earning parliamentarians in Westminster.

Then, in 2007, Boris resigned as shadow education secretary so he could become his party’s candidate for Mayor of London. Defeating incumbent Labour Party mayor, Ken Livingston, Johnson showed a real flair for building a high-flying media profile from his frequent appearances on television; for turning his miscellaneous gaffes into surprising public relations successes; creating an ability to reach support among young voters beyond traditional party lines, and creating a public persona as a charismatic, even unique, personality, in comparison to so many other good grey politicians. Taken together, along with a degree of voter fatigue with Labour, he roundly defeated the incumbent mayor. (Just by the way, by now, the parallels with at least some of Donald Trump’s adventures should be showing. If both men actually reach their aspirations, their first summit would be one astonishing meeting to be able to overhear….)

Among his other policy positions, as mayor, Johnson has been popularly identified with cycling as an efficient way to commute in the city and he was frequently spotted riding to work on a bicycle. Over the years, a number of his bicycles have been stolen and, in response to this, he has written passionately on the injustice of such thefts. In one piece he argued that when someone has had their cycle stolen, instead of ignominy on the thief, it is the owner who is criticised for their failure to take sufficient precautions to prevent the theft or even because they have bought a flashy or upmarket cycle that fatally tempted thieves.

He has even admitted in public fora that he has “fantasised” over leaving dummy bicycles as theft bait and then sending in the cavalry to round up the malefactors. However, to be fair, his interest in bicycling has not simply been a lightning rod for public controversy. Along the way he has also supported the Barclays Cycle hire scheme initiative that has enabled people to use bicycles rented from conveniently placed docking stations around the city.

Boris Johnson’s public comments often have bite, some stinging social commentary, and more than a smidgen of an effort to goad others into striking back, as with his often-quoted comment about drug use in which he said, “I think I was once given cocaine, but I sneezed so it didn’t go up my nose. In fact, it may have been icing sugar.” The other side of his public persona has been that of something of a bumbling language vandal, making him the 2004 winner of the “Foot in Mouth Award” from the Plain English Campaign.

Still, he seems to have been a shrewd gauge of the public temper, even appearing on the ever-popular Top Gear television show. And at the conclusion of the wildly successful London Olympics, Johnson was probably right on the money when he observed, “…I suppose there are two emotions – one is obviously some sadness that it is all over, because it’s been an amazing experience, but also a great relief because there is no doubt it has been a prodigious exertion by London and by Londoners.”

And so this is the man who, if all goes according to (his) plan, will replace the luckless David Cameron and then confront Jeremy Corbyn’s replacement inside Parliament. However, if that should come to pass, he will also be the politician who must figure out how to deal with an increasingly incensed crowd of European leaders; how to hold off a second Scottish independence referendum so as to keep the United Kingdom from falling apart; and who will also somehow need to successfully negotiate a departure from the EU without fatally ripping apart the fabric of Great Britain or throwing the country into prolonged recession. DM

Photo: British MP and Former Mayor of London Boris Johnson joins Members of Parliament in St Margaret’s Church for a service to mark the life of Jo Cox MP in Westminster, Central London, Britain, 20 June 2016. Cox was killed in Birstall, West Yorkshire, 16 June 2016, whilst meeting members of the public in her constituency. EPA/WILL OLIVER


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