July 05, 2020
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London Diary

In Outlook this week, a diary on London, Boris, May, and Brexit.

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London Diary
Illustration by Saahil
London Diary
Looney Tunes at Downing Street

Two days before the change of prime ministers, London is at its best. Bright sunshine, clear skies, verdant lawns,
hundreds of tourists gawking at shop windows. But there is an underlying anxiety: fear, anger and resigned amusement chase each other on television screens and newspaper columns as Britons prepare for Boris Johnson as PM.

When David Cameron resigned as prime minister three years ago after his country unexpectedly voted for Brexit, Johnson was widely expected to succeed him at Downing Street. But he was out-manoeuvred, clearing the way for the more moderate Theresa May to head the Tory government.

This time around, all went well. Johnson got the support of the majority of Tory members and succeeded May on July 24. The weather changed abruptly, storms following a heat wave. A British writer snarled that Johnson was “an irresponsible, self-serving buffoon”; an American commentator warned Britain would experience a “level of chaos not seen since World War II”.

Brexit, Poisoned Chalice

In June 2016, through a narrow majority of 52 per cent versus 48 per cent, Britons voted to withdraw from the European Union to stem immigration and “take back control”, lost, in their view, to the faceless bureaucrats in Brussels.

The “Leave” campaign, with Johnson as the most robust and persuasive votary, was marked by misrepresentation and even falsehood. Hardly ever were any serious issues discussed, nor was there any understanding of the implications of Brexit among its votaries or the voters.

This ill-considered referendum has deeply divided the country and brought down two prime ministers, with
no indication that Johnson has the magic wand to settle differences with the EU and heal his distraught nation.

Buffoon or Calculator?

Rarely has Britain produced such a polarising leader. On the eve of the party election, a popularity poll evaluating Conservative candidates for prime minister gave Johnson the largest percentage of support—28 per cent, but the same poll gave him the highest votes (54 per cent) as “bad prime minister”.

Writers have been recalling that Johnson has referred to burqa-clad women as looking like “letter-boxes” or bank robbers. He discussed exports of Scotch whiskey to India at a gur­u­dwara in London. And, of course, he has offered the profound nugget that women go to university “to find men to marry”.

Over the past month, commentators have struggled to understand the persona of the new leader—and explain his appeal. One writer spoke of his “brashness, bombast, bending the truth, and really bad hair”. Another called him “the consummate confidence man”, while a third noted that his elevation reflected the “poisonous triviality” of contemporary British politics. But Johnson’s steady rise has gained him the grudging assessment that his buffoonish exterior camouflages a calculating mind and his ability to win people over despite his errors and clownishness. His strength is that he exudes optimism when Britons are experiencing “disarray, defeats and demoralisation”.

The ‘Golden Age’

Not surprisingly, Johnson’s first days as national leader have been marked by flamboyant rhetoric and extravagant promises. He said he will bring a “golden age” for Britain, making it “the greatest place on earth”. He will achieve this by providing “the most formidable transport and technological connectivity on the planet…no town will be left
behind again, no community ever forgotten”.

On Brexit, he said his government “will throw ourselves” into negotiations with the EU so that the latter effects changes to the withdrawal agreement. He added that, if these changes were not made by October 31, Britain will leave without an agreement. These remarks ignore that May could not obtain changes in the agreement from the EU, while parliament has repeatedly turned down this agreement and rejected a “no-deal” Brexit. Johnson has perhaps made promises he cannot keep and is banking on parliamentarians not wanting a new election to force acceptance of
a slightly revised deal or even a no-deal withdrawal.

Johnson has a solid friend in Donald Trump and is banking on reviving the “special relationship” to shape Britain’s global role. Trump has called him “Britain Trump”. But these ties could take Britain back to the days when it was seen as a US “poodle”, serving American interests. As a commentator solemnly noted, now both sides of the Atlantic have as leaders “a narcissistic, serial liar…who has made racist statements”.

Then There’s Cricket

On her last day as prime minister, May danced happily to the tune of “Dancing Queen”. Next day, as Johnson delivered his maiden speech in the Commons, she watched the England-Ireland clash at Lord’s. A pleasant diversion from the harrowing persona­lity residing at Downing Street now.

(The author is a former diplomat.)
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