The sickening prospect of Boris Johnson as PM

A front page from the Spectator, with the headline "Eurabian nightmare" in yellow font, with a map of Europe with a red crescent superimposed on it with several large cities with small red stars, and a big red star where London is. At the bottom, in white, it says "Rod Liddle, Mark Steyn, Patrick Sookhdeo, Matthew Parris and Charles Moore".
Front page of the Spectator from November 2005 during Boris Johnson’s editorship.

Like many people following the Tory party leadership contest, I’ve been filled with a sense of dread that we are looking at Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and the man who, as foreign secretary, threw a British citizen under the Iranian bus by making baseless claims about her activities, being anointed as prime minister by an internal vote in the Conservative party. The ‘logic’, such as it is, is that short of electing a ‘confirmed’ Brexit supporter as leader (and therefore prime minister), unlike Theresa May who was a ‘unity’ candidate who had previously supported remaining in the EU and then negotiated a deal which failed four attempts at getting a majority in Parliament, the party will be trounced in any subsequent general election by either the Brexit Party or (horror of horrors) Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party (never just Labour now); what is ‘needed’ is someone who will “get Brexit done” and who is willing to leave without a deal at the end of October. With Michael Gove now seriously damaged by revelations about cocaine at his parties (while he had ordinary people punished harshly for possession), Johnson polled 114 votes from Tory MPs on Thursday, more than double his nearest rival, Jeremy Hunt, who won the support of 43 MPs. (Michael Gove came third with 37; Rory Stewart, who has been running a high-profile ‘moderate’ campaign, came last of all those not eliminated with 19 votes.)

Boris Johnson is essentially a more upper-class version of Donald Trump, without his business acumen (such as that is). He’s an Old Etonian well-known for being part of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford (along with David Cameron) who pulled such stunts as burning banknotes in front of homeless people in the city. He clearly represents a sort of populist Right and has had a high media profile, appearing on talk shows including Have I Got News For You? and writing regular columns in the Tory broadsheet papers and editing the weekly magazine long associated with the party, the Spectator, in the early 2000s (this role is now challenged by Standpoint, founded by Daniel Johnson, son of Paul and no relation to Boris Johnson). His media profile was strengthened by being mayor of London during the 2012 Olympics, although (like many of the achievements credited to him) it was actually during Ken Livingstone’s second term that London secured the Olympics. The bicycles for hire known as Boris Bikes were also Livingstone’s idea.

There were two good things that can be said about Boris Johnson’s term as mayor of London. One is that he got rid of the unwanted western extension to the Congestion Charge, without which I suspect Ken Livingstone would have beaten him in the third mayoral election in 2008. The other is that he was not quite the disaster I had expected him to be. The mayor’s role, although mostly unconstrained by any elected council (the London Assembly only has the power to vote down the mayor’s budget), is not as powerful as might be imagined; his powers chiefly have to do with transport, and public transport and the maintenance of designated major roads (red routes) are the responsibility of Transport for London which is run out of the mayor’s office. Most local authority functions such as housing, education, social care, waste collection and so on are controlled by the boroughs which are essentially unitary authorities. Other than that, his role is mostly ceremonial, functioning as a “voice for London”; his word often has weight, and can prompt the resignation of a major official, but he cannot, for example, sack the Metropolitan Police commissioner. But he did also cancel a number of access improvements (other than those linked to the Olympics) that had been planned by the previous mayor and then wasted tens of millions of public money on a “garden bridge” project supported by his family friend, the actress Joanna Lumley, which never came to fruition and was hugely unpopular.

The reason I expected him to be a disaster as mayor was because his role as a journalist had been to foment bigotry against Muslims in particular while editor of the Spectator. He was editor at the time of the 9/11 and London bomb attacks and his attitude was firmly that Islam was to blame for this and had no truck with the idea that this was ‘blowback’ from western military adventures or that the result would be more of the same. In one column, he demanded “when is someone going to get 18th century on Islam’s medieval ass?”, a reference to a line from the film Pulp Fiction in which a man who has just been raped tells his attacker that he will “get medieval on your ass”. He also published a long article by Patrick Sookhdeo, then self-appointed voice of the Christian persecuted in the Muslim world, who made a series of fanciful claims such as that Muslims used marches for the purpose of “sacralising whole neighbourhoods, such as Birmingham” (which is, of course, a city) — there were pages of this nonsense. After riots in France triggered by the death by electrocution of a young man who had run into an electricity substation to escape pursuing police, his magazine displayed a map of Europe with a “burning crescent” and a star where London was, under the headline “Eurabian nightmare”, an invocation of a common conspiracy theory popular with American right-wing bloggers. He also published articles by Mark Steyn claiming that Europe was falling to Muslims who would outbreed the native Christians, leaving “America alone” (which was the title of a novel he wrote).

Johnson has in the past (while campaigning for the London mayoralty) apologised for another article he allowed to be published written by the columnist Taki Theodoracopoulos which claimed that the most intelligent people on earth were ‘Orientals’ while “Blacks are at the other pole”. He claimed that this “does not reflect what is in [his] heart”. Well, all we have to judge what might be in his heart is what comes out of his mouth and his pen, and he has said and written, and published, vastly more offensive and damaging material (note: not “material vastly more offensive”) than this for which he has not offered any apology. In regard to his comments about Muslim women who wear the niqaab resembling letter-boxes and bank robbers, his supporter Jacob Rees-Mogg, when questioned (rather weakly) by ITN reporter Paul Bland over these remarks, said “people mustn’t be snowflakes, and I can’t imagine that your viewers are snowflakes”. Tories have stated more than once in the past couple of weeks that Johnson says what voters really think and that this is an asset, rather than a weakness. This shift to openly condoning racism is disturbing to anyone who might be on the receiving end of it, such as the women targeted in Johnson’s bank-robber comparison. (Bank robbers don’t wear niqaab; they may wear balaclavas or something like a motorcycle helmet.)

And this makes it doubly sickening to see the Labour party tear itself apart over a mere whiff of anti-Semitism (as I’ve said before, most of the accusations are bogus and often based on specious theories) while the other major party indulges in racism quite openly. Someone who displays racism, including anti-Semitism, in such a way as to endanger ordinary people would not become a Labour district councillor, let alone MP or leader. We hear people claim that they will not vote Labour while he remains leader, preferring a party which has imposed the austerity which led to the vote to leave the EU and has demonised disabled people and immigrants throughout its time in office, even without Boris Johnson holding a ministerial office or the leadership. This weekend, with Jeremy Corbyn (rightly) expressing scepticism about Iran’s involvement in the attack on oil vessels in the Strait of Hormuz last week, some Labour Bitterites ridiculed him (along with the Tories, of course) for not accepting the Trumpist and Tory version of events at face value despite Trump having pursued, unprovoked, a policy of confrontation with Iran since taking office. I can understand them hankering for the days when Labour were in power, but they seem determined to repeat Blair’s mistakes as well as his achievements which, let’s not forget, were dismantled by David Cameron and Nick Clegg in one term.

“Not as big a disaster as mayor as I thought he’d be” is not a ringing endorsement for a man expecting to be prime minister. Boris Johnson is not fit to hold ministerial office. The prime minister is effectively Britain’s top diplomat; he or she will be Britain’s political representative on the world stage. Boris Johnson has no filter; he cannot keep his mouth shut when it matters. This has already had devastating consequences for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family; it will happen to others if he is in that position again. He is all bluster and no substance; his dishonesty is plain from having been dismissed twice by major newspapers for it, and he is known to have been the source of many of the false stories about the EU that filled right-wing newspapers in the 1980s and 90s. Anyone who backs him for prime minister makes a statement that all kinds of racism and bigotry, not just Islamophobia, are acceptable if they ring a chord with white voters in “middle England”.

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