Britain sharply split on Boris Johnson

As London’s Mayor for two consecutive terms, Boris Johnson introduced ‘Boris Bikes’ as means of environment friendly movement; but his reported lack of attention to details has often been criticised

Boris Johnson with Ashis Ray
Boris Johnson with Ashis Ray

Ashis Ray

It was Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s burning ambition from his days at Eton – an institution that has, including him, now produced 21 British prime ministers – to become his country’s head of government. Indeed, he was not exactly jubilant about David Cameron, his junior at school, sprinting past him to the coveted post. Both went to Oxford University, which today has sent up 28 of its students to 10 Downing Street.

Having fulfilled his ambition, the uncombed, blond-haired, burly, right-wing Conservative party member of parliament – better known as just Boris Johnson – embarks on an unenviable task of extricating Britain from the Brexit mess of its making.

One of the United Kingdom’s highest paid newspaper columnists, he scripted two versions of his stance to leave the European Union when a referendum to decide this was scheduled in June 2016. One to do so; the other not to. He finally published the former, which was seen as opportunism and an inclination to oppose Cameron for the sake of it.

He was, allegedly, sacked at The Times for manufacturing a quote. He joined the Daily Telegraph, which in 1989 appointed him as their Brussels correspondent. He was 24, but familiar with the city, as he had grown up there. His father Stanley had been deputed by the British government to work at the European Commission.

His then editor, Max Hastings, in a recent piece in The Guardian, wrote, “While he is a brilliant entertainer who made a popular maitre d’ for London as its mayor, he is unfit for national office.”

Sonia Purnell, who worked with Johnson at the Telegraph’s Brussels bureau and later wrote his biography, recorded in the Times he “can change from bonhomie to a dark fury in seconds”.

In an interview to TVNZ, she described his despatches from Brussels as “creative to put it politely and pretty much untrue if you don’t want to be polite”. Another erstwhile colleague and biographer, Andrew Gibson’s impression of him is: “He does not seek to attain impossibly high standards, nor does he impose them on others.”

While still in the Belgian capital Johnson married his childhood friend from Brussels, the half-Indian Marina Wheeler, daughter of the legendary BBC broadcaster Sir Charles Wheeler and now a Queen’s Counsel or senior barrister. Close friends of the couple observe she reined in his otherwise loose cannon, gaffe-prone tendencies.

Indeed, she hand-held him through his assignment as foreign secretary, which demanded diplomacy and discretion. They have four children; but decided to part ways last year just before he resigned as foreign secretary in Theresa May’s cabinet. He was and is said to be having an affair with a former Conservative party communications and PR chief Carrie Symonds.

In 21st century Britain a colourful, unconventional love life is not considered to be a liability for public figures. There is speculation as to whether Johnson and Wheeler have formally divorced; rumours he wants to return to her. If a decree has been applied for and issued, then the former will be the first divorcee to be an incumbent of Downing Street.

While the Conservatives, who are also identified as being orthodox, overwhelmingly voted for Johnson in the party leadership contest, there is heated debate in the tabloid press as to whether Symonds should move in with him at the prime minister’s official residence.

In his formative years, Johnson was self-confessedly inspired and influence by the Second World War British prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill. He seems to think optimism and oratory will carry Britain over the line in the Brexit muddle. In his acceptance speech after winning the Conservative leadership contest, he summarised his aim as “DUDE” – Deliver Brexit, Unite the Country, Defeat Jeremy Corbyn (the left-wing leader of the Labour party) and Energise the country.

But rhetoric may not be enough to provide relief to the British people, who have been wilting in uncertainty for three years and face the daunting prospect of a chaotic crash-out from the European Union, if Johnson rams the UK into a no-deal Brexit. The EU insists there is no scope for further negotiation and that the deal agreed with May is final.

Johnson in his leadership campaign pledged Britain will be out of the EU with or without an agreement on 31 October next. But pragmatism dawns once one is in the saddle. If Johnson sticks to his hardline stance, this will undoubtedly please Brexit fundamentalist MPs in his party; but it would displease others to the extent of a rebellion voting out his government.

Since he has placed priority on uniting his badly divided party, the presence of remainers in his cabinet is more likely than not. Several senior ministers in the May government, including the chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, have or will resign before Johnson takes office. But it has not been a mass exodus, thereby signalling his partymen are willing to give him a chance instead of pulling the rug from under his feet even before he’s begun.

But a potential confrontation between parliament, especially the House of Commons, and the executive looms if the latter attempts to bypass the legislature to sneak in a no-deal Brexit.

Dangerously undemocratic suggestions of proroguing parliament to circumvent its consent on an exit from the EU – which Johnson has refused to rule out – if pursued, could not only trigger a head-on collision between the speaker of the Commons John Bercow and Johnson, but embroil the British monarch Queen Elizabeth II – who scrupulously remains above politics – into an ugly political spat.

One of Johnson’s Conservative predecessors, John Major, has threatened to go to court if Elizabeth is so embarrassed. A majority of MPs in the Commons are unmistakably against a no-deal exit. To ignore their voice on one of the most critical decisions in Britain’s history, would invite a constitutional crisis unseen for decades, if not centuries.

Johnson’s 25-year marriage to Wheeler exposed him to India, which he also visited as foreign secretary. His fortuitous encounter with the Indian steel magnate Lakhsmi Mittal while relieving themselves in a rest room at the World Economic Forum at Davos, led to construction of the ArcelorMittal Tower at London’s Olympic Park – the British capital’s rival to Paris’ Eiffel Tower. If he survives the storm of his first three months in power, he will almost certainly support an enhanced relationship between the two countries, notwithstanding his grievance about the high customs duty India imposes on Scotch whiskies – which he typically jokingly raised at an Indian journalists’ dinner!

As London’s mayor for two consecutive terms, he introduced 'Boris Bikes' as a means of environment friendly movement within the city; but his reported lack of attention to details has often been cited as a major shortcoming.

His former boss, Hastings, underlined: “I have a hunch that Johnson will come to regret securing the prize for which he has struggled so long, because the experience of the premiership will lay bare his absolute unfitness for it.”

Over the years, I have interpreted Johnson as a fellow scribe who is imaginative, original and entertaining with his prose, but not necessarily factual. Examining him at close quarters, I approved of his unpretentious use of public transport as mayor and of him arriving at a party hosted by George Osborne, then the chancellor, on a bicycle, characteristically dishevelled with a satchel on his back.

At the same time, in my 42 years in Britain I have rarely if ever have seen such disparaging and dismissive words being expressed about a person entrusted to lead the nation.

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Published: 24 Jul 2019, 8:00 AM