Boris Johnson: the phony populist

This man cannot be trusted with Brexit.

Tom Slater
Topics Brexit Politics UK

Failing upwards. Boris Johnson has made a career out of it. Perhaps even an art. This is the man for whom all the privileges of an upper-crust upbringing, and an education at Eton and Oxford, never stopped him from screwing up, time and again, while also ensuring that all those screw-ups never made a dent in his future prospects.

As we’ve been reminded in the comment pages recently, there is no gaffe or misdeed or lie from which he hasn’t bounced back – from being sacked by The Times for making up a quote to being booted from the shadow cabinet for lying about one of his affairs. He’s an inspiration to rich, duplicitous people everywhere: there are second chances in this life.

Now, he’s set to be our next prime minister, firm favourite in the Tory leadership race, which concludes later this month. But as we confront the once absurd prospect of Johnson in No10, and his many enemies do all they can to try to stave off the seemingly inevitable, we would do well to separate out the proper criticisms of Johnson from the smears and score-settling.

The raking over of his private life has become an increasingly grim spectacle over the course of this leadership contest. The debacle over the audio recording of him and girlfriend Carrie Symonds arguing in their London flat, and the shameless attempt to spin it as proof of Johnson’s up-to-now-concealed violent misogyny, was particularly shameful.

Of course, questions about his character do matter: one recording we should be talking about is the infamous tape of a phone call between him and his rich friend Darius Guppy, made in 1990, in which they discussed Guppy’s plan to have a pesky tabloid journalist beaten up.

But, perhaps clocking the tremendous unpopularity of hacks among the general public, commentators have clearly decided it would be far easier to try to smear Johnson as some sort of vicious bigot instead. And alongside being a sexist and an abuser, he’s apparently a racist too.

The primary evidence for this seems to be that he took the mick out of the burqa in his Telegraph column – rather missing the fact that the burqa is a misogynistic religious practice, not a racial group, and that the article in question was arguing against a burqa ban.

We’re also often told that he has called black people ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’, even though the 2002 piece from which those phrases are selectively quoted was mocking then PM Tony Blair for his patronising, colonial attitude towards the Third World.

If anything, these attempts to present Johnson as some kind of hard-right ideologue obscure the fact he doesn’t believe in very much at all. Throughout his political life he has seemed more devoted to advancing his own career than adhering to any deeply held convictions or principles.

As mayor of London, he was an early supporter of the sugar tax, but is now posing as a warrior against the nanny state. He has flirted with climate-change scepticism, but is now a paid-up green.

Johnson has always had certain instincts – he’s liberal and metropolitan, yet un-PC with a feel for the Shires. But his knack was always to be different things to different people. He was the ‘Heineken candidate’, the Tory who won twice in London but could light up a provincial Tory association meeting like no other.

In this respect, his decision to lead the Leave campaign in the EU referendum was both the making and the unmaking of him. He was forced to pick a side, and in the process he made himself toxic to a huge chunk of the electorate. Tories say he is the only one who could win the next election, but polls show he is more disliked than liked among voters.

Many Leave voters are also deeply suspicious of him. Before the referendum, he famously drafted two columns for the Telegraph, one pro-Remain and one pro-Leave. A few months after the referendum campaign, EU ambassadors claimed he had privately been telling them he was in favour of freedom of movement with the EU continuing after Brexit, despite having led a campaign to ‘take back control’ of Britain’s borders.

His leadership bid has similarly been built on telling different things to different people. He has secured the support of both Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group and George Osborne’s London Evening Standard. One side is going to be disappointed, and we all know which it will be.

Johnson has committed to leaving the EU by 31 October, but only because he is convinced the threat of No Deal will bring the EU back to the negotiating table. Many still think his primary aim is to tweak Theresa May’s defective Soft Brexit deal and squeak it through the Commons. Some of his fiercest critics think he could even be the man to stop Brexit entirely.

Amid all the prurient stories about Johnson’s private life, amid the desperate attempts to present him as the thinking man’s Alf Garnett, it is his duplicity and untrustworthiness on the defining issue of our time that should make us most wary of him failing all the way up Downing Street.

Brexit is about more than just leaving the EU – it is about democratising the UK, about creating a society in which ordinary people have as much say as the high born. It is too important to be entrusted to Boris Johnson – the upper-crust ‘populist’ who has only ever been in it for himself.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

Photo by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Rod Conrad

8th July 2019 at 10:07 pm

You support Brexit, Fromage, all these “Anti-Elites” Im just looking forward to the J Rees Smug editorial .. why being a poor person is good for the character …. bring it on
NO DEAL Brexit ….

Marvin Jones

6th July 2019 at 4:29 pm

Cameron was just a privately educated dope, Osborne was just a privately educated chancer whose luck and reputation depended on the economy, Mogg and co are just clever spineless charlatans, and as for Boris, big brained but full of emptiness. With all the problems this country faces, he takes crappy advice to give well off earners a tax break? BUT! it must be his destiny to rule.

James Chilton

3rd July 2019 at 6:35 pm

I’m prepared to buy a hat for the sole purpose of eating it if that self-serving charlatan “BoJo” gets a so-called “no deal” Brexit through Parliament by 31 October.

Westminster is a circus of midgets. None of them has the stature to be a prime minister.

James E Shaw

3rd July 2019 at 3:55 pm

So, Tom, this magnificent revolt against an out of touch corrupt elite, how is it going?

Not Again

3rd July 2019 at 3:52 pm

I am so tired of the “Eton Oxbridge” bashing narrative. In science causation versus correlation is something to be very careful about. Instead of assuming privilege, and a “Golden Willie Wonka” magic ticket that the combination supposedly bestows , study more carefully the selection process that “generates” this combination. Like him or loathe him Boris was a KS at Eton (King’s Scholar). My son recently sat those papers. I urge you to download past papers readily available on the internet. These are papers are sat by 12/13 year olds. You will be shocked at the difficulty level. Eton might nurture and help give character to the boys but they are getting on average an extremely intelligent selection to work with. Instead of continuously knocking the institution, celebrate it and if you have a smart lad have a go at getting a place – 20% of places are funded by bursaries in addition to the 14 places awarded to King Scholars.

Brandy Cluster

7th July 2019 at 12:11 am

There is zero correlation between academic brilliant and leadership. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Not Again

7th July 2019 at 9:31 am

You missed my point entirely. My comment was aimed at the fashionable constant sniping from all corners at those who have excelled academically. And constantly attributing it to privilege. The competition for places at schools such as Eton is intense.

A footballer with Manchester United and England on his CV is feted.

Why is it fair game to discriminate against high academic achievers in this country? And discriminating against a child who has no choice on where their parents try to send them is acceptable too?

gershwin gentile

3rd July 2019 at 1:53 pm

“He was forced to pick a side, and in the process he made himself toxic to a huge chunk of the electorate”

Luckily it was the smaller of the huge chunks that find him toxic. The larger chunk support him.

Rod Conrad

8th July 2019 at 10:10 pm

In your bubble .. but meanwhile in the real world … hooray henry , posh accent, but all collar and no front .. Im mean really … really lets all get posh

Neil McCaughan

3rd July 2019 at 12:53 pm

Johnson is a louche metropolitan liberal.

I do not trust him to deliver BREXIT, but he will most likely have the opportunity to do so. Should he succeed, he will have redeemed himself. If he does not, he is toast, the same as the rest of the Tory Party.

Jerry Owen

3rd July 2019 at 8:49 am

Boris is the best of a bad bunch but his best is no good at all for Brexit. It’s the political elites equivalent of ‘good cop bad cop’ .. the reality being that there are no good cops ! They will be found out, even after three years we still cling on in hope of the great saviour .. Boris it ain’t.
he has one or two slightly off beat views that I admire. he has today announced he would halt a sugar tax increase. If he weren’t such a flip flop over things he would be a good shoe in for PM.

Hana Jinks

3rd July 2019 at 3:43 am

And what are you in it for, Pom Prater? Is it the prurient gossip that you so gleefully propagate? Is it the ceaseless and enviously irrelevant references to one’s class? Or is that you lucked-out getting a gig that you’re so eminently unqualified for?

Watt Tighler

3rd July 2019 at 3:21 am

Thinking of which didn’t Churchill once say?

“Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others”

Well Boris is the worst possible Prime Minister, except for all the others……..

Rocky Pelugro

3rd July 2019 at 7:11 am

I am so glad you mentioned Churchill. In 1940 he was a man who had jumped from Liberal to Conservative whenever he fancied it. He was the instigator of the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign which is still mourned in Australia and New Zealand today. He was an old bore about German disarmament and someone who did not seem to care about the hell being bombed out of London. So he, too, was loathed and despised – and the right man at the right time too.

Marvin Jones

6th July 2019 at 4:21 pm

Churchill was a thorough piss head, who made decisions on pure “Dutch Courage” through inebriation. AND! thank heavens for that.

Watt Tighler

3rd July 2019 at 3:07 am

1) Boris doesn’t fill me with immense confidence and I agree much of what is being used to attack him is garbage but……

2) I think dredging up a 30 year old conversations (when he was narely out of University) which resulted in nothing is dredging the bottom of a barrel. You really need something a bit better than that. Its nearly as sad as Ed Miliband wearing anti-Thatcher t-shirts its that out of date.

2) Is Boris any different from anyone within 5 miles of Westminster who has anything to do with politics. I would say no and suggest Boris is a product of the Westminster culture. A culture which exists largely because the UK media has abandoned objective reporting in preference to delivering partisan propaganda for whatever vested interests they are at that time representing. If you give politicians an inch thery will take it.

3) Not even Nigel Farage whose new attempt to dig up the rotting corpse of PR from its 2011 referendum grave can make claim to any sort of political integrity with such a policy (which he only wants to get him into Westminster) despite it raising grave questions as to how he can then justify denying remainers and the SNP a second bite of the referendum cherry when he himself wants to overturn a relatively recent referendum result (and one where the conditions have not changed significantly).

Its wrong to paint Boris with the duplicity charge without recognising that they are all at it and none of them can be trusted(Hunt is all over the place, as is Labour and the Libdems have made an art out of facing both ways simultaneously – eg student fees)

The thing is its not necessarily honesty we need right now (we don’t need to know how he’s going to deliver Brexit – just get it done) but leadership and if anyone of the current shower could capture a little of that Churchill spirit in the face of adversity and lead this country then its Boris who has more charisma than Hunt, Hammond, May, Corbyn, Watson, Starmer, McDonnell, Cable, Davey and Swinson put together. Only Farage can compare and Nige is not in the right place to deliver. Only Boris is and perhaps can. We can only hope even if it is a faint hope.

Rod Conrad

8th July 2019 at 10:08 pm

Did you swallow your “I’m an intellectual” pill ?

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