Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
For now, anyway. It’s not going well.
If you live outside of the U.K., you may be used to thinking of Boris Johnson (if you think of him at all) as that quirky, disheveled British guy who used to run London. You know, the funny mayor with the messy hair? It’s hard not to smile at a man who managed to retain public popularity even after getting stuck midway on a zip wire. Well, things have changed for Boris recently. As you’ll have heard by now, Johnson has been the main face of the campaign for the U.K. to leave the European Union. Following Leave’s win in last Thursday’s referendum, and Prime Minister Cameron’s subsequent resignation, London’s former mayor has abruptly become probably the most powerful person in Britain. And right now, that doesn’t appear to bode at all well for Britain, the future—or even for Boris himself.
Boris doesn’t make the most obvious of Brexit champions, you see. In the past, he has warned against dismantling the E.U., and once made positive noises about expanding it to include Turkey, so his eventual choosing of the Leave side this winter was no foregone conclusion. His arrival was still a great boost to the campaign, removing some of the spotlight from UKIP’s Nigel Farage and his party’s frequently made, frequently denied racist rhetoric.
During the campaign, Boris adopted a rhetorical style already familiar to Londoners: statements full of shocking figures and grandly aspirational oratory that, on closer inspection, turned out to be full of inaccuracies and ultimately meaningless assertions. He came across a bit like Donald Trump would if he were British and could read Ovid in the original version. The British public largely loved this, and it went down well. It didn’t seem to matter that many of his claims, such as that the U.K. sends £350 million to the E.U. weekly, were actually false.
Now that the Leave campaign has won, however, Boris appears tense, lost. He has good reason to be. His long-term rival and former Eton schoolmate David Cameron has resigned and thus abdicated responsibility for the future. Scotland looks set for another independence referendum. The pound has crumpled. One rumor, being spoken ever more loudly over the weekend, could help to explain Boris’s disquiet: He never really wanted to win. What we are now witnessing may in fact be the unexpected end of a ploy to gain the Conservative Party’s leadership, one that ended up working too well.
Boris, so this line of reasoning goes, knew that the Conservative Party was largely Eurosceptic. He also knew that, at the referendum, the rest of the electorate would likely balance them out to bring an overall vote for Remain. By embracing the Leave campaign, Johnson set himself up to stand later on against David Cameron to lead the Conservative Party, now well-placed as the Eurosceptics’ champion. He would sail into power because disgruntled party members could used him as a stick to beat pro-Remain Cameron with. He wouldn’t win the referendum, but he would use it as a springboard to win the party leadership.
Of course, that’s not how it happened. Now that Leave has won, Boris is indeed next in line to the Conservative throne. But he’s also now expected to deliver a Brexit deal he may very well never dreamed of having to go near. So difficult is his position that there’s even a conspiracy theory going round that Cameron has expressly maneuvered him into this position as a way of making Boris’s possible tenure as prime minister unmanageable. A Boris manifesto of sorts, in the form of an article written by him and released in the Sunday Telegraph, chimes with the chaos this hypothesis suggests. It outlines a vision for Britain’s future relations with Europe that mixes timidity with fantasy and does as little as possible to draw a line between the U.K. and the E.U. It’s not the bold departure from Europe many Leave voters wanted. Worse still, it’s not remotely deliverable.
The contradictions are truly glaring. For example, Johnson insists that British citizens will get border-free access and residency rights across the E.U. but implies that the U.K. will not need to offer E.U. citizens the same in return. Despite legitimate economic chaos after the Leave vote, Boris’s article also claims that fears for Britain’s post-Brexit economy are “wildly overdone” and that the U.K. looks forward to an “outward-looking economy.” Scotland, he asserts, has “no appetite” for another independence referendum (even though polls show the opposite) while Britain will soon be free from the “E.U.’s extraordinary and opaque system of legislation.” At the same time, Boris’s U.K. will somehow be able to trade in the single market that relies on just this legislation. This is just the sort of ludicrous, head-in-the-sand, cake-and-eat-it talk that the E.U. has already rejected. It’s not a serious plan to manage Brexit, and more closely resembles a letter to Santa Claus.
Boris probably knows this himself (or at least, one hopes) and is hoping to buy time. E.U. leaders don’t seem keen to let him dawdle, however. They’ve insisted that talks cannot begin until Britain invokes Article 50, the part of the Lisbon Treaty that deals with exiting from the Union—something Boris is trying to delay and which Cameron says is a job for his successor. Soon Johnson will have to come up with an actual plan, but it’s hard to see how the approach he’s signaling will satisfy either Leave voters or prevent recession and isolation for Britain. And as news reports have made shockingly clear, it’s not as if anyone else in the Leave camp has any viable ideas of their own to fall back on.
Meanwhile, Boris’s popularity is not holding up well. The most notable, but far from the only, sign of his fall are the baying crowds of protestors outside his house, as shown in this video. After fighting full-on with old friend Cameron and coming to the fore, the erudite clown act appears to no longer wash, and he now comes across a bit like Macbeth, as played by Falstaff. It was a pose that served him fairly well as London’s mayor, but now, as one of the last men standing in a bitterly divided country whose economy appears to be in free-fall, the joke isn’t funny anymore. Because this time, it’s on us.