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Fintan O’Toole: Why was Boris Johnson so influential at such a momentous moment?

He was the single greatest asset for the Leave side in the 2016 referendum

What happens to the boy in the bubble when the bubble bursts? He falls from a great height.

The vehicle in which Boris Johnson floated to power was Brexit. It took him to an astonishing place, one where, in any sane world, he did not belong.

But bubbles are wildly erratic in their movements, and they don’t last. The same was always going to be true of Johnson’s premiership.

There is, in much of the British media and within the Conservative Party, a story about this week’s surreal events: they are all to do with character. They have nothing to do with policy.


This is self-delusion. For Johnson’s character is itself inextricable from the biggest policy decision Britain has made in the last 50 years: leaving the European Union.

His great strength, indeed, was his uncanny ability to embody an entire, and epic, political project. Others cared about Brexit and fought for years to make it happen. But Johnson, who did not care about it, gave it an ample physical form, a voice, an attitude.

The old Eurosceptic cranks wrote a script — Johnson performed it. Without his brilliant ability to enact Brexit as a persona, it would simply not have happened.

Just as 18th century cartoonists invented England as a character — the big, meaty, stubborn John Bull — Johnson reinvented it as Boris: big, meaty, stubborn, anarchic, rule-breaking, freedom-loving, fun.

That’s what 52 per cent of UK voters voted for in June 2016. Not a political and economic programme — there wasn’t one. But a spirit of “freedom”, a word made flesh in the unlikely, ungainly but instantly recognisable shape of an Old Etonian populist.

In this act there was a confusion of two meanings of “character”. “Boris” was a great character, in the sense of a fictional personage. Johnson was, and is, a terrible character. Sooner or later, the second reality was always going to overtake the first.

It is hard to overstate the degree to which Johnson was the single greatest asset for the Leave side in the 2016 referendum. Andrew Cooper, chief pollster for the Remain campaign, later admitted that “in the focus groups and in our polling, Boris invariably came top on the question of which politician has made the most persuasive impact”.

Detailed exit polls found that how people felt about Johnson correlated strongly with how they voted. It is not a stretch to suggest that if Johnson — as he might just as well have done — plumped for Remain, the UK would still be in the EU.

Why was Johnson so extraordinarily influential at such a momentous moment?

Firstly, because, in his extraordinary fusion of the Upper Class Twit with the Man of the People, he brought together two currents of Englishness. One was that weird concoction, Tory anarchism, the privileged fecklessness of a decadent post-imperial ruling class. The other was the two-fingered salute to “the establishment” favoured by a post-industrial working class.

The Bullingdon Club brat and the spit-in-your face punk are not all that far apart. “Boris” brought them together, creating a cross-class alliance that carried Brexit and smashed the Labour Party’s red wall of old proletarian loyalty.

Secondly, he embodied a promise that was at the heart of the Brexit moment: no consequences. If part of the appeal of Brexit was that you can f**k everything up, the crucial other half was that you can f**k everything up and yet pay no price.

If Johnson were a stick of rock, No Consequences would be written all through it. In his personal life, in his journalistic career and in his political adventures, he has always been the one who walks away unscathed and leaves other people to clean up his mess.

There could be no one more fitted to personify the promise that Brexit would be like this, that Brits could (as Johnson repeatedly promised) leave the EU but still enjoy all of its advantages. Bear in mind that Johnson actually thought — or claimed to think — that the UK could still have a seat on the European Commission after Brexit.

But, in the end, there are consequences. As they accumulated, Johnson’s real character could not sustain the potency of his fictional one.

The first and most obvious consequence was that a man so patently unable to govern himself could not possibly govern a country.

Everybody knew this. Johnson had held two serious political offices.

As mayor of London his job was quickly delegated to competent subordinates, while he became a frontman and a show man, indulging himself with idiotic and grandiose schemes (Boris Island, the Garden Bridge) on which, to use a term from his own adolescent Etonian vocabulary, he spaffed tens of millions of pounds.

As foreign secretary he was almost universally hailed as the worst holder of that great office. His highlights reel includes giving Iran the excuse to lengthen its detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and sucking up to a prominent ex-KGB agent.

It says much for the self-proclaimed patriotism of so many Tories that they knew damn well that Johnson was simply incapable of functioning in high office with either honour or ability — and yet gave him the keys to 10 Downing Street anyway.

There is a nice line in an Elbow song: “I want to be in a town where they know what I’m like and don’t mind.” Brexit turned the Conservative Party into the town where they knew exactly what Johnson was like and didn’t mind — so long as his bumptious energy could keep their bubble aloft for another year or two.

And so long as he was fun. Johnson’s great skill was that of dissolving the difference between a serious thing and a joke. The tongue with which he lied was always also, somehow, always in his cheek.

But the problem with every comic act is that it requires the collusion of the audience. If the crowd decides that it is no longer amused, the act dies, excruciatingly, on stage.

This shift would probably have happened anyway, simply because government is a serious business. But the pace of the shift was greatly advanced by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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In a time of plague, Johnson’s act wasn’t funny anymore. Not that he didn’t try: he allegedly told his subordinates in one fit of fury: “no more f**king lockdowns — let the bodies pile high in their thousands.”

But no one was laughing anymore. And the anarchic rule-breaking that had appealed to so many people in England became suddenly less attractive when it meant that Johnson and his subordinates were flouting all the rules that ordinary people had to follow, often at great personal and emotional cost. “Freedom” turned out to mean what it has always meant for the upper-class: the right to do as they please while telling the peasants to obey. The peasants finally realised that they were not in on the joke — they were the joke.

Without the protective force field of “only joking”, Johnson could not possibly ward off the consequences of his own cynicism, corruption and incompetence. His habitual mendacity, having lost that quality of comic evasiveness that had made it palatable to so many of his compatriots, now looked like what it was: crude and constant lies.

Perhaps none of this would have mattered much, though, had it not been for that deeper revenge of consequence: the bursting of the Brexit bubble.

Johnson managed to squeeze two distinct (and essentially contradictory) energies out of the Brexit story. But neither of them could be sustained.

The initial energy was boundless optimism — the Golden Age, the sunlit uplands, the new dawn of “world-beating” Britain in which the gloomsters and doomsters would be put to flight and all would be for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

English political culture was alarmingly susceptible to this kind of mindless boosterism — but blather is still blather. The sharp pin of reality was always waiting for the bubble.

Brexit is making most British people poorer. The sunlit uplands, as the SDLP MP Claire Hanna put it recently, are becoming ever more obviously the gaslit uplands — a fake world that no one can inhabit.

Johnson, though, got a second shot at shaping this story. He turned it — again with a rather brilliant opportunism — into a much more downbeat appeal: let’s get this bloody thing over with.

He won an election, and a huge parliamentary majority, on a breathtakingly brazen slogan: Get Brexit Done. It implicitly conceded that most people just wanted not to be bothered anymore by his grand project.

But he couldn’t even deliver on this promise to pretend the whole thing never happened. He couldn’t do it because he had nothing else to offer.

Stoking and exploiting English animosity to Europe has been Johnson’s career-defining shtick. It’s the horse he rode in on. But once Brexit actually happened, it also died under him.

The “Boris” act was essentially a one-hit wonder. That hit was massive, mega, multi-platinum. But his follow-up numbers — Levelling Up, War on Woke — were flops.

He had to become his own tawdry tribute band, using the Northern Ireland protocol to play an increasingly out-of-tune rehash of the same old song.

The DUP and the Brexit ultras in the ERG may have applauded, but the vast majority of English voters were merely bored and baffled.

What, then, happens to Brexit without Johnson? To call it Hamlet without the prince would be to dignify it too much. There is too much farce intertwined with this tragedy.

It is, perhaps, just a circus without its clown, its high-wire act, its illusionist and its contortionist. Johnson has been all of those things — and the performance has been dizzying to watch, by turns gloriously ludicrous and incredibly death-defying.

Where the tragedy does lie for his compatriots is that this is a circus that will not fold its tents and leave town. It has taken up residence in the main square and cannot be shifted.

Who can replace Johnson as its star act? No one.

Part of the reason why the succession race is so open is that Johnson can have no successor. He embodied a project that has no future, that is merely stuck in a moment it can’t get out of.

Johnson’s only value to his country has been as a stress test. He showed that its existing order was so fragile that an absurd opportunist, armed only with excruciating jokes, debating society bombast and a bottomless well of shamelessness, could shape it to his own appetites.

If the UK is to have a future, it must start by asking not how Johnson finally fell, but how it was possible for him to rise so high.