Boris the Mad General or Boris the Ruthless?
British PM is playing to voters. As a pragmatist, he must want to leave EU with a deal
Whether you play the game in Dublin, Brussels or London, if you want to come out ahead in any confrontation, put yourself inside the head of your opponent. If that opponent is the current incumbent of Number 10, what lurks beneath that tousled barnet likely has very little to do with what comes out of his mouth. So what’s Boris really thinking?
Is he mad? Is Boris the Mad General prepared to destroy everything, including himself, if he doesn’t get his own way? He does seem to relish this role, but also has an uncanny instinct for self-preservation. Otherwise he wouldn’t be where he is now. Assuming him certifiably crazy is probably a mistake.
If he’s only playing at Boris the Mad General, who is his audience? Not seasoned negotiators in Brussels, who he must know see through this act. That’s why they sit back impassively and say nothing when he says he’s prepared to crash and burn his own country if there’s no concession on the Irish backstop.
Boris the Mad General can’t be an act for British parliamentarians of any stripe, who clearly now see through him and don’t believe a word he says. He blusters to beat the band and waves his arms furiously at the dispatch box, but he’s lost control of the Commons.
So this act is for voters, at least voters he hopes to win back from the Brexit Party. Like Trump’s base in the USA, these are fed up with mainstream politics and feel totally ignored by politicians in the nation’s capital. Putting ourselves in these voters’ heads, they’re not wrong to feel this, which makes them take to a Mad General like a breath of fresh air. Brash and populist bare-faced liars, even if they’re Etonian toffs or rich property developers, seem more attractive than self-serving Westminster wimps.
But if Boris the Mad General is just a pantomime for voters, who’s the real Boris?
Is he lazy? He’s certainly not insolently languid like Jacob Rees-Mogg, and has a carefully cultivated public persona involving frantic activity and a blizzard of rhetoric. Despite this superficial hyperactivity, however, most who’ve worked closely with him say he is in fact certifiably lazy – to put it nicely, not much focused on detail and implementation. This leaves space for big thinking and can work well if you have an excellent team to cover your back and actually get things done. That seems to be what happened when he was mayor of London, his only political success to date.
Cummings is a man with a personal one-issue agenda who will happily see the Tory party in ruins
Who covers his back now? Many say it’s a genius with a garotte called Dominic. While Dominic Cummings has been compared to previous political assassins like Alastair Campbell, he’s not at all the same thing. Campbell was a party man through and through. Cummings is a man with a personal one-issue agenda who will happily see the Tory party in ruins if it helps him achieve this.
It currently suits Boris the Lazy to delegate the shedding of blood to his hitman, but this is not going well. Cummings might be hard as nails, a genius in his own head, and a wizard at choreographing a barnstorming political campaign. But recent events have shown that, unlike Campbell the consummate insider, he doesn’t understand the Commons. This is a real problem because Boris the Debater doesn’t understand the Commons either, thinking it just another university debate hall.
Thanks largely to Cummings, Boris is now in much worse shape than when he took over as prime minister. When Boris the Lazy takes the garotte back from Cummings, however, he’ll have to find others with the political whiskers and muscle to do his dirty work and get actual things done. He might even turn to his own cabinet for this, which is after all what they’re for.
Optimism vs self-delusion
Is Boris delusional? Or at least wildly over-optimistic? Optimism is good in any confrontation, since optimists often run right over more pessimistic opponents. However . . . many optimists fail. In logical terms, optimism may be a necessary but is not a sufficient condition for success.
His life as a member of an entitled social elite has schooled him to think overweening confidence and plummy bluster can overrun opposition from the little people
There’s a fine line between optimism and self-delusion. Herein lies the problem for Boris. His previous life as member of an entitled social elite has schooled him to think that overweening confidence and plummy bluster can overrun opposition from the little people. He’s largely got away with this so far. He probably still thinks he can barge his way through somehow.
But he’s now in a very high stakes game against 27 European prime ministers, supported by skilled and seasoned negotiators. And he’s lost the Commons majority he needs to deliver any promise he might make to them. He’s never faced anything even vaguely like this before and finally seems out of his depth.
Let’s assume Boris really does want to leave the EU with a deal. His past record marks him out as a pragmatist rather than one of the Spartans on the Tory far right. But then overoptimism leads him to say that he’d rather die in a ditch than compromise – a statement aimed at Brexiteer voters, and maybe few Spartans, rather than EU negotiators or most MPs. Since any deal will involve compromise and Boris doesn’t really want to die in a ditch, something has to give.
Boris is likely betting there will be some little compromise, which he can spin to voters as a great triumph. Betrayed Spartans will be a study in apoplexy. But Boris the Ruthless, if this lets him declare victory with what he can credibly call “a deal”, will be as brutal with those Spartans – who for him will have served their purpose – as he was with the Tory moderates.
Michael Laver is professor of politics at New York University and a former professor of political science at Trinity College. He lives in London