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Is Boris riding a tiger, desperate to get off?

The writer is a lawyer and a keen observer of European affairs, and works in the UK and France
Published : Sep 17, 2019, 1:18 am IST
Updated : Sep 17, 2019, 1:18 am IST

Alongside, court proceedings have been instigated in Scotland and England.

Boris Johnson (Photo: AP)
 Boris Johnson (Photo: AP)

It has been a roller-coaster ride over the past few weeks in the United Kingdom. The recent decision by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to prorogue (or suspend) Parliament for over five weeks from early September to mid-October galvanised all MPs opposed to a “no-deal” Brexit. They responded to Boris Johnson’s decision by seizing the parliamentary agenda and passing a law requiring him to seek an extension to the Brexit negotiations if no deal has been agreed by mid-October. The Prime Minister has in turn threatened to break the law, saying that he would rather “die in a ditch” than seek an extension beyond the October 31 deadline.

Alongside, court proceedings have been instigated in Scotland and England. The Scottish court of appeals has pronounced the prorogation unlawful, being nothing more than a transparent attempt to stymie Parliament and prevent it holding the Prime Minister to account during the run-up to Brexit. The English proceedings are on their way to the Supreme Court, which is due to give its judgment towards the end of September.

To turn the screw, Parliament has required the government to disclose its analysis of the impact of a “no-deal” Brexit. It does not make happy reading, with predictions of food and fuel shortages, gridlock at the ports and possible civil unrest. No wonder the government was keen to keep it under wraps.

To cap it all, Parliament has refused Boris Johnson’s demand for an early election. The Opposition and its allies prefer to let him swing in the wind on a gibbet of his own making. Let him suffer the electorate’s wrath as the chaos mounts, they calculate.

So, what sort of person is the man at the centre of this turbulence? What motivates him? There are a number of assessments. The first is that he is a lost little boy, desperate to be liked. He certainly had an unsettled childhood. His mother — to whom he is close — suffered from mental illness and was hospitalised for periods. His father, reputed to be ego-centric and demanding of attention, had numerous affairs; like father, like son. Deprived of attention, so the assessment goes, Boris Johnson will say or do virtually anything to be popular. If a “no-deal” Brexit is necessary to hang on to hardline anti-European voters, then he will do it; and hang the consequences.

Another assessment is that the key to understanding Boris Johnson is his almost pathological drive to be first, instilled in him and his siblings by his father. This has led to an over-weaning ambition and a willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve whatever it is he wants.

I knew Boris Johnson a little at university. Whilst there he gave the impression of being driven, far more than other students. The focus of Boris Johnson’s ambition then was the presidency of the Oxford Union. At every party he went to and every social event he attended there was a sub-text. Boris Johnson was there to raise his profile and to win votes. I remember he got particularly annoyed with me at one particular party, organised by a student political group. I read out a list of the candidates, pointedly missing out his name. The fact he hadn’t been invited seemed to have escaped him. As it happened, Boris Johnson lost that election. But he stood again and won.

Of course, it would be wrong and unfair to draw up an indictment based on anyone’s student antics, but in Boris Johnson’s case the behaviour has continued. As mayor of London and later as foreign secretary, he seemed to disdain detail and prefer grand gestures. He gave the strong impression that he saw these offices as mere stepping stones to the premiership; an opportunity to raise his profile and little else. Now as Prime Minister, if this assessment is correct, Boris Johnson will do or say anything to stay in power.

The third assessment is the most intriguing: Boris Johnson is riding on the back of a tiger and is desperate to get off. Perhaps his family was dysfunctional, but they were also liberal and pro-European. Boris Johnson was educated at the European School in Brussels for a period whilst his father worked at the European Commission. His father was also for a while a member of the European Parliament. His siblings are all strong supporters of the UK’s membership of the European Union. Boris Johnson’s espousal of anti-Europeanism it is said is only skin-deep. He adopted his anti-European stance first to make a name for himself as the European correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, and then continued with it as a politician. His support for the Leave campaign during the 2016 referendum was last minute. He wrote two versions of his weekly newspaper column: one in favour of the UK’s continued membership of the EU, the other against. He hovered been the two, finally opting for the second. His calculation, it is thought, was that he would lead the Leave campaign to glorious defeat. He would cement his position as leader of the anti-Europeans in the Conservative Party and use that base to take the leadership. Once in position, the anti-Europeanism would be slowly forgotten. The problem for Boris Johnson was that his tactic failed: he won.

Before winning the Conservative Party leadership it was rumoured that Boris Johnson would “do a de Gaulle”. In 1958 General Charles de Gaulle came to power in France on a promise to resolve and the crisis caused by the Algerian uprising against the French. De Gaulle went to Algeria and was welcomed by rapturous crowds of colonialists, who were sure that he would secure French rule. He betrayed them. Could Boris Johnson do the same? On recent form, it seems highly unlikely. The other aspects of his character appear to be to the fore.

So, what comes next? Most likely more turbulence whilst we wait for Boris Johnson to slay his inner demons or for events to do it for him.

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