A Johnsonian Thought Experiment

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what Boris Johnson is trying to do, and why he’s trying to do it. In particular, I’ve been wondering why he seems to be deliberately trying to mess up every negotiation he’s involved in, while also putting more and more pressure on the government for a “hard Brexit” (which, for those who don’t understand what the terminology means, means tearing up every single international agreement to which the UK is party, grounding all air traffic, and food riots as Britain loses 40% of its food supply overnight).

It’s clear that Johnson is not pushing for this from any ideological motive — Johnson is not a conviction politician, and it’s well known that his support for leaving the EU was decided more or less on a coin toss. Indeed, much of his rhetoric during the referendum campaign was that a vote to leave would not be a vote to leave, but would rather be a vote to renegotiate membership of the EU on a preferential basis — that the EU would come crawling to us and offer concessions to persuade us to stay.

This was, of course, nonsense, and it’s widely assumed that Johnson’s motive for being so prominent in the Leave campaign was to further his own personal ambitions — he wanted to lose, narrowly, but to get the fascist wing of his party on side for his attempt to become leader by showing he was “one of them”.

If that was his plan, of course, it didn’t work. But Johnson is a vicious, Machiavellian, politician, and it’s not like he’s suddenly given up on his ambition to become Prime Minister — all his briefing against Theresa May in recent weeks shows that he still very much wants the role, although one can’t really imagine what he would do with it once he got it.

So — assuming as we do that Johnson is not a stupid man (and he really isn’t — utterly amoral and disinclined to do any real work, yes, but he’s far more intelligent than many of his Cabinet colleagues) and that he wants to become Prime Minister, and that he knows what the consequences of a “hard Brexit” would be, why exactly would he be pushing for one?

Well, of course, one possibility would be that he’s being bribed or blackmailed into doing so, but I don’t see that as being a reasonable possibility, if nothing else because frankly the information about the man that’s in the public domain is more than enough to show that he doesn’t have a hint of shame or worry about public disgrace.

So the most obvious thing to assume is that he sees his push for “hard Brexit” as the best way to achieve his ambition of becoming Prime Minister. It’s also best to assume that he doesn’t want to be Prime Minister of a country going through “hard Brexit”, because no-one actually wants to be in charge of a smouldering post-apocalyptic hellhole, because the person at the top has a relatively short life expectancy in those circumstances.

So I think the best way to make sense of British politics at the moment is that Johnson has decided to double down on his previous tactic, in the hope that it’ll make him Prime Minister. I don’t think it’ll work — he’s not popular enough in his own party to get the leadership — but I think he’s trying the only strategy that has a chance of getting him the role.

I think what he’s trying to do is push the Government into making demands that are literally impossible so talks break down irretrievably, at which point Theresa May is pushed out of office and Johnson wins the resulting leadership election by being the most hardline Brexit-supporter of the lot.

At that point, Johnson does an “only Nixon can go to China” and announces that while he remains, of course, firmly committed to leaving the EU in the future, the unforseeable intransigence of the EU has made it impossible to leave, because they are stabbing us in the back and blocking everything we want. This means that the plan to leave the EU will have to be put on hold. Just temporarily, of course, you understand — we’ll definitely do it at some point in the future — but right now we have to stay in and cancel Article 50.

Of course, as talks break down the economy will crash, and after Johnson’s announcement the economy would pick back up again, probably getting better than before. Johnson takes credit for this “economic miracle”, calls a snap election, walks it with a Blair-like majority.

I’m not saying this *will* happen — unfortunately, because while I utterly loathe Johnson I think he would make a better Prime Minister than May, who has all his worst qualities *and* a complete lack of ability to understand the world in which she’s operating, and stopping the descent into fascism that so-called “Brexit” necessitates would be worth the price of Johnson getting what he wants.

But I think it’s the only remotely plausible mechanism by which Johnson becomes Prime Minister, I think it’s consistent with his actions thus far and his admitted motives, and given that Johnson has already once risked the future of the UK in an overcomplicated plan to put himself into Number 10, I don’t think it at all implausible that he would try the only route open to the Premiership by doing the same thing again.

Now of course, if it does go wrong — as I think it will, because if nothing else I don’t think Johnson is as clever as he thinks he is (“not stupid” and “actually clever” are two very different things, and many problems come from confusing the two) — we are all really, truly, totally fucked. But that doesn’t mean it *isn’t* Johnson’s plan, because the whole history of British politics for the last eight years or so has been ex-members of the Bullingdon Club who aren’t as clever as they think they are taking massive risks with the lives of millions in order to further their own personal ambitions, so why should that stop now?

So I’ll be very interested to see what happens in the Tory conference this weekend, and how well it makes sense interpreted in this light…

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4 Responses to A Johnsonian Thought Experiment

  1. davidgerard says:

    > no-one actually wants to be in charge of a smouldering post-apocalyptic hellhole, because the person at the top has a relatively short life expectancy in those circumstances.

    This is actually my theory of Theresa May – that you can predict her approach to any problem by assuming that she will always choose being Prime Minister of a smoking crater over not being Prime Minister of not a smoking crater. Her every action over Brexit has been to win over the backbench Europhobes, and everyone else can go hang.

    I concur that Johnson is not nearly so bloody-minded. But as a strategy, it’s kept May hanging on by her fingernails in the face of all the results of her incompetence. Johnson could surely manifest at least equal incompetence were he to Peter Principle himself into the top job, but …

  2. gavinburrows says:

    Johnson’s EU negotiation strategy would be like if I went round all your readers saying “we should stop reading Andrew’s blog until he promises to pay us all for doing so”. And every time someone questions me on the likelihood of this happening I guarantee them it’s an achievable aim and tell them they just need to trust me. Then when you say “I am sorry you’re not reading my blog, but I’m not bloody well paying you all just for doing so” I turn round to everybody else and say “hey, I bet you’re really cross with Andrew right now.”

  3. Andrew King says:

    Your idea is certainly plausible, given that Johnson’s failed Plan A for bagging the leadership depended on the Leave campaign itself failing.

    It would, therefore, be in character for his Plan B to also hinge on failure – this time the predicted failure of Brexit to deliver anything but problems. You may be right that, by demanding the impossible, he’s trying to make his boss’s failure even worse, but I think that there’s another layer of plotting behind all the waffle about a “glorious” hard Brexit.

    I think the speech wasn’t primarily intended to be listened to now, but to be whipped out and quoted in the near future, once Theresa May has made a mess of leaving the EU. Remember, Johnson is a Conservative and the one thing Conservatives have done very well in the past few years is to destroy their opponents by cleverly and disingenuously apportioning blame. Remember how quickly they flipped the global financial crisis into a self-serving narrative about how their opponents had “maxed out the national credit card?”

    Johnson, I imagine, would like to do the same thing to Team May – turn Brexit, a huge, generalised disaster in which most of our political class is complicit, not least BJ himself, into a story about how Theresa May specifically mucked things up. Once things go horribly wrong for May,

    I imagine a near-0future BJ pointing the finger and telling everybody who’ll listen that, if he’d have been in charge we would have definitely enjoyed the “glorious” Brexit with unicorns for all that he had planned in his visionary speech back in 2017, but unfortunately May wrecked everything and now he will, with sincere regret, have to do his duty and push her aside to salvage something from the mess she made of the country.

    Like you, I think that BJ’s brand is probably now too tarnished for such a plan to succeed, but I’m sure that there are many others in the Conservative Party who see the coming catastrophe as a career opportunity – these people didn’t get where they are today by wasting a good crisis.

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