Brexit and the Eternal Boris Johnson

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, smiling like the cat who got the cream, walking beside Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament the day after Johnson’s landslide victory, December 2019

In our last note, Anti-History: The Politics of Inevitability, we discussed Inevitability Politics and started to outline Eternity Politics. This note is a continuation of that one. Here, we will talk about Boris Johnson as an Eternity politician, in the context of Brexit and how we think it would have played out if Covid-19 had not changed everyone’s focus.

The political historian Timothy Snyder defines Eternity Politics as:

[…] a masquerade of history, though a different one [to inevitability politics]. It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. It’s mood is a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.

It is no secret that Boris Johnson aims to emulate Winston Churchill and models himself as the stoic Englishman who will defend our borders against Johnny Foreigner. He wants to be the contemporary version of WWII era Churchill that exists in the public consciousness (hardworking English bulldog, who stood up to the might of the Nazis). Johnson invokes Churchill in the present day to face Brexit and our divorce from the European Union. Attempting to stare down a virus in the same way does not work, however. The ‘Blitz Spirit’ doesn’t cut it against a novel pathogen. It is not the same enemy, despite how much Johnson tries to convince us it is.

He is the worst Prime Minister at the worst possible time. We needed someone who was honest and compassionate, and who would listen to experts in order to take the best course of action – not only to navigate Brexit, but for the unknown enemy that is Covid-19. But Our Beloved Leader is not someone who likes to listen. It is too much like hard work. He lies to bluster his way though everything, until the problem goes away.

He inherited a country already divided, the divisions bitterly exacerbated by Brexit. At the time of his election, no-one had heard Covid-19, so the idea of anything else taking precedence over this issue was unimaginable. Undoubtedly, he achieved his landslide victory in December 2019 mostly on his strong Brexit stance and slogan of ‘Get Brexit Done’. Nothing else was explained at the time; the ‘oven ready deal’ that he promised then turned out to be another load of hot air. Nonetheless, the British public voted for him on the premise of the UK returning to some kind of golden age, before Europe shackled us. Some voted for him because they believed him; some because he was a character who made them laugh; some because they just didn’t like the other guy, and some perhaps because of Brexit fatigue and just wanting the damn thing over and done with. 

All of this is understandable. Whilst some saw a caring and compassionate leader in Jeremy Corbyn, his and Labour’s position on how to conclude Brexit, in marketing terms, was dire. He just couldn’t compete with the bottom line of ‘Get Brexit Done’. Corbyn said that he would hold another referendum, but as the Prime Minister, would remain neutral. This may have been a logical way to resolution, but it appeared to many to lack urgency and direction. It played into the media’s hands of portraying Corbyn as someone sitting on the fence about Brexit (Corbyn was portrayed as many other things, too, but these are issues for another note). This baffled a great many people as we had been in Brexit purgatory for three years already by that point. This had all the hallmarks of another couple of years of wrangling. ‘Get Brexit Done’ was the message people wanted to hear, whether or not it was grounded in reality. Importantly, it connected with something that many felt.

The Sun newspaper front page, December 12th 2019

Still giddy from the high of that majority he won from the election, the onset of Covid-19 was an awful inconvenience to Johnson at the beginning of 2020. It must have felt like a gatecrasher coming to spoil his party. If we could just ignore the uninvited guest long enough, perhaps it would go away without doing too much damage. Johnson urgently wanted to press ahead with the Tory Brexit vanity project. The Brexit Prime Minister. The Brexit Winston Churchill. The Brexit hero. His whole act was geared towards this. He wanted to come in like his hero, paper over the cracks and get Brexit done. 

The actual reasons why people voted for Brexit didn’t really matter to Johnson, except for when he could make currency out of their feelings, reasons, frustrations and anger (there is a strong similarity between Johnson and Trump as to how they abuse their voter base. Perhaps the worst thing about these kind of leaders is they use people’s suffering to get what they want, with no intention of making things better).  All that really mattered was that the situation could be spun into the myth of a glorious victory for Johnson. None of his intentions were for the benefit of the country. It was all for the benefit of his his own ego and the statue he probably dreamt of himself standing in Trafalgar Square. 

So, Covid could just fuck right off. Wishing it away whilst making sure we wash our hands just a bit longer would do the trick. Business as usual. 

What he thought is that he would come in and do the whole Brexit thing in a cavalier fashion, so typical of him. Effectively, he wouldn’t actually have had to do anything at all, as long as the public thought he was negotiating. He knew Europe would then complain about our disingenuous approach to negotiations, but he would have re-framed this as simple jealousy from Europe for our new British ‘golden age’; how Europe have always envied us and have never been able to defeat us. Cue a verse from Rule, Britannia!

Ultimately, we would have left with No Deal. We firmly believe that was always his plan, even before the election. Of course, he would have distorted this by saying that it was Europe who forced us down the No Deal route. It was always clear however, that Johnson had plans to leave without a deal, evidenced by his alignment to the European Research Group within the Tory party. 

Johnson was an active member of Vote Leave in 2016, where plastered across a big red bus was the brazen lie that the NHS would receive an extra £350 million per week if we left the EU. The bus is an interesting thing regarding Eternity Politics: it is myth-making in its most tangible form. As we write, we have been out of the EU for around four weeks, and the NHS has not received even one week’s payment from that pot. There is no talk of it whatsoever (because it doesn’t exist). Nonetheless, it persuaded a lot of people. The point of that bus had nothing to do with facts; it was about creating an emotive response, and manipulating it. The subtext of the bus is ‘if it wasn’t for all the money we have to pay to Europe, we would have the money for the NHS, and it would be as good as it once was.’ Most of those nudging us to leave Europe were the same people who presided over austerity, which went such a long way to decimating the NHS. That’s the con trick though: it’s not about informing people. It’s about the spectacle and shifting the blame. Those who had been involved in dismantling the NHS were made to look good as they appeared to have a solution to fix the problem they had created.

Vote Leave campaign bus, May 2016

This doesn’t just apply to the NHS. In the lead up to the referendum, we often saw webs being spun to connect Europe to austerity; to free movement and immigrants being the cause of the UK’s problems; the disappearance of British manufacturing which have turned many once thriving towns into wastelands. The feeling that was constructed was that Brexit was the only way to turn back the clock to the days when everything was perfect.

Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, promoting racist and xenophobic reasons to leave the EU on the run-up to the referendum.

Johnson would have been long gone before the harsh realities of No Deal were felt. Having basked in the glory for a little while, when things got tough he would have blamed Europe for punishing us from his island in the sun. He would almost certainly have performed a skit about European stereotypes and their moral failings when compared to us, with some cricket analogies thrown in. Job done. Feet up, your Lordship. Which night is the nation going to clap for you? 

Of course, Brexit did not transpire quite as we imagined. As well as wreaking carnage across the world, Covid is what hastened the end of Donald Trump’s presidency. It is a bleak irony is that it is Covid that has sort of saved us from this fate – the fate of Trump presiding over us from Amnesia. With Trump gone, Johnson has lost an ally who offered him support and encouraged the most savage kind of Brexit divorce. Notice that Johnson waited to see what happened with the US election before committing. Once it was clear that Trump was going and that he could not rely on Biden for anything remotely similar (President Biden has previously warned Johnson not to do anything with Brexit that risks the Good Friday Agreement), Johnson then scurried back to Brussels to quickly get a deal – one that in many ways was like Theresa May’s deal (the one he endlessly derided and blocked).

Johnson after signing the Brexit Deal, December 2020

But that is the thing about Eternity Politics. Up until that point, it had been reported that Europe were being uncooperative and forcing us towards No Deal – all of it a distortion of the truth. Boris Johnson, bruised by the public perception of his handling of Covid, had an opportunity to appear as a powerful statesman. That same right-wing media started announcing that Johnson was personally going to get involved in negotiations, to save the day against the crisis of a looming No Deal; a crisis of Boris Johnson’s own making. 

Eternity politicians are crisis managers. The use crisis to further their own myth, to consolidate power, erode services and control the public. Unless we purge our countries of leaders like this, we will be in endless cycles of crises, one after the other, eternally staring into a vortex, where everything spins with distractions.  The truth becomes lost. What was one promised gets forgotten. People become so overwhelmed, they cling to the first person who makes any promise of making things better. And then Eternity Politicians last forever.

~ L&A 6.2.21 ~

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, (Penguin, 2017)

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