“Brexit” Boris to join Trump and Morrison in the conservative leaders' club

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Boris Johnson, favourite to take over Tory Party Leadership (image by Chatham House via Flickr)

British Conservatives, voting on whether to make Boris Johnson their party leader, may be opening a can of worms, writes Lee Duffield.

IMAGINE THE POLICE called to a “domestic” at 10 Downing Street, asking the Prime Minister’s live-in girlfriend if she felt safe. That is a possibility being considered by members of the Conservative Party as they prepare to vote on making Boris Johnson their party leader — and therefore Prime Minister.

And the chances are that many of them could not care less that last weekend such a show had already been played, as the Old Bill called around to Johnson's girlfriend, Carrie Symonds' place by a concerned neighbour.

Front-runner as clown

What is this phenomenon, that such a madcap clown is actually considered front-runner against one other opponent, the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, for the country’s highest office?

The man, Johnson is very sociable. He was present and a memorable figure in the media pack at the European Commission in Brussels when I worked there at the end of the 1980s. The British contingent was a group from “quality” media outlets, destined to “get ahead”: uniformly fitted-out for life, from the well-cut suits to public school and Oxbridge educational background — Johnson no exception, his scruffy appearance notwithstanding.

Yet, as he was already a committed and connected Tory, and a great hater of the European Union, I had to consider his role as correspondent of the right-wing London Daily Telegraph, as at least in part a cover, a stepping stone — as it did turn out.

Much discussed by slightly-aghast colleagues, one satirised that all of reporter Johnson’s questions to visiting British Ministers as prefixed with the same proposition: “Minister, this whole Europe thing, it is frightful isn’t it?”

He’d been a young teacher in Australia and would come by to do some genial reminiscing.

On one occasion, I was able to help him with a point on language and culture. I called an engine a "donk" something he urgently wanted explained.

“Do you know?”, he shouted to an Oxbridge group standing around nearby. “Did you know, that in oar-stralia they call an engine a donk? Because it works hard, like a donkey, see?”

"Europhobia" and back to the workhouse 

The Europhobia actually followed the mood of reaction being generated by the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, forever railing against responsibility to “society” (she preferred “individuals and families”), economic regulations and the need to cooperate with “Brussels”.

Johnson was impressed that taxes for higher income groups had gone down under Thatcher: he would point out how little he was required to pay.

Britain leaving Europe would be a great chance to get rid of considered and binding European policies, contributed to by Britain, for taming erratic financial and monetary changes, protecting the environment, guaranteeing decent working conditions, protecting the rights of many specific groups, from air travellers to refugees.

It could instead get Britain back to the Industrial Revolution (or at least as close as the can get): no “red tape” deflating investment, no taxes, no unions, low wages, stoked-up production, trash the environment, bags of  money coming for public school elites and fire-up close relations with the white colonies; America and Australia first on the list.

One of them

This clearly strikes a chord with rank and file Tories. While gifted with the erratic persona, impatient with thought, intoxicated by the radical version of how-its-done, he remains after all one of them.

Most of all he is determined to keep money and power in privileged hands.

Stiff in the upper lip as they may be, and possibly put off by Boris Johnson’s wild ways, (preferring that personal misdeeds be kept quiet), rank and file Tories are nevertheless a group notoriously ruthless and fixated about money and power. At the present time, with only an inept minority Government to their name, they might well see the gamble on a Johnson Prime Ministership as a chance to salvage stocks in both those commodities.

Responsible conservatives or turning the blind eye?

So what are they thinking of while preparing to vote? On one hand, there is the “serious” side of conservative politics, where the man Johnson is seen as useless and irresponsible. On the other hand there is the British tradition that, as with slavery or other colonial bastardry, one can turn a blind eye to anything if it pays. 

Additionally, the "chap" is amusing and appeals to the commoners.

The serious side is represented this week in a scathing attack on Johnson by a British historian, Professor Simon Heffer. His conservative allegiances are plain. He is a columnist with Johnson’s old paper, the London Daily Telegraph, and his forum in Australia on a coming visit is the “neo-liberal” Centre for Independent Studies.

Boris Johnson when last in high office as Foreign Secretary, Heffer says, was 'atrocious':

His staff detested his laziness and mendacity; ambassadors deplored his lack of diplomatic skill, and his utter unwillingness to cultivate any … the indolence, casualness, lack of attention to detail, incompetence and monumental dishonesty. The word often used about Johnson uncontroversially  is that he is a liar.


The Conservative party is in a catastrophic state, routed at last month’s European elections. Most Conservative MPs fear they will lose their seats … They believe he has the charisma, showmanship and, incidentally, views on Brexit to ensure Britain leaves.


Johnson has been the 21st century’s equivalent of a music hall act for the last 20 years … Stories about his private life have peppered newspapers for years … As with everything else, he laughed them off.

But who cares?

On the other hand: many still believe Johnson is a jolly fellow. So is Donald Trump. So is Scott Morrison. When discussing Boris there is always plenty of colour, always a story, which is how the clown gets his prominence — entertaining the conservative faithful. Like his opposite numbers, Trump and Morrison, he does not show that he cares what people think of him (though Donald for one can turn vicious), so long as they pay attention and take in the pitch of the day.

In each case, the pitch is to keep pushing on with 1970s reactionary, untrammelled capitalism: low taxes, small government, stifled unions and so on. They are mixed on social issues: all-right with changes that makes money such as allowing online gambling. Otherwise they'll want to wind back the clock where possible: on abortion, gay issues and dog-whistle race politics usually directed through migrants.

Certain political movements are brought into this theatre presented as churches — as with the American “religious right”.

Problems for the right-wing

Wasteful growth economics and social rot may pay well for some but is not always that marketable. The three above-mentioned politicians are all punting hard on slim margins of popular support: Trump the President who didn't win the majority vote; Johnson in a minority party unable to govern properly; Morrison with 77 MPs crowing-off how he got there through a “miracle”.  

So they follow a high-risk high-return approach: working hard at shoring up their already-committed electoral base, talking only to their friends, punting that with a dash of racism or whatever – should the opportunity come along like a Tampa or Adani over the horizon – they can snatch a small margin of backing from the rest of the electorate.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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