Boris Johnson’s political success is proof that Britain is not a meritocracy. Fifteen years ago, after Johnson was sacked from his role as Conservative Arts spokesperson, the Guardian wrote, “the episode brings an end to an unlikely but uniquely engaging political career.” He was fired for lying to then Tory leader Michael Howard about an extramarital affair that had been reported in the press, and for paying his mistress to have an abortion. But his political trajectory was barely hindered. Now, despite endless scandals, he is the frontrunner to become the next prime minister.
Johnson’s dishonesty, rather than the fact of the affair, cost him his job. Pathological lying has been a hallmark of his career. He lost an early journalism job at the Times for fabricating a quote by his godfather and, while working at the Telegraph as a correspondent in Brussels, made up stories about “bizarre” European Union legislation that forbade bananas that weren’t straight or outlawed pink sausages. These myths were aped throughout the press, and bled into the 2016 EU referendum campaign. Taking on an editing role at the Spectator, he swore to the owner that he would put the magazine first and not pursue a political career. Just two years later, he became the MP for Henley, in southeast England.
Running for the London mayoralty, he vowed to eradicate homelessness in the capital, but instead saw it double, and worked part-time often playing table tennis in his office, while claiming credit for the London Olympics, and the cycle hire scheme, both of which were secured by the previous Labour mayor.
But Johnson harbored a larger ambition: he wanted to become prime minister. In pursuit of this goal he returned to Parliament in 2015. He continued to write for the Telegraph as an obscenely overpaid columnist, earning £250,000 a year for a few hours work a week, a salary he dismissed as “chickenfeed.” In 2016, he wrote two columns prior to his deadline and mused over which to submit: one supported the United Kingdom remaining in the EU, the other proposed leaving. His decision to publish the pro-Leave column was not based on scruples. Boris Johnson’s lifelong goal has only ever been to shore up power and accolades for Boris Johnson, with no regard for anyone else.
But after this week’s knockout round of the Conservative leadership contest, in which MPs whittled down the candidates to Johnson, and current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the disgraced MP remains the favorite to be next prime minister, thanks to a small electorate of just over 300 Conservative members of Parliament, and the votes of 160,000 party members. It is often said that having a certain accent in Britain could see you exonerated for murder: a glib truism that boils the English class system down to its bare bones. Any Labour politician, or indeed any British politician from the working or middle classes could never hope to survive a tenth of the controversies that Johnson’s behavior has caused. Coming from a wealthy family, studying at the infamous private school Eton, and then Oxford University, securing jobs through family connections, Johnson is a living caricature of upper-class privilege. Through mistake after mistake, social cachet has sheltered him from professional ruin. No matter what he does (even discussing a plot to assault a journalist with a friend who was later convicted), he can continue on as normal with little hassle.
Johnson survives by confecting an image of a bumbling yet charming dilettante. The character he’s created, is a Trumpish figure who cares little for social conventions and is willing to speak without the fetters of political correctness. His litany of racist slurs, both written and spoken, are accepted as roguish and daring, including a recent Telegraph column that compared women wearing the niqab to “letterboxes.” England remains a country in thrall to the upper classes, beset by a forelock-tugging subservience to old wealth. Brexit has caused the ever-present nostalgia among Conservatives for the days of Empire and war to reach a fever pitch. Johnson’s racism, sexism, and homophobia are brushed away as either a joke or a gaffe, ignoring the fact that millions of people share his sentiments. His class position allows him to spew bigoted comments as though he were an actor playing a part.
A recent poll found that card-carrying Tories were willing to accept the break-up of the United Kingdom, with Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving the union, the destruction of the Conservative party, and significant damage to the UK economy as costs of Brexit. The only scenario members were not willing to entertain was a Jeremy Corbyn government. Johnson is the perfect candidate for these willfully destructive headbangers, caring only for his own popularity and power, knowing his wealth cushions him from any harm that may occur economically or socially. Brexit has emboldened the far right and seen the Conservatives lurch further from the center. Johnson will happily risk financial ruin in the United Kingdom, possible medicine shortages, the loss of rights for millions of British people living abroad and Europeans living in Britain, and the risk of violence surging in Ireland because he is a narcissist and ideologue with no real political convictions. For him politics is just a game. If he wins, which seems highly likely, he will fulfill his wish to become prime minister. But he may well be the last prime minister of the United Kingdom.
Dawn Foster is a Jacobin staff writer and Guardian columnist.