Who Trusts Boris Johnson’s Brexit Talk?
The big shock for this week might not be very surprising, but is, nonetheless, an eye-opener. On Sunday (16 Oct.), it was revealed that Boris Johnson was “wrestling” with the idea of whether or not to leave the EU, and that the change of mind was a career move. Former Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called Johnson and others in the Leave campaign “opportunists and chancers” who lied to the country about the impact of Brexit.
Appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show (16 Oct.), Clegg said: "If I was a Brexit voter, I would feel increasingly betrayed that I voted in the belief that all these Brexiteers knew what they were doing.”
But why would these people lie to us? As one journalist asked Johnson, “Did you gamble this country's future for your own ends?”
Boris Johnson’s leaked newspaper column
The unpublished pro-Remain Telegraph column written by Boris Johnson two days before backing the Leave campaign, was “leaked” by The Sunday Times. The piece is referenced in a new book by Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman, All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class (Forthcoming, 3 Nov. 2016).
Johnson felt “embarrassed and angry” with the piece’s publication, which was written on 19 February for The Daily Telegraph. To his defense, he argued that he had already written another article about supporting Leave, but the leaked column was an alternative version during the time he was debating the decision to leave or stay within the EU.
He said: “Everybody was trying to make up their minds about whether or not to leave the European Union and it is perfectly true that back in February I was wrestling with it…. I then wrote a sort of semi-parodic article … which has mysteriously found its way into the paper this morning because I think I might have sent it to a friend.”
In the article Johnson praised the privileges of the EU single market: “This is a market on our doorstep, ready for further exploitation by British firms. The membership fee seems rather small for all that access. Why are we so determined to turn our back on it?”
He added that Brexit could have negative effects and would lead to “economic shock”, Russian aggression and Scottish independence. He said that “There is the worry about Scotland, and the possibility that an English-only ‘leave’ vote could lead to the break-up of the Union.”
But Boris is also the same man who last week said that the EU single market was “increasingly useless” and that Britain could strike a better deal with Brexit. How are people going to feel now about their betrayal?
Former deputy director of the Stronger In campaign, Lucy Thomas, said that Johnson’s column showed how his decision to back the Leave campaign was based on political manoeuvring and career calculation rather than ideals. She said: “None of it is about the detail, none of it is about what life outside the EU looks like, there was no thinking about prices going up or what would happen to jobs. It is purely, ‘Was the renegotiation enough? Is the status quo the right thing?’”
There is something about Boris Johnson that you can’t quite put your finger on. You know there is something wrong, when all this talk about getting rid of the shackles of an undemocratic European Union, the marvellous opportunities for trade and more jobs seems to be blowing out of proportion. But what kind of person is Johnson, and how is someone so changeable and prone to silly mistakes loved by so many? What’s more, how can someone with Turkish and French ancestors, and the Foreign Secretary of the UK, be so deeply prejudiced against foreign people?
• Johnson is a poet: He wrote a poem about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after the Turkish president called a German comedian a “goat f-ker.” Spectator magazine paid Johnson a £1,000 prize for this gem: “There was a young fellow from Ankara, Who was a terrific wankerer, Till he sowed his wild oats, With the help of a goat, But he didn’t even stop to thankera.”
• He apologised to the people of Papua New Guinea after he was quoted saying this: “For 10 years we in the Tory party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing and so it is with a happy amazement that we watch as the madness engulfs the Labour party.”
• He used racist language when describing black children. His words echo 19th century Empire discourse: “What a relief it must be for Blair to get out of England. It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies….They say he is shortly off to the Congo. No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.”
• He’s gone bananas: He has accused the EU of selling bananas only in bunches of two and three, while later he said that curvy bananas were banned. But the Commission regulation 2257/94 says that generally bananas should be “free from malformation or abnormal curvature.” If they are categorised as “extra class” they should be perfect. But “class 1” can have some defects of shape and “class 2” can have many defects of shape. Nothing is banned.
The Brexit Club’s demands for control: The Beta Fraternity, a bunch of “opportunists” as Clegg put it, would sacrifice their country’s wellbeing for a temporary spot on the political and media playground.
But all this talk has backfired. People believed that all these things could be achieved. Also, the idea of taking back control was translated by many, not only as an escape from the restrictions of the EU, or a celebration of the illusion of British magnificence, but also as a rejection of the way Britain was governed, as Anthony Barnett argued. It was “a brutally refreshing verdict” against the political elite (Blair, Cameron) and the greedy corporations; against the privileged and the corrupt, in the hope that a better future for British people is possible. But the Brexiteers’ call for control has nothing to do with what the people imagined it meant. For them, taking back control meant affirming a nondemocratic government that will be authoritarian. It wasn’t about change for the better, but a regressive change that would and is making things worse.
Who is going to take back control, Boris?
But, unfortunately, the Brexiteers’ camouflaged opportunism and anti-European sentiment is not a way forward. With the pound falling and rising inflation, Brexit is already looking bleak.
At the end of the day, whether we are in or out, whether we chose to believe Boris Johnson’s motives or not, or whether we feel that the Brexit decision was fundamentally English and not British, the people have spoken. But not in the way Theresa May means it. Brexit doesn’t simply mean Brexit. It says so much more about the kind of people British citizens imagine themselves to be and the kind of government they want. In a way, Brexit isn’t about the EU so much, but about the UK in the present. What is now clear is that people who voted in their vast majority to stay within the EU or to leave because they were dissatisfied with the way the country was run, want change. And that change can’t any longer be masked by the ridiculous lies the Brexiteers manufactured.