Enter Johnson

Boris Johnson has succeeded Theresa May as Britain’s new Prime Minister. Her failure to get the Brexit deal she had negotiated with the European Union (EU) approved by Parliament proved her undoing. Will Johnson, one of the principal leaders of the Brexit campaign, fare better in getting an improved deal with the EU, one that can win majority support in Parliament?

Johnson is a colourful and charming politician with personal and political contradictions that make it difficult to precisely define him: intellectually able, articulate and yet prone to gaffes and outrageous remarks, filling many people with optimism and yet others with deep suspicion and foreboding, affable and yet ruthless in pursuing his ambition to become Prime Minister. At 55 he has won control of his Conservative Party amidst a continuing crisis which has made Britain look as inept as a third world dictatorship turning into a fledgling and bumbling democracy.

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Johnson tried to rally the nation emphasising the “enormous strengths” of its economy “in life sciences, in tech, in academia, in music, the arts, culture, financial services”. He asked that it recovers its “natural and historic role as an enterprising, outward-looking and truly global Britain, generous in temper and engaged with the world”. These are fine words but the British people are looking, at this time, not to engage the world but to the management of disengaging with the EU. That is proving very difficult for Britain wants to retain all the advantages which EU membership brings even while giving it up!

Again, Johnson sought to convey the impression, in his speech, that his focus as Prime Minister went beyond Brexit. Thus, he referred to improving the health services and education and making the country’s streets safer. This will really not wash. What brought his predecessor low was Brexit and that is what the people are focussed on. He will be judged by the success with which he handles it and now the date by which the parting has to take place is October 31. He confirmed that he will adhere to that date for Britain’s departure from the EU.

Johnson was combative on Brexit in his remarks. He said that he would do a “new” and “better” deal but he cautioned the people that Britain had to prepare for the remote possibility that the EU was unwilling to “negotiate” further. This would be ironic for May has been hounded out precisely because Parliament consistently turned down the present deal and at the same time did not want to go in for a no-deal Brexit. The EU leadership has given no indication that it is in any mood to indulge Johnson. The next few weeks will be contentious and interesting.

Britain’s changing ethnic profile is dramatically reflected in the composition of the senior ministers in Johnson’s cabinet. Sajid Javid, whose father came to Britain from Pakistan and who was Home Secretary (Home Ministers in Britain are designated as such) in May’s government is now Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister). Javid’s rise has been meteoric in British politics. He is an ardent Johnson supporter and is, interestingly, pro-Israel in his leanings. Javid’s successor in the Home office is Priti Patel whose parents went from Gujarat to Uganda and from there to Britain. She became an MP in 2010 and has also risen rapidly. It was inconceivable earlier that non-Caucasians could hold such high political offices in Britain.

Johnson is sometimes compared to US President Donald Trump who has hailed him as a “good man” and obviously alluding to Brexit said that he will get the job done. He also noted that Johnson was being called “Britain Trump”. Clearly, Johnson and Trump are two very different people and it is likely that the British Prime Minister may not be not he enthused at being compared to Trump but the fact is that both have a propensity for engaging in, what is now called alternative facts but which in the ‘old days’ was considered as just lies. In this context it may also be recalled that Trump was sharply critical of May for not following his advice on Brexit.

John Pienaar, in a recent article, recalled Johnson’s days as journalist. He wrote that Max Hastings who was, as editor of the Daily Telegraph was Johnson’s boss told him “Boris’s relationship with integrity and truth and with the right moral standard has always been a bit uncertain to put it politely”. These aspects of Johnson’s personality are widely known for he has been one on Britain’s foremost public figures over many years. Yet the public seem not to care as in the case of Trump too.

Is this a new phenomenon to judge leaders’ characters differently from ordinary persons, the product of our age of frenzied pace and briefer and briefer attention spans amidst the deluge of news? Or is it that peoples have never really looked for virtue in their leaders as long as they are able to address the needs of the times? The fact is that leaders who are personally virtuous and address the needs of the people are venerated but given a choice of personal virtue and political competence it is the latter that prevails. That has been the case, always.

So, as of now with the EU leaders sticking to the same conditions they negotiated with May it is difficult to visualise how Johnson will do better. But then politics is also about perception and making people feel good. And there he is, by all accounts a master.