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Boris Johnson's premiership is a calamity for Britain - and he knows it

Times are far too serious now for Johnson's trademark brand of cheery rascality and empty ebullience. Britain needs a sober leader
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson is seen at the end of a virtual news conference on the ongoing situation with the coronavirus on 9 September (Reuters)

Twenty years ago, Boris Johnson hired me as political correspondent at the Spectator magazine. He was a joy to work for, a fine editor and a loyal colleague with the quickest mind I had ever encountered. 

Over the last few months I have found myself trying to reconcile the exhilarating and generous individual I knew so well back then with today's prime minister of Britain. 

A prime minister who shamelessly lies to parliament, who misled the Queen over the prorogation of parliament, who wages permanent war on the independent civil service and who turned his back on Britain's international obligations by pledging to tear up his own Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.

Two Johnsons

It's impossible to equate the editor of the Spectator 20 years ago and today's British PM.

How did Johnson of the Spectator turn into the man who trashes Britain's reputation by ripping up international agreements?

It's as if we are talking about two different people. Johnson of the Spectator stood up for the rule of law, for British institutions, for the union, for the international order and for the honest politics which as prime minister he daily subverts.  

Back then he had a sophisticated understanding of policy - one which disdained simple solutions. We would have lucid discussions of complex issues, either in weekly conferences or at the famous Spectator lunches.

Boris was sunny, liberal, optimistic and pragmatic. So how did Johnson of the Spectator turn into the man who trashes Britain's reputation by ripping up international agreements?

I acknowledge Middle Eastern readers will have allowed themselves a hollow laugh by this stage, given Britain's record in the region. The betrayal of the Arabs after World War One. The invasion of Iraq. The abuse of the UN Security Council resolution in Libya. The extraordinary rendition and torture. A blind eye to Israel's violations of international law and being complicit in Saudi war crimes in Yemen.

British statecraft

Never before has there been a situation where a cabinet minister has flagrantly stated on the floor of the House of Commons that he knew a course of action was unlawful, but that he was going ahead to do it anyway.

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Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, did just that this week when he confirmed that a new bill to override the Brexit withdrawal agreement "does break international law in a specific and limited way". Even former prime minister Tony Blair had to produce a statement from his attorney general pretending that invading Iraq was legal.

This new policy of flagrantly breaking the law shatters our reputation. Why would any country ever sign a document with Britain again? Only yesterday Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was lecturing Iran that it must abide by international law and "comply with its nuclear commitments & preserve the JCPOA". Farcical. 

What stinking hypocrisy from the British foreign secretary. And immediately picked up by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who took aside the wretched Raab to inform him that the UK's proposed breaching of the Withdrawal Agreement was "unacceptable".

 An anti-Brexit demonstrator waves a Union flag alongside a European Union flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London
An anti-Brexit demonstrator waves a Union flag alongside a European Union flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London (AFP)

Earlier this year, Britain condemned Iran's detention of the British ambassador in Tehran on the basis of international law. We used international law to condemn Russia's annexation of the Crimea, and the attacks on civilians in Syria's Idlib. Yet Boris Johnson, an intelligent man, has gone ahead and deliberately trashed Britain's reputation around the world. Why?

What follows is no more than informed speculation. No one can look into the soul of another human being and be sure about motive. But here is my own attempt at reconciling the inspirational editor I worked for two decades ago with the dishonest lawbreaker in 10 Downing Street today. 

Who runs Britain?

Early last year Johnson entered into a bargain with Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, formerly the organisers of the Vote Leave campaign. They would propel him to Downing Street, enabling him to realise his ambition to become prime minister. 

In return Johnson would abandon the traditional Conservatism he supported at the Spectator. Cummings was installed in Downing Street as a "senior adviser" while Gove would run the government. I explained some of the elements of this arrangement in a Middle East Eye column in July.  

Johnson is in office. Gove and Cummings are in power. Note that yesterday it was Gove - not Johnson - who held talks with the European Union. This is Gove and Cummings' policy, not Johnson's. All politicians are in one sense actors in search of a scriptwriter. In Cummings, Johnson had found his scriptwriter.

Deep down, this Faustian pact makes Johnson miserable. Look at his recent photographs, and you can see the deep unhappiness in his eyes, which in recent weeks are starting to tell a story of private panic. 

His government is a national disaster but, remember, it's also a private tragedy for Johnson.  

The reckoning 

Johnson is scared. He's destroying Britain. He knows it. As a highly intelligent man he will sense that history will damn him as one of Britain's worst prime ministers. It's not just Brexit. The Covid-19 crisis is worse, with his government sending out chaotic messages and overseeing the worst death toll in Europe.

In the words of the Daily Mail, one of the prime minister's biggest backers, "the government's approach seems bewilderingly confused. Stay at home. Go back to work. Stay alert. Don't mix with more than six people. Eat out to help out."

The Conservative Party may in due course act to remove Johnson, as it has done before with leaders far better than him

Johnson won't last. He may go of his own accord, though Gove and Cummings will fight to keep him. That's understandable. He's their tool and their only route to power, so he serves their purposes.

The Conservative Party may in due course act to remove him, as it has done before with leaders far better than Johnson. One way or another he will go. Times are far too serious now for Johnson's trademark brand of cheery rascality and empty ebullience.

Fear, anxiety, and actual suffering are much more widespread, while economic disaster and national disintegration loom. The nation will want a sober leader at this grave and terrible time. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.