© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Politics

In the last 48 hours Boris Johnson has proved he is Britain’s Donald Trump

After a career of terrible mistakes, ignored in part due to his verbose way of speaking, Boris Johnson has proved he had no greater plan for Brexit, despite his government's protestations. Instead, argues Michael Segalov, he is doing to the Tories what Trump did to the Republicans

It never ceases to amaze just how far a varied and complex vocabulary can take you in British politics; how hyperbole, Latin and a series of confused rhetorical flourishes can for so long be deemed – by both the public and much of the commentariat – to be a guarantee of competence and a coherent plan. Boris Johnson’s time as foreign secretary was defined entirely by gaffes and blunders; until recently the only notable moments of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s career either involved a nanny or bigotry, and the fact he once stood up in parliament and said a very, very long word. And yet the Conservative Party – both its membership and senior politicians – decided they were the people who, at a time of crisis, could offer a safe pair of hands.

Such logic continued into the first month of Johnson’s (at present short) time in office. As the prime minister lost his first votes in the Commons alongside his barely functioning majority, we were told an ingenious masterplan was forthcoming. Despite the obvious reality that further negotiations in Europe were barely happening, leading nowhere, ministers assured us we were verging on a breakthrough contrary to all the facts. And even while proroguing Parliament – a move now determined unlawful – common wisdom was that Dominic Cummings and his paymaster had plotted out exactly how it would all play out. Even now, Johnson's repeated use of the term "surrender act" will be seen by some as another classic political play by Cummings, when each and every stratagem from his playbook since coming into power has fallen flat.

These false conclusions were drawn not from evidence or logic or from good faith in the competence of the establishment. It’s not as if there are many other politicians that the electorate – or other MPs – are willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Instead what we experienced was just another iteration of how we are expected to defer to those born into the British upper classes. It’s firmly established in the British psyche that the confidence and entitlement with which these men carry themselves is drawn from inherited wisdom, rather than a dangerous arrogance and entitlement from being a very specific breed of posh-boy-thick. Their command of the Queen’s English acts as a veneer that hides the fact little intellectual substance exists underneath.

One only need look to the way a black woman such as Diane Abbott is treated compared to these public school boys: messing up the numbers in an interview on a fully costed manifesto pledge was presented as evidence she was unfit for office; repeatedly messing up as prime minister – for a while at least – did Johnson little harm.

Another reason alarm bells didn’t ring in the minds of less fanatical right-wingers is simply that Johnson’s history of flippant racism and general disregard for the truth – which progressives have pointed to – sadly didn’t mark him out from Conservative politicians who’d gone before. Theresa May’s hostile environment was steeped in prejudice – a central government policy. Their party backed the far-right Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán. Let’s not forget it was an inability to tell the truth that (briefly) destroyed the ministerial careers of Priti Patel, Damian Green and Amber Rudd.

Until now, comparing Johnson to Trump as a liar, a right-wing populist happy to encourage racism and hatred was apparently unreasonable. He wasn’t a maniac – this was traditional conservatism peppered with old-fashioned and eccentric aristocratic charm.

The last 48 hours have, however, marked the start of a turning point. First the Supreme Court’s unanimous judgement that Johnson lied to the Queen and unlawfully prorogued Parliament, followed by last night’s despicable appearance in Parliament, during which our unelected PM refused to back down on the inflammatory language he’s been using to whip up hatred. In the process, he also disgracefully denigrated the memory of murdered Labour MP Jo Cox. While Johnson’s ERG cronies will no doubt feel emboldened, some in the party are less and less able to hide their discomfort at the Trumpian direction in which their party heads. “I know the PM is aware of and sympathetic about the threats far too many of us have received, because I shared with him recently the threats I am getting,” tweeted Johnson's very own culture secretary Nicky Morgan. “But at a time of strong feelings we all need to remind ourselves of the effect of everything we say on those watching us.” It's no coincidence that a man was reportedly arrested outside Labour MP Jess Phillips' office, allegedly yelling "fascist" as he smacked the windows and door.

But discomfort, this late in the game, won’t be enough. Because the Tory party has already made its decision, whether that was done knowingly or not. What’s now clear is Johnson and his team are determined to do to the Conservatives what Trump did to the Republicans and they’re now stuck with a leader who’ll hack away at their own sense of respectability. Aside from the few who resign the whip, none will do anything about it – because in the end they hope it will win more votes for their party, which is otherwise devoid of ideas.

That’s where we’ll find ourselves when an inevitable early general election does finally materialise, with or without an extension to the EU withdrawal date. Johnson will offer himself up as an anti-establishment man of the people at war with Westminster – despite the fact that, just like Trump, he and his mates are the rich and the powerful elite that many understandably detest.

Johnson and his team will have studied the president’s playbook – that goes without saying, the smokescreen has gone. The only question that remains is what can defeat him: a vapid, centrist Hillary Clinton couldn’t beat Trump in America. We’re yet to see whether a radially progressive offer in Britain from Labour – pledging to fight inequality and climate change as mapped out at this week’s conference – can successfully take the politics of hatred and division on.

Now read

Rory Stewart: ‘There is a huge power in the centre that hasn’t been unleashed’

David Cameron’s premiership encompassed much more than Brexit

Jo Swinson: ‘I almost wonder, is Boris Johnson trolling us?’

GQ Recommends

Art

How an Iranian artist confronts the country’s regime through his art

Gift Guide

Gifts for fashion lovers this Christmas

Culture

Hannah Gadsby's song of the self

Edition