Clownfall and Brexit

There is no question that the fates of Boris Johnson and Brexit are inextricably linked. It is impossible to imagine that the UK would have abandoned its 40-year relationship with the EU had it not been for this young journalist making his name through inventing nonsense stories about the Eurocracy and for the same man, grown older but not wiser, seeing the EU referendum as his route to the personal power he craved.

While it is well known that Johnson and his clan are cosmopolitan and pro-European and that Johnson himself was educated in Brussels, many don’t know that early in his career he identified the spinning of tall tales about the EU and its institutions as a useful way of advancing his own position. His treacherous decision to lead the Leave campaign was driven by the same motivation: personal ambition, not principle.

It is impossible to imagine a Leave victory in the EU referendum without the pivotal role of Boris Johnson. A country that enjoys pantomime and cannot resist a fool immediately warmed to the sight of this stage buffoon, overweight and with unkempt hair, brandishing a Cornish pasty or waving a fish while issuing a Latin quotation. For many it was too unbelievable to be true and too extraordinary to be resisted.

Of course, his éminence grise Dominic Cummings also played a vital role with his strategy of mobilizing grievance and making impossible and rapidly-broken promises to those who had suffered from decades of neglect and ten years of Tory austerity. But Johnson himself was vital to the Brexit project and now that he is gone we owe it to ourselves and our children to re-examine whether we made the right decision during the years when he held the country in thrall.

Johnson broke the deadlock over the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May played by the rules, and those rules said that we could not have our cake and eat it: unpalatable trade-offs had to be made to make Brexit a reality.

Johnson’s approach was quite different and typical of the man: he met with Leo Varadkar and made him a promise he had no intention of keeping. He sold out the DUP, his coalition partners, betraying his pledge that he would never put a border in the Irish Sea. Instead, he did the opposite, forever separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and breaking the defining promises of the Conservative and Unionist Party. All the time he had his fingers crossed behind his back, treating statecraft like some childish game. Without his ability to lie, cheat and betray his friends, Brexit would not have happened.

Similarly, noble but desperate attempts by our parliamentarians to stop the destruction Brexit would bring were blown away by Johnson’s lies during the 2019 election campaign. On the brink of agreeing to a People’s Vote, so that we could make an informed choice on the reality of Brexit rather than the Johnson myths, parliament was dissolved. Johnson won the election on the promise that he had an oven-ready deal and that his government would get Brexit done – a promise that has been exposed in all its emptiness over the past two years.

We have lived through a time of lies at the highest level in our politics. These lies have been the stock in trade of our now-defunct Prime Minister throughout his career. His biggest lie – which persuaded desperate people that the EU was the source of our discontent – has distorted our political system and divided us from our closest neighbours.

It is entirely appropriate that Johnson has been brought down by the revelation of his lies during the greatest public health crisis of the century and by his impulse to protect friends who share his own sleazy standards. Our next step as a country must be to examine the damaging consequences of his Brexit lies and, where necessary, reverse them.

The process of tearing us away from long-standing connections with our European friends has been an excruciatingly painful one for many; Brexit is a wound that continues to fester, but which most have no desire to re-examine. But the fall of Boris Johnson changes the rules of this game. No matter how painful it may be to face this fact, Brexit was a mistake and a mistake that we would not have made had it not served the personal ambition of this one man. Now his improbable and disastrous career is at an end, we should re-examine this decision of such epic and destructive proportions.