Et tu, Boris?
Like a hastily constructed IKEA Hemnes, the UK’s Cabinet is falling apart again. It all kicked off two weeks ago, when Theresa May invited ministers on a weekend jaunt to her country residence Chequers to nail down a negotiating position on Brexit. By Monday morning, the jelly was sliding from the wall. First went Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis who, bless him, finally mustered the courage to resign after many empty threats of the same. In his resignation letter, the former SAS infantryman spoke of being a “reluctant conscript” to the Prime Minister’s vision for Brexit. It was poetic, a little comic, and all the more tragic for the fact that nobody cared. A man dubbed “thick as mince” by Vote Leave campaign manager Dominic Cummings, Davis, like a naughty schoolboy asked for his homework, audibly giggled when asked recently why his department hadn’t measured what effect leaving the EU would have on the UK. Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole was unsparing in his obit: “David Davis’s resignation brings to mind Dorothy Parker on being told that Calvin Coolidge had died: ‘How can they tell?’” In the end, Private Davis went down with more of a whimper than a bang.
It turned out Davis was only the warm-up act; the real headlines were yet to come. A few hours after Davis trotted out of Number 10 wearing his usual unbearable grin, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson—a man you may remember from such docudramas as “Zipline To Hell”, “Who Wants The NHS To Be A Millionaire?” and “The Racist Remarks That Time Forgot”—announced that he could not stomach a soft Brexit either. If the media had politely pretended to care about Davis’s exit, Boris’s sent them into a full meltdown (“Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him”). “Will Theresa May’s government collapse as Boris Johnson resigns?” fretted The Independent. “Boris Johnson Quits, Upending May’s Brexit Plans,” declared Bloomberg. Labour began to tack up their high horses as bookies slashed the odds on a general election. When Davis resigned, the pound went up, reflecting the hope that May had cut loose a deadweight; when Boris did, it plummeted. The self-styled “godfather of Brexit” was gone, and with him, quite possibly, the entire government.
Most incredible wasn’t how biblically damning the speech was, but how Houdiniesque the contortion of vitriol into veneration.
Nor would he go quietly—not our Boris. Fearing he’d been chewed up by the twenty-four-hour news cycle—outpaced by Trump, Putin, and worst of all, the World Cup—the former Foreign Secretary delivered a resignation speech to the House of Commons on Wednesday that was so divulgent it’s a wonder he got the security clearance required to be Foreign Secretary in the first place. In a twelve-minute address to the House, Boris eulogized “technical solutions to make customs and regulatory checks remotely” proposed by “the Right Honorable member from Haltemprice and Howden” and lamented that “proposals were never even properly examined.” Yet most incredible wasn’t how biblically damning the speech was, but how Houdiniesque the contortion of vitriol into veneration, how sportsmanlike the way in which, between jabs at her dithering, cowering Brexit, he took a moment to “recognize [Theresa May’s] courage and resilience.” In praise oddly reminiscent of Marc Antony’s for Brutus, he reminded his colleagues that “None of this”—“this” being the clawing back of Britain’s soft power from the brink of Brexit oblivion by a hastily “rejuvenated” Commonwealth—“would have been possible without the support of my right honorable friend, the Prime Minister.” Et tu, Boris?
Three years ago, I was in the hellishly sweaty basement of an Edinburgh pub, watching a man with a plummy accent and a blond wig fall backwards off a chair, and losing the will to live. Boris: World King, a play that survived two consecutive Edinburgh Fringes, was passable slapstick but the most pointless of all political satires, in that its subject is his own best satirist. “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it,” “I’m backing David Cameron’s campaign out of pure, cynical self-interest,” and “Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3” are all things Boris Johnson has actually said. The man does his own gags.
The things that come out of Boris Johnson’s mouth aren’t just dumb but funny; they’re also straight-up racist. (I’ll admit the “wankerer from Ankara” was all three).
But it’s not all shoes and ships and sealing wax with this walrus. Let us not forget that Boris Johnson MP is an elected official who once won £1,000 for a poem about Turkish President Recep Erdoğan fucking a goat; who described Obama as a “part-Kenyan” with an “ancestral dislike” of Britain; who compared Tory infighting to “Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing. The things that come out of Boris Johnson’s mouth aren’t just dumb but funny; they’re also straight-up racist. (I’ll admit the “wankerer from Ankara” was all three.) If you’re lucky, they’re bare-faced lies. Boris has been fired twice for dishonesty: once by The Times for making up a quote, and once by Conservative Vice-Chair Michael Howard for denying a years-long affair with a columnist at The Spectator, the magazine he then edited. The lie he wasn’t fired for was that Britain would save £350 million per week by leaving the EU, a euromyth (there is literally a word for the lies Euroskeptics tell about the EU) that the UK Statistics Authority described as “a clear misuse of official statistics.” Like Trump—who describes Boris as a “friend” who’s been “very, very nice to me”—he has done seemingly everything in his power to disqualify himself from high office, yet still, like hot air, he rises.
Much more so than the affinity between Trump and Boris, however, Britons’ special relationship with BoJo defies all reasonable logic. He’s certainly not just Donald with better hair. He doesn’t get more popular the further rightward you go. There are, inexplicably, pockets of Boris fandom up and down England’s green and pleasant land. Dads everywhere find him affably buffoonish, kids endlessly memeable. Even those of us who think we see through his winning exterior have our sets tuned to The Boris Show. Yet how is it that the epithets by which Boris is most commonly identified are “colorful” and “idiosyncratic,” rather than “racist” and “untrustworthy”?
Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s cos he’s posh. Britons’ enduring fascination with the upper classes has served as a free pass for the Daves and Borises, Jacobs and Georges of this world since day dot: David Cameron remained Prime Minister for a full nine months after it emerged that he’d had sex with a pig’s head at Oxford. It’s not only that we permit this Bullingdon-shaped bullshit—we actively expect it. We are not only humored but, with a mixture of nostalgia and aspiration, oddly reassured by it. It seems only right, in other words, that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson should believe that “the best fate for Africa [as a country] would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction,” should read a Rudyard Kipling poem in Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist temple, or refer to “cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies” in the Congo. Like a pith helmet on Indiana Jones, a touch of off-color imperialism adds to the effect. Thus it was that one Tory MP was fired in a hot minute for saying Asians were “ten a penny,” while another referred to Congolese children as having “watermelon smiles” and is in the running for the top job.
Besides good old-fashioned racism, another, less toxic symptom of Boris’s upper-class upbringing—though intoxicating enough to make us weak at the knees—is his classical training. So impressed are we by this Ovid-quoting Etonian that it seemed totally reasonable that he, a man with undergrad-level Classics, should take on Cambridge Classics Professor Mary Beard in a debate The New Statesman flatteringly wrote up as a “clash of the titans.” In said “debate,” Beard took the side of Rome, Boris that of Greece[*]—although you might suspect Boris truly admires Rome, a civilization known for its rampant empire, spotless ethnic cleansing, and—perhaps most importantly—production of one of the best talkers in human history. That Boris has been described as “Cicero reborn”—interestingly, the Washington Post once dubbed Donald Trump “the Cicero of 2016”—is a sign not only that we’ve swallowed his shtick hook, line, and sinker, but that Roman rhetoric has become an effective distraction from barbaric politics.
Though perhaps not Cicero the Younger, Boris does have an eerily similar classical doppelganger.
The comparison between Boris and Cicero looks shakier on the level of deeds than of words. Cicero, if I remember correctly, refused to be part of Julius Caesar’s First Triumvirate for fear the alliance would undermine the Republic; Boris quit the Cabinet precisely in order to rock the boat and pave the way for his own premiership. Though perhaps not Cicero the Younger, Boris does have an eerily similar classical doppelganger. Enter Catiline: a Roman senator thought of as a man of the people despite his patrician background; who served as governor for Africa but found himself followed home by accusations of abuse; who attempted treason not once but twice yet inexplicably died a hero. It seems our would-be emperor Boris bears less resemblance to the Roman orator than to the man he most famously orated against, in words as apposite now as two thousand years ago:
When, O Boris, will you stop abusing our patience? How long will your madness continue to mock us? At what point will your unbridled, swaggering audacity end?
[*] Correction: This article has been revised to correct a mistake in the original version: Johnson spoke for Greece and Beard for Rome, not the other way around.