Boris Johnson’s Challenge

This article was first published by firstthings.com.

The advent of Boris Johnson as British prime minister has a feeling of inevitability about it.

Theresa May was undoubtedly a “decent” person, in the English sense of the word, but she was an ineffective leader and a disastrous campaigner. Surely nobody doubted that she only got the job because powerful forces were determined to keep Boris out of the corridors of power? And, given Tory party history, they might have succeeded: An earlier wild-haired and ruthlessly ambitious Oxonian, Michael Heseltine, had suffered precisely that fate after destroying Mrs. Thatcher in 1990. But Boris has defied history, played a smarter hand than Heseltine, and achieved his life’s ambition.

Many have attempted to find a “Boris analogue” somewhere in British parliamentary history, the most obvious being Winston Churchill—unsubtly encouraged by Johnson himself through his “Churchill-as-me-” biography of the wartime premier. There are some similarities. Churchill had vaulting ambition.  So does Boris.  Churchill was happily unencumbered by commitment to any deep political philosophy.  Boris?  Do I really need to answer that? Both would almost certainly be entertaining after-dinner company, to be savored with a glass of brandy and a decent cigar. But Churchill did have the virtue of being right about the only thing that really mattered at the moment of his appointment with destiny. Johnson is on the right side of the one thing that matters at the moment—Brexit—but he was originally a reluctant Brexiteer, and his commitment to the cause will always look like one driven more by the exigencies of his own political career than by passionate and self-denying dedication to philosophical principle.

Another comparison, made by Newt Gingrich, is to Mrs. Thatcher. This is even less appropriate than the Churchill analogy on two grounds (beyond the obvious fact that Johnson has yet to lead his party to an election victory). First, love her or hate her, Thatcher was one of the most philosophically driven prime ministers of all time. Johnson is not. Second, she did more to make Brexit necessary than any other prime minister. She signed the Single European Act, thus dividing her own party and creating the foundations of the Eurochaos that Johnson is now tasked with bringing to a close for Britain. If Brexit poses a challenge both for the nation and for the Tory party, then Thatcher must take significant responsibility. Simply projecting the image of a pro-American straight-talker is not sufficient basis for Johnson to be regarded as the new Thatcher.

Nor is Johnson the British Trump, another Gingrich comparison. It is true that both men have bad haircuts and emerged at a time when politics is not business as usual. But the British PM lacks both the executive powers of an American president and the cultural significance that the president, as celebrity-in-chief, has for the nation. Britain elects parties to power, not individuals to the prime minister’s office—a point missed, incidentally, by those in the U.K. whining that Johnson has been chosen by the Tory party and not by the people. That is correct, but it is as true in general elections as it is at any other time—a point of which Labour is well aware, having done much the same as today’s Tories when Harold Wilson resigned in 1976.

More to the point on the Trump comparison: Johnson cannot simply sign Brexit into law by executive fiat. Therein lies his problem: He inherits May’s parliament. The numbers are just the same—and just as bad. A general election is probably the only way forward, but that offers no guarantees. As the Liberal Democrats are the only party united in the desire to deny the democratic will of the British people, Brexit cuts across both Conservative and Labour. Even if the election does not involve big gains for the Brexit Party or the LibDems, and even if the Tories win (two massive “ifs”), there is no guarantee that a majority Conservative government can deliver Brexit. I hope it can, but Johnson needs more than his Falstaffian “hail fellow well met” act to achieve that.

Johnson is perhaps best compared to former prime minister David Lloyd George. Like Johnson, he was ruthlessly ambitious. Like Johnson, he was a serial philanderer. Like Johnson, he was a good public speaker, a man with populist instincts, and someone given to grandiose claims and promises. And like Johnson, he led a divided party and then an unstable government. This comparison is a more sobering one, because Lloyd George was ultimately undone by his own success. The pressing issue of his latter days as prime minister was Ireland, and yet his remarkable achievement of establishing the Irish Free State proved to be a significant part of his downfall. After the disastrous election of 1924, neither Lloyd George nor the Liberal Party were ever significant forces in British politics again.

The one thing certain at this point is that Johnson’s premiership will be defined by two things. Can he achieve Brexit? And can he do so without destroying his own party as a political force? It is possible for him to achieve the first while failing at the second. And given the nature of the British parliamentary system, it is likely that the answer to both of those questions lies well beyond his own power, Newt Gingrich tweets notwithstanding. As the writer of Ecclesiastes might put it, time and chance need to be on his side.

About Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman is professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Aberdeen and has taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen and Westminster Theological Seminary. Most recently, he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He writes regularly at First Things and Modern Reformation and co-hosts a weekly podcast, The Mortification of Spin, for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

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This entry was posted in Economics & Political Systems, Feature, Politics by Carl R. Trueman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman is professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Aberdeen and has taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen and Westminster Theological Seminary. Most recently, he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He writes regularly at First Things and Modern Reformation and co-hosts a weekly podcast, The Mortification of Spin, for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.