If the UK’s new prime minister thinks he can sup with populists like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump over Brexit, he risks ending up as dessert
The Conservative party has finally got a leader it deserves. As the UK’s next prime minister, Boris Johnson won’t be able to outrun boring facts and hide from bad publicity. He faces the most daunting challenge – that of how the UK can leave the European Union – on entering No 10 since Winston Churchill in 1940. It is fitting because Mr Johnson is largely responsible for the mess he now has to clear up.
The signs are not promising. His pledge that the UK will leave the EU on 31 October “deal or no deal” is as politically expedient as it is destructive. His bravado helped to win the leadership. But it did not unnerve the EU and only hardened opposition within the party. Burning bridges to Europe is an act of arson not statesmanship. Leaving the EU without a deal threatens to wreck the UK economy, break up Britain and rekindle violence on the island of Ireland. No wonder Mr Johnson says he can avoid a hard Brexit, though he can’t say how. He thinks he will be protected from harm if, and when, things go badly wrong. Yet his praetorian guard are from the Tory hard right who, he will find out, prefer to give rather than obey orders.
Mr Johnson’s victory is the culmination of more than two decades of Conservative folly, which began when the party embraced populist Europhobia 20 years ago. The Tories decided that to win power they would need to fuse attempts to politicise immigration for electoral gain with Eurosceptic propaganda of the kind Mr Johnson revelled in dishing out. It is worth recalling the absurdity of William Hague warning in 2001 that the UK risked becoming a “foreign land”, pitting “the people” against the “liberal elite”. A year later Margaret Thatcher bizarrely urged Britain – and the hapless Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith – to quit the EU because the continent continually needed saving by the Anglosphere, adding, “Nazism was a European ideology, the Third Reich an attempt at European domination”. Mr Johnson made a similar ridiculous point when fronting the 2016 leave campaign.
In this radicalising process a referendum became the chosen political device to avoid the Conservative party having to reveal its splits over Europe. Mr Hague campaigned to save the pound and offered a referendum on any further extension of EU powers. By 2005 Michael Howard was pushing hard for a referendum on an EU constitution. When David Cameron became Tory leader he parked the populism, marooning voters who had been whipped up into a frenzy by his predecessors’ rhetoric. Nigel Farage seized the opportunities presented and the rise of Ukip forced Mr Cameron into first shelving key elements of his modernising project before, in 2013, committing to the Brexit referendum – a decision that did not shoot Mr Farage’s fox and led to the UK’s vote to leave the EU.
The lesson for Mr Johnson to learn is that when centre-right politicians adopt the language and policies of populist nationalism, the only victory is for the hardliners. Mr Farage now leads the Brexit party and is riding high in the polls. If Mr Johnson thinks he can sup with the devil he might find that he sits down at the table as a guest and ends up as dessert. Nowhere is this more obvious than with Donald Trump, whose friendship comes at a steep cost. The price will be to bearhug the hard Brexit that Mr Johnson wants to avoid. Without that, Mr Trump cannot secure the US-UK trade deal that he prizes. Scooping up the votes of hard leavers can also repel more people than it attracts. Early polling of Mr Johnson’s appeal appears to bear this out. Populist movements want to overturn constitutional governments so that the groups they define as enemies of the people can be targeted. That’s why they need to be confronted, within and without the Tory party. Mr Johnson plays the clown. But the circus will move on, only to leave a broken country in its wake.
The Donald and Boris love-in won’t last unless the UK delivers for Trump
By Richard Wolffe*
Johnson is now Trump’s man in Downing Street. But it seems Nigel Farage is the true object of the US president’s affection
We all know about Franklin and Winston, Ronnie and Maggie, and George and Tony. For better or worse, these transatlantic allies enjoyed grand visions, global power and left indelible marks on history. But now we have Donald and Boris, whose grand visions stare back at them each morning in the mirror.
And their concept of global power is – how to put this diplomatically? – incompatible with the concept of intelligent life.
To understand how this DoBo partnership is likely to function, you need to recall Trump’s excruciating explanation of his kind words about Johnson while standing next to the walking dead that was his predecessor this time last year.
“I said, he’ll be a great prime minister,” Trump told reporters at Chequers. “He’s been very nice to me. He’s been saying very good things about me as president. I think he thinks I’m doing a great job. I am doing a great job, that I can tell you. Just in case you haven’t noticed. But Boris Johnson, I think would be a great prime minister.” Trump went on to say how much he truly, madly loved Theresa May. “This incredible woman, right here, is doing a fantastic job, a great job,” he said. “And I mean that.”
How will the US-UK relationship evolve with Boris Johnson in No 10?
Trump also explored last year what he wanted from a British prime minister pursuing Brexit. “The only thing I ask is that she work it out so that we can have very even trade, because we do not have a fair deal with the European Union, right now, on trade,” he said. “They treat the United States horribly. And that’s going to change. And if it doesn’t change, they’re going to have to pay a very big price, and they know what that price is.”
To be clear: Trump wants his British prime minister to help him get a better trade deal from the European Union that he just Brexited. No problem, Mr President! Have we told you lately what a great job you’re doing?
Back in the real world, Trump wants something else from a trade deal with a newly global Britain. “Very even trade” with Johnson means better access for US farmers to British supermarkets, and better prices for American drugs bought by the socialist NHS.
Trump views London as a haven for international terrorists of the jihadi kind, having read lots of tweets from racist British nationalists and watched lots of Fox News. In fact, he told May about all these “no-go zones” when she came to Washington to visit him in early 2017. But one politician – by the name of Johnson, in fact – responded in kind back in 2015. “The only reason I wouldn’t visit some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump,” said the snooty Brit who is now Trump’s man in Downing Street.
Trump’s national security officials hope that Johnson will say nicer things about the game of chlorinated chicken they want to play with Iran. This might be tricky for Johnson, who displayed a Trump-like aversion to work during his tenure as foreign secretary.
“The only reason I wouldn’t visit some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump,” said the snooty Brit who is now Trump’s man in Downing Street.
For some reason, the British national security establishment is unhappy with Trump for withholding intelligence about the airstrikes he planned, ordered and then called off at the last minute. Team Trump said the mission was too rushed to tell their allies, which is fantastically reassuring among Nato allies.
Those same Brits are feeling rather upset at the way Trump forced out their own ambassador in Washington for stating the obvious truth about what Trump calls the fine-tuned machine of his presidency. Which gets us to the core challenge facing Johnson and all the other nationalist leaders trying to cosy up to their role model in the White House. Trump sees the world as a zero-sum game. For a man who clings to America First, there is no room for Britain First; there are only Mini-Me-style tributes to his greatness.
Even in his laziest moments, Johnson surely knows that this poodle-like approach between prime ministers and presidents did not end well for Tony Blair. But that won’t stop Donald from petting him. “We have a really good man who’s going to be the prime minister of the UK now, Boris Johnson,” Trump told a hotel ballroom full of rightwing teenage activists on Tuesday. “Good man. He’s tough and he’s smart. They’re saying ‘Britain Trump.’ They call him ‘Britain Trump.’ And people are saying, “That’s a good thing.” They like me over there. That’s what they wanted. That’s what they need.”
It’s often said that the US and Britain are two countries separated by a common language. But in the era of Donald and Boris, that language is separated from all other Anglophones by things such as grammar, education and brain cells. Who are all these people who don’t know the adjective to describe objects from Britain? Are they the same Britain people who like Trump? Because let’s be honest: there aren’t that many of them. Just 26% of Britain people approve of Trump, according to Gallup, which is around 30 points less than Barack Obama’s lowest point.
In truth, Boris is not Donald’s best friend in London. Nigel is. And for some strange reason Donald can’t help pointing it out every time he talks about the new prime minister.
“I think Nigel is someplace in this audience,” Trump told the young activists on Tuesday. “Where is Nigel? Where is he? Nigel Farage. He’s here someplace. I saw him. I said, ‘What is he doing here?’ He’s a little older than most of you. Where is he? Nigel. Nigel. I’ll tell you what: He got 32% of the vote from nowhere, over in UK. Nigel. Thank you, Nigel.”
So get ready to move over, Boris. You’re an incredible man, and Trump means that. But Nigel, Nigel. Wherefore art thou, Nigel?
* Richard Wolffe is a Guardian US columnist