Boris Derangement Syndrome has broken out in Britain. It is similar to the more widely documented American affliction, Trump Derangement Syndrome. BDS and TDS epidemics spread when the media and political classes are confronted with an empowered leader they cannot stand.
Boris Johnson, the new Prime Minister, makes his critics so angry they become demented. Since he entered 10 Downing Street on Wednesday, July 23, journalists have taken to declaring that the United Kingdom is now a dictatorship; that the alt-right has taken charge of the government; that Britain is now dangerous for racial minorities and gays. There is no evidence for these assertions, yet they are made with total conviction. Boris is depicted as a hard-right clown and the team behind him as fascists. Together they are deliberately driving Britain over a cliff. Every remark the new Prime Minister makes is twisted by the media to sound as bad as possible.
Yet the anti-Boris hysteria in Britain is not as intense as anti-Trumpism in America. We are a smaller country and Boris is no Trump. Yes, the two men have crazy hair, a certain lumbering physique, and an appetite for women. Both represent, in different ways, a threat to the existing order. But Boris doesn’t offend elite sensibilities in the way that Trump does. He’s more conventionally intelligent, better-spoken, less brash. His Twitter feed is highly professional and measured, even a little dull. The same cannot be said for
Boris is not an outsider to the political system in the same way that Trump was in 2016. He’s cut from establishment cloth, and not just because—as every newspaper profile points out—he went to Eton, Britain’s most famous boarding school. He has been a big name in British politics for more than a decade, as London mayor, foreign secretary, and influential journalist. Boris also hasn’t won a nationwide election, as Trump did: The Conservative Party chose him to replace Theresa May as prime minister.
The upper-middle-class caterwauling notwithstanding, Boris’s ascension to the top of the greasy pole has brought with it a faint sense of optimism, a hope that the nightmare of the last three years might soon end. Britain’s politics actually went mad at the same time as America’s did, in 2016. Brexit, not Boris, is the real cause. It was the vote to leave the European Union that polarized Britain. Everyone who voted became defined as a Leaver or a Remainer, and the country feuded. Boris, as the leading figure in the Vote Leave campaign, should have become Prime Minister then. However, in a bizarre psychodrama, his ally Michael Gove turned on him, and Boris quit. Then—by accident, really—a Remainer named Theresa May became Prime Minister and spent three years pretending to want Brexit. Disaster ensued as May failed repeatedly to achieve it.
New Prime Minister Boris says the country will leave the European Union by October 31st, “do or die.” The “die” bit is unnerving, but at least now the chief criticism of the Tory Brexiteers, that they ran away from the mess they created, can be rejected. They are in charge now and can’t blame Theresa May for what’s next.
Boris has appointed Dominic Cummings, who ran the Vote Leave campaign, as his chief strategist. He is being widely portrayed as a Steve Bannon, an ideological extremist and enforcer, hell-bent on British carnage. I should disclose that Dom is a friend and I work with his wife. He is nothing like the Bannon caricature (neither is Bannon, but that’s a different matter). He is an unusual man, highly sensitive, yet tough as nails. He can cut to the heart of a complex argument in a second and is ruthless in pursuit of his aims. What he brings to the Brexit process is a sense of purpose that has hitherto been gravely lacking. His analysis of what has happened so far in Britain’s negotiations with the EU is brutal, but convincing: “The other side has played hardball and the government has been weak all along,” he told The Sunday Times. “That has to change. If they’re going to tear everything up, we are going to tear it all up.”
Team Boris has quickly set up a new decision-making structure and replaced May’s dysfunctional operation with what’s being called a “Brexit War Cabinet,” consisting of six ministers who will make all the key decisions. But Johnson is not talking as if we are at war: He keeps stressing the need to forge a new and better relationship with the continent.
Brexit isn’t war, but there can be no denying it is a major crisis, one that has paralyzed the country and gravely undermined confidence in Britain. With the next EU-extended Brexit deadline fast approaching, the situation is an emergency. What Cummings’ opponents conveniently ignore is that, when campaigning to leave the EU, he stressed that Brexit should be a gradual process. He would not have triggered Article 50, the escape mechanism meant to compel Britain to leave the Union in two years, as May did. He’s often described that decision as “like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”
But May did pull the trigger, and Britain now faces two possible outcomes: negotiate a better departure agreement than May or leave without a deal at Halloween. Boris would prefer the former, but he must make “no deal” a credible threat in order to extract concessions from Brussels. To do that he will need to overcome a Parliament that has voted to block a “no deal.” Like Trump, he’ll have to somehow turn the system on its head. It’s going to be a crazy, hair-raising few weeks in British politics.
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