Sunak rises but Johnson remains the Japanese knotweed of British politics – The Irish Times


The UK cannot shake off its fascination with the nation’s prodigal son. So the question – what makes Boris Johnson tick? – will be interrogated, set apart, obsessed with the history books for years to come. But there are impossible-to-ignore qualities that underlie his curious political immortality.

He owes much to his obsession with the classics, something that gives way to his unique ability for rhetorical demagoguery. His mode of communication is informed by his lodestar, the Athenian general Pericles; his words echo the Republican orator Cicero, stripped of all genuine virtue; the literary symbol of Roman destiny, Aeneas, must also awaken something in him.

Johnson seeks the limelight like an addict, sacrificing those in his way to keep him going. His obsession with wacky infrastructure projects – like the proposed bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland – is childish in its naivete. Little seems able to burst his inflated optimism. His overconfidence is the only thing that can overshadow his moral weariness.

It was only in his twilight days at 10 Downing Street that we could see a hint of defeatism; signs that his false sense of momentum had stopped; a dawning realization that not everything would work out the way it always had before. Few of these things make a great prime minister. As qualities, some are admirable, but they are certainly not enough to compensate for its faults. Nor did it make him fit for another great state office.

But there is one job in British politics that Johnson has yet to test on the road. And it is perhaps the one that would have suited him best. Johnson may well be the greatest opposition leader Britain has ever had. Those who have had the misfortune to try it call it the toughest job in politics. If we accept that the primary function of the Leader of the Opposition is to eventually become Prime Minister, we can think for a moment of those who have tried in vain: Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn, Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith, for n cite just a few.

But what separates good from evil? It’s a job that requires injecting purpose into what might otherwise seem like a hopeless pursuit. It is a campaign that requires subtle campaigning, rhetorical jabs and exposure of government inadequacies. Optimism, energy, eloquence? Johnson has it in spades.

Tony Blair once diagnosed the frustration of being Leader of the Opposition as the ability to speak but not to do. Johnson was not actually an unproductive prime minister. But his most effective act in power was to tear Britain out of the European Union in such a haphazard way that the country may never completely clean up the mess. We would have preferred his role to be limited to speaking. Doing so was a big part of the problem.

Of course, he would have to get rid of the fatal flaw: an insatiable thirst to be the center of the universe has caused the downfall of men greater than himself.

Steve Richards, author of The Prime Ministers We Never Had, says opposition leaders suffer from ill-defined work, ‘much closer to an art form’ than the technical decisions the Prime Minister faces each day. Whatever we may think of Johnson, we know that he barely approached his time in Downing Street with the trappings of a medical examiner, drawn far more by the painter’s coat over the lab coat.

Johnson may not have wielded his power with the grace of Caravaggio’s brush and perhaps he lacked Michelangelo’s beauty instinct. But Jackson Pollock is also an artist. Chaotic, impressionistic, iconoclastic – this was Johnson’s modus operandi. Of course, accepting all of this means we have to recognize what else it entails. Johnson’s disinterest in detail is almost careless – his former adviser Dominic Cummings alleged he spent the early days of the pandemic writing a book about Shakespeare. He cannot be trusted in high office. He looks into the abyss of rule books and ethics committees and just shrugs. It harms the fortunes of many people it touches.

But on the benches of the opposition, he could well be a star. Of course, he would have to get rid of the fatal vice: an insatiable thirst to be the center of the universe has caused the fall of men greater than him. It’s a bad habit and it’s hard to get rid of. But the sooner Johnson realizes his skills are in the say and don’t, maybe he’ll land the role of his life.

As Rishi Sunak takes a stand in Number 10 – touted as the political stabilizers Britain desperately needs – we shouldn’t be so quick to breathe a sigh of relief. Sunak supported many of the things that led Britain down this dark and tangled path. He voted for Brexit, falsely claiming it would lead to growth. Worse than that, he thought Johnson was the right person for the job. Given this, it is high time for the Conservatives to see the opposition benches. And even though Johnson has fumbled his bid to return to power, he is unlikely to finish. It is the political response to Japanese knotweed.

There’s only one problem with Boris’ choice to command the ship from across the chamber. It would shed light on the long road back to number 10. It could be the biggest mistake the Conservative Party and the country could make.


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