Boris vs Alexander

Monday 10th May 2021

by Patrick Sullivan, Chairman and Chief Executive of Parliament Street

“The Lion thought it might be as well to frighten the Wizard, so he gave a large, loud roar, which was so fierce and dreadful that Toto jumped away from him in alarm and tipped over the screen that stood in a corner. As it fell with a crash, they looked that way, and the next moment all of them were filled with wonder. For they saw, standing in just the spot the screen had hidden, a little old man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face, who seemed to be as much surprised as they were. The Tin Woodman, raising his axe, rushed toward the little man and cried out, ‘Who are you?’

 ‘I am Oz, the Great and Terrible,’ said the little man, in a trembling voice.

– L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

“If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust de- livered from the aspirations might go his way, and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to dis- grace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.”

– Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)

“You put on a bishop’s robe and miter, he pondered, and walk around in that, and people bow and genuflect and like that, and try to kiss your ring, if not your ass, and pretty soon you’re a bishop. So to speak. What is identity? he asked himself. Where does the act end? Nobody knows.”

– Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly (1977)

Tony Benn used to say that politics should focus on policy not personalities. A very noble sentiment on an intellectual level but when dealing with the realities of British politics you have to take things as they are. Personality without policy is the politics of the snake oil salesman. Policy without personality is going to struggle to find an audience. 

On the stage of life, we all wear masks and are judged on how well we play our parts. Whilst acting out the roles to which we have been assigned our communal dialogue can often turn into Kabuki theatre. The participants behave as if they are unawares of certain facts, despite most being fully cognizant of them. These certain self-evident truths are not acknowledged in our on-stage repartee because we fear that to do so would wreck the illusions that we are working fastidiously to maintain.  “Boris” is the not the man who has the power of the British premiership in his hands. The man who does is Alexander Johnson. “Boris” is merely the persona Alexander inhabits in public life.

10 Downing Street often comes to reflect the personality of whomever is the Prime Minister. Under Theresa May, No.10 could be said to be structured but secretive. Alexander Johnson was a fantastic editor of The Spectator, but he did run something of a chaotic operation. From some of the headlines we have seen in recent weeks he has brought his own special brew of chaos to the office of Prime Minister. Alexander has been able to get away with this because the British public has a special tolerance for the eccentricities of “Boris” but what happens when the mask slips and Boris’s predominately conservative, populist base gets to see the “man behind the curtain”, the liberal, progressive Alexander Johnson. Unlike most politicians Alexander Johnson has a dual identity – to his friends and family he is known as Alexander, but the public know his better by the mask he wears, which is “Boris”. Why this is not commented on more by the media is beyond me. No other political leader is afforded the right to have a dual identity – that is something straight out of a comic book. Who does Alexander Johnson think he is – the goddamn Batman?!?

Alexander has worn more than one “Boris” mask over the course of his political career. The current “Boris” mask was forged by Alexander when he saw a means to achieving political power by fashioning a “Boris” that although a last-minute convert to the Brexit cause was able to bring with him all the passion of a convert. Fair enough, there would be no Brexit without “Boris”. But “Brexit Boris” was just a part Alexander played to gain his ultimate prize.

Alexander is more likely to have felt a kinship with the liberal, progressive “Jolly Boris Johnson” who was Mayor of London. But he lost the support of liberal, progressives by backing Brexit. Dominic Cummings then masterminded a strategy where “Brexit Boris” won a Parliamentary majority of conservative, populist voters.

Alexander never liked President Trump, but he played the “British Trump Boris” role to win the Tory Party leadership. It was a lie. He betrayed Donald J. Trump at the first opportunity. Despite “Boris” acting as if he never knew the 45th President, Alexander cannot rewrite history. Most US Democrats were introduced to our Prime Minister when he was playing the “British Trump Boris” role and are now understandably wary. Should a Trump restoration happen in 2024 and short-sighted Alexander still be Prime Minister, he should expect to reap just what he sowed. Viewing Johnson with suspicion might be one of the few positions Biden and Trump actually share.

The last thing of note in British politics before the pandemic hit was Brexit. Therefore, during this fog of crisis it is that image of Boris that people have taken with them. When they see “Boris” starting to pursue liberal, progressive policies post-pandemic the “Red Wall” will soon tire of him.

The Conservatives won the Hartlepool by-election last week because Alexander has yet to be seen to make his COP26 pivot and the natural order of things vis-à-vis Britain’s political alignment is reasserting itself. On the same day, Labour’s Sadiq Khan won re-election in London with the support of many who had voted for “Jolly Boris Johnson” to be mayor twice then we will be seeing the conservatives, populists in the Red Wall aligning with the Conservative Party and the liberal, progressives in metropolitan London aligning with Labour.

The Hartlepool result further highlights that the continuing success of the Conservative Party in future electoral cycles is going to be reliant upon the conservative, populists in the middle of this country. Alexander Johnson has made a number of unforced errors of late that should have cost him the support of these voters. “Boris” has been given a hall pass because “Boris” delivered what his Brexiteer base voted him into office to do which was namely Brexit. His embrace of the most radical aspects of the green agenda is going to substantively undo a lot of the good Johnson has done and also cause those Red Wall voters to revoke “Boris’s” Hall Pass. When they do, they will do remembering Alexander’s recent slights and be less forgiving in retrospect to Alexander than they were to “Boris” in the moment.

I am increasingly confident that after freeing us from the shackles of the European Union he is now going to tie the country to all sorts of new international obligations in order to fight the “climate crisis”. In effect, he is about to revert to type. The fact that the government has prioritised the COP26 summit to be held in Glasgow this November above post-Covid recovery is indicative of this.

The “climate crisis” is the greatest Trojan Horse for corporatism ever built. Climate change is real but we should not buy into a series of solutions which make the world’s mega-billionaires even richer and give political authority to former leftists who painted their red flag green when the Berlin Wall fell.

As a generalisation the majority of those who place climate change at the top of their list of political priorities are fantastically well-off liberal elites living in Britain’s metropolises. They quite frankly have the luxury to consider climate the most pressing issue of the day because as the prime beneficiaries of the unchecked globalisation that has hollowed out many of this country’s once great towns and villages, they can afford to. Alexander should be working to make them great again instead of throwing greater burdens upon their backs.

It is also fitting that the COP26 summit is being held in Scotland for Boris Johnson’s entire reasoning for not holding a second 21st century referendum on Scottish independence is that we should, as a United Kingdom, be focused on the post-Covid recovery.  Alexander is going to greatly undermine that argument by having his government squander the summer focusing on COP 26 instead of the bread-and-butter issues which matter to most Brits.

Given “Boris” is just a mask Alexander Johnson wears to differentiate between the man he is and the role that he plays, the maxim “Let Boris, Be Boris” would ring hollow. Instead, I recommend that Alexander Johnson remember this old adage that Ronald Reagan used to love, “You gotta dance with the one that brung ya.”.

Throughout his career Alexander Johnson has offered “Boris” up to the electorate as something of a political Rorschach test in which different voters will interpret the same personality in entirely different ways.  The image that voters in Hartlepool have of Boris is of the Prime Minister who delivered them the Brexit he promised. Ergo, the populist Boris Johnson hailed as “British Trump” by the former US President, won the Hartlepool by-election. The electorate of Hartlepool would be horrified if they were rewarded for voting for conservative, populist Boris by having to live under the government of liberal, progressive Boris.

It is often in moments of great triumph that political leaders set upon the path of their eventual destruction.  In November 1972, Richard M. Nixon was re-elected President of the United States with 520 Electoral College votes to rival George McGovern’s 17 Electoral College votes. In August 1974, Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency and Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the 38th President of the United States. In June 1987, the Conservatives won a landslide general election victory under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. In November 1990, Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign as Prime Minister.  In May 2015, David Cameron became the first Conservative Party leader since John Major in 1992 to deliver his party an outright majority in the House of Commons. Just over a year later, in June 2016, David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. 

If he embraces the politics and policies of the conservative, populist base then he could wind up spending a decade in Downing Street, making those flat refurbishment costs easier to swallow. If he pulls a bait and switch on the newly Tory Red Wall voter and starts pushing all sort of regressive “green” measures onto them, then he will find himself in such political bother that not even Houdini himself could escape.

Alexander Johnson should be mindful so as not to misread the mandate from the electorate. They voted for “Boris”, his creation which has begun to have a life of its own, and not the man behind the curtain. A student of the classics, Alexander would do well to remember that hubris invites nemesis and that he has yet to meet his.

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