My only real encounter with Boris Johnson, the new British prime minister, was at the Republican National Convention in 2004. I found him standing alone at a party being held in Gotham Hall, where blue martinis were doing the rounds. I went up to him, and we had a perfectly pleasant conversation. James Wood, who overlapped with Johnson at Eton, describes him as being “flamboyantly convictionless,” and that’s his schtick, but he asked me that evening if I could introduce him to fellow guests Grover Norquist and Phyllis Schlafly, at that time among the most virulently right-wing people in America. To Johnson it was all jolly good fun, but I wasn’t sure, and I saw a certain steel in his gray eyes.
Recently, the prime minister has been dragging a dead cat around Europe, pretending it’s the tiger of a vital new economy. He arrived with a threat, that he’ll take his dead cat away should E.U. leaders refuse to concede to a once-in-a-lifetime deal for Britain, a deal that, if they did concede to it, would de-stabilize the entire union. Johnson says he will withdraw Britain from Europe with no deal (“no ifs or buts”) by October 31 if “negotiations” fail, but European leaders believe he is stone mad, without a bargaining chip to his name, unless the threat of suicide is counted as a bargaining chip (which it is with some European leaders). And yet, as Charles Dickens could’ve told you after years in the sketch writers’ gallery at the House of Commons, buffoonery can go a long way in upsetting expectations. In one of Parliament’s wood-paneled dining rooms, a colleague of Johnson’s recently told me the blond bomber has something of Ronald Reagan’s talent for supplanting ideas with charm. “He’s out of touch with reality,” she said, “offering nothing more than Theresa May did, but he might just be showing enough swagger to pull the voters his way in a general election.”
The problem is this: swagger or no swagger, Johnson’s dead cat is beginning to smell, and even he has trouble believing he can sell it. But Johnson and his closest colleagues are politicians with a wrecking-ball mentality. They persuaded Britain to leave the European Union on a false prospectus, and now, three years later, they are still struggling to negotiate a trade deal that would save Britain’s economy. Writing in the Financial Times, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, Britain’s chief business lobby, said, “No deal is a trip wire into economic chaos that could harm our country for years to come,” and reported that Britain’s three largest grocery chains have warned that an October no-deal exit is “as bad as it gets.”
The shit show has now revved into full-power mode. Responding to his charm but baffled by his lack of ideas, Germany’s Angela Merkel sent Johnson back to do his homework, challenging him to come up with a solution to the infamous “Irish backstop” question within 30 days. For those unfamiliar with the backstop, let me put it this way: for most of the European Community member states, it’s the deal breaker of all deal breakers, as important, in its own context, as Lincoln’s views on slavery in 1860.
The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland took 10 years to negotiate, after 30 years of bloodshed, and it stipulates that there cannot be a “hard border” between the independent Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is still part of Britain. By proposing to crash out of the E.U., Johnson’s government would effectively be tearing up that agreement, as the Republic (which would remain in the E.U.) could no longer trade with the North (which will exit with Britain) in a frictionless way. Thus, the Irish peace agreement and economic stability would be in tatters. Johnson pretends this is just a niggle, but in fact it is a monumental, historical, existential reality, on which the E.U. could not seriously compromise without threatening the security of another member state, the Republic of Ireland, or without otherwise destroying the integrity of the single market. “Indispensable” is the word used by French president Macron to describe the backstop (or open border) in discussions with Johnson.
At the Houses of Parliament, the talk is of nothing else. The Conservative government has a majority of precisely one, and it heavily relies on support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, the very people most insistent on no surrender when it comes to the border. They insist that, if Britain leaves the E.U., they—as part of Britain—will leave to the exact same degree. And any compromise Britain reaches with the E.U. that “softens” the border—such as the backstop—is hateful to these Northern Unionists, who live in fear of a United Ireland. Indeed, Arlene Foster, the head of the Democratic Unionists, had called the backstop “a continuing and fundamental flaw in the withdrawal agreement,” and favors scrapping it. Angela Merkel may say that she was not being entirely serious in expecting a brain-wave solution to the backstop problem within 30 days, but the British Parliament is nonetheless obsessing over it. Members are speaking of a constitutional crisis if Johnson’s charm carnival—“offensive” wouldn’t cover it—doesn’t result in what Macron calls “something intelligent” within 30 days. Parliament reconvenes this week, and is about to enter a frenzied moment, either of self-assertion (by calling a vote of “no confidence” in the prime minister, leading to a general election) or of self-slaughter, as it is trampled into silence. Johnson has already persuaded the Queen to allow Parliament to be “prorogued”—set aside, suspended—for a historically unusual period of more than a month beginning the second week of September as he plows on to take Britain out of Europe, deal or no deal, with hardly any time for further debate. “Constitutional outrage!” screamed the Speaker of the House of Commons, backed by many members, including several from Johnson’s own side. The maneuver may not be illegal, but it is a vertiginous gamble: in the attempt to sweat his European counterparts into submission, the prime minister is in danger of collectivizing his opposition. Many critics are already murmuring about Cavaliers and Roundheads, about the outrage of a monarch silencing her own parliament. (Britain has a grisly history in this regard, having beheaded Charles I.)
Brexit has brought history into the 24-hour news cycle. And the most delicious irony of them all is that Johnson and the Brexiteers, who speak so passionately about “honoring the will of the people”—that majority who voted in 2016 to leave Europe—are at the same time unflinching in their wish to ignore the will of the people’s representatives in Parliament. Johnson balances his future as prime minister on the hope that people will simply not notice the brazenness of this contradiction, and, in the current climate, he might just get away with it. In the manner of Donald Trump’s tweets, his position reveals the triumph of populist demagoguery over the sometimes slow and subtle machinations of institutional democracy.
Up and down the land, from Cornwall to Dundee, anxiety is the new ether in Britain, with citizens wondering how on earth they got to this, a national nervous breakdown in which none of the senior players appears able to tell the truth. And the truth is that an impossible task that has baffled the country for three years is now promised, by the eternally comical Boris Johnson, to be solved within four weeks at the earliest. If he pulls it off, his hero, Churchill, would be proud of him, for never in the field of human conflict has so much of the common good been held to ransom by the political ambitions of so few.
Andrew O’Hagan is the author of five novels and, most recently, The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age