Tuesday 23 July 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'As the Tories lose their grip on reality, the sinking Brexit ship threatens to take us all down with it'

Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

When Boris Johnson first made the transition from columnist and general cad-about-town to serious politician, he was widely seen as a breath of fresh air.

Whether making his studiedly shambolic appearances on topical shows such as 'Have I Got News For You', or taking a slightly more sober approach on 'Question Time', he was perceived, even by his opponents, as a 'good egg'.

Indeed, as one critic noted when he ran that fractious first race to replace Ken Livingstone as mayor of London: "Boris Johnson is an incredibly clever man pretending to be a buffoon, Ken Livingstone is a buffoon pretending to be a clever man."

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The popular theory that Johnson was an intellectual wolf in sheep's clothing, with a refreshingly unreconstructed manner, has allowed him to consistently skirt issues which would have felled a candidate with thinner skin.

However, even before Friday's reported contretemps in the flat belonging to his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, the scales had begun to drop from the eyes of many of his previous supporters.

In short, what they once thought was that breath of fresh air has, over the last few weeks and months, developed the unmistakable stench of political halitosis.

When the news first began to emerge that neighbours had reported furious screaming and the sound of smashing plates to the police - and then contacted 'The Guardian' - most observers suspected a dirty tricks operation by Johnson's many opponents.

After all, what sort of rational person would scupper their chances in such a tawdry fashion?

Would a man who could easily become the second most important politician in the Western world behind Donald Trump really run the risk of blowing it all in a row over spilling a glass of red wine on a sofa?

To the amazement of even those Boris-watchers who have become almost inured to his excesses, the answer was a simple...yes.

That the people who made the recording are public supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, and had previously boasted of "giving the finger" to their neighbour's boyfriend, is an interesting but ultimately rather irrelevant point.

One could argue that they were on a mission to destroy Johnson through any means necessary, and there has been a distinctly unpleasant degree of triumphalism following their scoop.

But they didn't invent the tape and the story that is emerging is one that surely places even the usually unassailable Johnson in an extremely precarious position.

The man once colloquially known as 'Bonking Boris' as a result of his colourful private life has made a habit of swerving away from danger by delivering a rueful 'aw, shucks' shrug of the shoulders designed to make everyone forgive and forget.

But apart from his enthusiasm for female company, there are issues which should be neither forgiven nor forgotten - for example, his collusion with the disgraced fraudster Darius Guppy.

Old friends from Eton, Johnson was caught on tape promising to give Guppy the home address of a journalist so Guppy could have him beaten up.

That was nearly 30 years ago, so it's not as if Johnson's recent run of bad decisions and morally dubious choices are a new development.

Nor are they necessarily a sign, as many have predicted, that he is cracking under the pressure to win the leadership race.

Quite frankly, the man has always made dubious, occasionally reprehensible, choices but through a combination of roguish charm and Bunter-esque bluster he has managed to walk away from everything he has damaged without suffering a scratch himself.

It says a lot for the febrile, almost entirely unhinged atmosphere that has characterised the Tory leadership race that this is merely the latest scandal to embroil a candidate.

Between Michael Gove's cocaine controversy and Rory Stewart happily admitting that he had smoked opium, but denying that he was a spy, the mood has been positively surreal.

Sadly, while it's tempting to call the whole thing farcical, from an Irish perspective we waved goodbye to farce a long time ago and entered a full scale tragedy. In fact we may have already moved beyond tragedy and into a full-on horror movie.

The idea that any of these people, least of all Johnson, is fit to lead his country is certainly a gloomy one. It's also a damning testament to the lack of serious voices in the Conservative high command (very high command, if we take account of Gove's and Stewart's previous dalliances).

In fact, it's beginning to feel as if we have somehow blundered into some hideous alternative universe where the presenter of 'The Apprentice' becomes president of the United States and a man who was once caught on tape conspiring to have someone beaten up becomes prime minister of the UK.

As the UK lurches towards the October Brexit deadline, its gravest moment since World War II, there is the thoroughly depressing sensation that the cynics have well and truly taken over the building.

In another moment of grim symmetry, it also emerged that Johnson has had contacts with Trump's disgraced svengali, Steve Bannon, who has been wandering around Europe offering advice to any politician foolish or desperate enough to listen to him.

That's a rather worrying indication that he would drag the UK towards a harder form of nationalism than we're used to seeing.

Johnson would be a disaster for the UK. But ultimately that is its domestic, democratic mistake to make.

From an Irish perspective, however, we are fully entitled to look on the whole omnishambles with a growing sense of apprehension and despair.

His constant mantra of 'no deal' is simply unworkable. His claims that the UK could simply renegotiate a new trade deal with the EU on a WTO basis have even been shot down by his fellow Tories as pie in the sky.

Either Johnson is unaware that such a deal is simply not a legal option, which means he's not on top of his brief, or he does indeed know it's never going to happen but is happy to lie about it anyway.

Neither possibility lifts the spirits.

At least we'll find out more in tonight's eagerly awaited Sky News leadership with rival Jeremy Hunt.

Actually we won't. Johnson has cancelled that encounter. Yet he remains favourite.

All of this leaves one question - have our neighbours in the UK completely taken leave of their senses?

Irish Independent

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