Like ‘em or loathe ‘em, Boris is Britain’s Trump
Shropshire native Chris Smith lives in the United States. He says the fledgling Johnson administration is a little too familiar for comfort.
A rambling, freewheeling delivery and obvious absence of a script? Check!
Stumbling incoherence we’ve rarely heard from a serving PM? Check! An uncanny knack of getting stuff wrong, prompting awkward nodding and smiling from all around him? Double Check!
As the new Prime Minister delivered his now-infamous address to trainee police officers in Wakefield, the similarities became abundantly clear: the hallmarks of The Trump Era had arrived in Britain.
As a US resident from Shropshire, I’ve observed Trump closely for the last three years and, whether you’re a fan of Boris and his blonde brother-in-arms across the pond or not, the duo are now screaming from the same hymn sheet.
Just like in the United States; none of what happened on that stage in Yorkshire really mattered beyond the immediate slack-jawed reaction of reporters and the public alike. Even the poor copper, for whom the hour kept waiting in the sun proved a little too much, was soon forgotten as we moved on to the next press-stopping story.
Not so long ago such a display would have ended a politician’s chances of being taken seriously again. Remember when poor Ed Miliband lost a general election because he was pictured awkwardly eating a bacon sandwich?
But when your entire public persona is based upon your disheveled bluster and propensity for gaffes and casual relationship with the truth, all of that just fades into Boris-being-Boris, or Trump-being-Trump. These two dine out on doing things differently, and it’s working a treat.
Before Johnson was chosen by the Conservative Party membership, you could say the similarities in their personality traits were somewhat amusing. Now, though, Johnson is governing the United Kingdom, the comparisons become concerning.
Let’s look a little closer. In December 2018, Trump used his executive power to shut down the US government for five weeks as an attempt to get what had been refused by lawmakers – funding for a wall across the Mexican border.
It took Johnson just a month in office to announce he was doing likewise; proroguing parliament for five weeks. Boris said it was perfectly normal behavior (it isn’t), but his critics say it limits opportunities to oppose a no-deal Brexit on October 3.
Regardless of whether you believe in their aims, the pair’s willingness to use executive power to close down our democratic institutions – treating the critical system of checks and balances as a mere inconvenience – should be worrying.
Just like in the Trump’s America, the judiciary is having to get involved to determine whether the Prime Minister’s actions are breaking the law.
Many may argue the end will justify the means, but the UK’s sovereign Parliament is currently empty at the apex of the greatest national crisis since WW2. Just as we’re all glued to BBC News awaiting the next installment of TV’s hottest drama, history is also watching.
I think it’s fair to say Boris’ “no-deal” is very much akin to Trump’s wall. It’s a rallying cry for a solid base of voters for whom immigration is an overriding concern. Build The Wall? Leave Means Leave? You don’t have to delve too deeply into the subtext.
I don’t believe either man is a true extremist by heart; they’re just careerists, motivated by power and fame rather than moral conviction.
Boris famously wrote an unpublished newspaper column backing Remain before choosing to become the central figure in the Leave campaign. Trump was a registered Democrat for eight years at the turn of the century.
But now, having taken those polar positions to advance themselves, Trump and Johnson are now completely beholden to those camps, unable to pivot even if they wanted to.
They’re too far from the centre to win wavering voters, so their strength at the polls will come by energising a base and embracing populist fringe factions. A choice between a Brexit Party alliance with Nigel Farage, or oblivion, beckons for Boris.
Johnson’s use of strong rhetoric is also starting to trump Trump’s, and that’s another disquieting development. Talk of an opponent’s “surrender” to the EU and all of the historical connotations that word brings, for example, as well as his proclamation he’d “rather be dead in a ditch” than ask Brussels for a Brexit extension. It was a truly remarkable moment and a marked departure from how we’ve traditionally done things in Britain. If Boris wants to stand up for British values so much; he could start by acting with the decorum expected of a Prime Minister.
Even before a General Election is called; we have a Prime Minister in full campaign mode. By visiting police officers (another classic Trump trope, effectively telling opponents ‘look who I’m in charge of, folks!’), and doing the world’s worst cowboy impression in Aberdeen, Boris has been “hitting the optics”, as they say in the US.
Likewise, Trump has arguably never stopped campaigning since winning office in 2016. So far, he’s held 11 rallies for his 2020 re-election bid in 2019 alone.
When they do have to attempt some statecraft, the pair are also left floundering by more accomplished figures. Johnson plunged out of his depth alongside Leo Varadkar, as the Taoiseach dished out a dose of green-tinged backstop reality. Trump often similarly humbling experiences from poised and polished speakers like Varadkar, France’s Macron, and Canadian dreamboat Justin Trudeau, who not only makes Trump sound bad, but physically resemble a doughnut oozing custard.
Bluster bordering on insults (reportedly referring to the French as “turds” while Foreign Secretary, for example) may play well at home, but when you’re next to your supposed ally and partner on the world stage it becomes counter-productive and cringeworthy. The world is watching; some of it while laughing.
Boris steadfastly says negotiations with Europe progressing towards a Brexit accord. His counterparts on the continent, fleeing cabinet member Amber Rudd, and the Conservative 21 MPs exiled last week, say there is no evidence to support this. It’s a slippery slope. Earlier this month, Trump used a marker pen to amend a hurricane forecast, to back up an incorrect claim a dangerous storm was bound for Alabama.
In 1984, Orwell wrote: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
Having watched Trump in action since 2016, this particular common ground occupied by he and Johnson is the one that worries me most.
By Chris Smith