Boris Johnson is many things: a narcissist, a liar , a thug and an impostor. But he isn’t a fool. When he said last week it was “bollocks” to think freedom of movement was one of the European Union’s fundamental principles (and how refreshing it is to have a foreign secretary with a classical education), serious people made the mistake of not taking the new right seriously. What a joke our foreign secretary is, they snorted. The over-promoted clown does not know the EU enshrined freedom of movement in the Treaty of Rome of 1957. He’s either an embarrassment or light entertainment, but he’s clearly too stupid to matter.
Writing before Donald Trump’s victory, the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen warned that too many liberals lacked imagination. They could not imagine that Trump would win and threaten American democracy’s safeguards, even though authoritarian nationalists were winning across the world. The British elite could not imagine Brexit and only a handful of academics and journalists imagined Vladimir Putin would move to control Russia’s media, suppress opposition and invade his neighbours. Stuck in a familiar past, they do not believe change for the worse can happen, even when it is happening in front of them.
Our current imaginative failure lies in our inability to understand the secret fears and bottomless opportunism of our new masters.
Demagogues who have fooled the electorate know better than their opponents that the public can turn on them. For no one is more frightened of a revolution devouring its own than the men who lead it on.
To close the possibility of going from today’s popular heroes to tomorrow’s enemies of the people, they must ensure that, whoever is held to account for Brexit turning rancid, it is not them. Everywhere you look on the right, you can see the politicians who ran the Leave campaign shuffling off responsibility, like actors casting off their costume.
Unlike so many of their opponents, they can imagine the future. They can see the possibility of Britain in 2018 heading for hard Brexit. Instead of being involved in the easy break they promised, we will be at the start of exhausting trade negotiations with the EU and dozens of countries that will drag on into the 2020s. A Conservative government, committed to reducing the state, will have to employ tens of thousands of civil servants to undertake the most energy-sapping task since the Second World War. Real wages will be failing to keep up with inflation. Investors will be looking elsewhere.
The 17 million who voted Leave won’t remember every item of the false bill of goods Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage sold. But they will remember the vision of an economic future so bright the NHS would receive an extra £350m a week. As Brexit drags the public finances ever further into the red, it already looks a straight lie. By 2018, it could sound as false as Neville Chamberlain’s promise in 1938 that appeasement would bring “peace for our time” sounded as the bombs fell in 1940.
Our former allies were baffled by Boris Johnson’s assertion that it was “bollocks” for Europe to say Britain could not remain a member of the single market if we would not accept EU immigration. The Italian economic development minister replied: “No way” when Johnson told him: “I don’t want free movement of people but I want the single market.” The Dutch finance minister accused Johnson of “offering to the British people options that are really not available”.
So he is. But they failed to understand that Johnson was raising false hopes for the British to escape the blame he so richly deserves. Johnson knows the European treaties. It’s not just that he’s now foreign secretary. He was one of the founders of post-truth journalism during his time as a hack in the 1990s, when he was an unashamedly mendacious Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.
As a dismal decade of low growth drags on, the right wants to be able to say that we could have enjoyed the economic benefits of the single market, and had the immigration controls it had promised, if only vengeful Europeans had not intervened. As Johnson was speaking, Gove, a politician who can match him for intellectual dishonesty lie for lie, brushed aside the vast problems of rewriting 40 years of legislation and negotiating with half the world. We could have a “quickie divorce”, he maintained, if only the civil service were not preventing it.
Dominic Cummings, Gove’s former special adviser, at least had the grace to admit Brexit would be the “hardest job since beating Nazis”. I have just two caveats. Cummings never told the electorate about the vast complexities when he ran the Vote Leave campaign. For, if he had been honest, Leave would have lost. Then, like his master, he blamed the civil service for a mess that he and his friends had created. Conservatives are the first to tell the poor, the unlucky and the feckless that they must take responsibility. But “special snowflakes” that they are, they are also the first to embrace the “victim culture” and push the blame on to others when their failures find them out.
This is not the “usual rough and tumble of politics”. There are 3 million European Union migrants living in this country and 2 million British citizens living in the EU – the hostages of the Brexit negotiations. When Johnson and the Conservative press invent stories about Europe denying an entitled Britain a deal they know is impossible, they are consciously increasing the chances of reviving the attacks on EU migrants with which British goons “celebrated” our supposed declaration of independence.
Think on this, too. The promises of the Leave campaigners may have been unscrupulous, but their language was relatively restrained. Whatever complaints you had about posters of refugees and outright falsehoods about millions of Turks coming to Britain, they did not paint Hispanics as rapists and murderers and all Muslims as potential terrorists, as Trump did. They did not promise to deport millions of illegal immigrants, as Trump did. They did not justify assaulting women, as Trump did. They did not threaten journalists who crossed them with retribution, as Trump did. They did not use antisemitic imagery, as Trump did. Not one of them, not even Nigel Farage, was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, as Trump was.
If you can at last imagine how nasty the British right will turn as its failures mount, imagine how much more vicious the American right will become when Trump’s promises are revealed to be so many lies.