Boris Johnson is sometimes compared to Winston Churchill, not least by the man himself. Unfortunately for Britain’s new Prime Minister, most of these comparisons are fatuous. But there are some similarities. Both are politically fluid and both share an enormous sense of ambition propelling them in unexpected and contrary directions. So far, we have had two Johnsons: One Nation Boris, the expansive liberal Tory, the man who won Labour London, not once but twice. More recently, we’ve has Brexit Boris, whose constituency seems to have been reduced to the hard-faced men and women of Leave.
It is Brexit Boris that Jeremy Corbyn’s advisers choose to see: they believe he is an enemy with whom they can do profitable business. Owen Jones even described Johnson as ‘the establishment in human form’. To their eyes he is the ultimate entitled toff, one defined by casual racism and a questionable attitude to women. Johnson’s desire to ingratiate himself with the supposedly diabolical Donald Trump means he is the ideal figure against whom they believe they can mobilise a divided party. As one of Corbyn’s outriders, Liam Young, tweeted: ‘You’re either with Boris Johnson’s Tory Party or with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Which side are you on? No more messing about – it’s time to pick a side and fight’.
In the fevered Corbynite imagination, Jeremy represents socialism, Johnson is barbarism and those in the middle have to choose. The problem for them however is that the great binary in British politics currently is not between socialism and barbarism but between Leave and Remain.
As he has made clear, Prime Minister Johnson’s first task is to deliver Leave. His new Cabinet, rammed with Brexiteers, confirms that he gets the importance of this task.
Johnson hopes that by doing so he will shoot Farage’s fox and bring home those Conservative (and Labour) voters who supported the Brexit party in the European elections.
In the short-term, Johnson is gambling that by further dividing an already fractured Britain he will ultimately unite it. Yet while this approach will likely benefit the Liberal Democrats and other Remain parties, it can only harm Labour whose position continues to be neither one thing nor the other.
Just last week Corbyn’s spokesman denied Labour was a Remain party: “We’ve said we will campaign for Remain against a damaging Tory deal or against no deal, but there are other circumstances that could occur.”
Let’s see how that ‘other circumstances’ line goes down in a general election in which the electorate divides between Leave or Remain. For the clever money is on Johnson trying to call an election before 31 October. In such a campaign, there will be no hiding place for Corbyn caught in a pincer movement between Leave Tories and Remain Liberal Democrats, Greens and the SNP. It will likely be his personal political Dunkirk.
But if Johnson is going to pull off a quick election victory, Brexit Boris may not be enough. In 2017, Theresa May tried to win a snap election on Brexit but found herself losing it on austerity. Corbyn was unexpectedly able to fight that election on his favoured ground. To stop that happening again, One Nation Boris has to come to the fore.
And there are signs he is awakening from his slumber. In remarks addressed to the party immediately after the announcement of his leadership win, Johnson surprised many by not channelling Churchill but talking of the Conservatives’ need to build a Great Society, a phrase associated with President Lyndon Johnson, another politician hard to classify in binary terms.
Talking to the nation for the first time as Prime Minister, Johnson also mentioned the need to help the left behind and promised action and investment on the NHS, schools, long term social care for the elderly and the country’s infrastructure. With Sajid Javid as Chancellor his government may, perhaps, be about to escape the shadowlands of austerity and enter the sunny uplands of Keynesianism.
When Churchill first met the artist Graham Sutherland he asked him: ‘How are you going to paint me? The bulldog or the cherub?’ In the end Sutherland painted Churchill as, he believed, ‘a down-and-out drunk’.
As Prime Minister, Johnson has the chance to paint his own portrait, and depending on what that will be hangs the fate of not only his leadership but also that of Jeremy Corbyn.
Steven Fielding is professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. With Bill Schwarz and Richard Toye he has written The Churchill Myths to be published by Oxford University Press in 2020
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