I know it’s the season of ‘dunking on Boris’, which is fine. He deserves a bit of dunking for the errors of judgement he made over Partygate and Pinchergate. But if only for the purposes of brief respite from all this Boris-bashing, I think we need to reflect on the one good thing he did. The thing that will fortify his place in the history books. The thing that elevates him above the rest of the political class.
It’s quite simple, really: he stood up for working-class voters when hardly anyone else in the establishment would.
This week has been a strange experience for me. From many of my middle-class colleagues in the media, I have seen only Borisphobia. Their Schadenfreude is off the scale. Ding dong, the toff is dead, they proclaim, as they congratulate themselves for the role their twittering thumbs played in toppling the dastardly Etonian.
But from the distinctly un-middle-class people I know from the other part of my life – old friends, family members – I have seen mostly sadness. No, they’re not sobbing into their pillows. They aren’t squealing Boris fanboys. They’re not even Tories. ‘What a pillock’ is something all of them have said about Boris on uncountable occasions. But they are notably not gleeful about what has happened this week. In fact they’re concerned.
I know why. It’s because many people out there – people who sell their labour, people who don’t tweet, people who know that women don’t have penises – see Boris as one of the few politicians who took them seriously. Sure, he himself might not be very serious, with his crumpled demeanour and illegal birthday cake and amnesia about Pincher’s pinching. But when it came to that most serious moment in modern British politics – our leaving of the European Union – he treated ordinary people with more respect than any other member of the political class. And I know from many discussions I’ve had in recent years, and in recent hours, that people will remember that.
Every now and then it’s worth looking back on the fallout from 2016. This is not to dwell in the past. The cosmic radiation from that fallout is still being felt. ‘If Boris goes, Brexit goes’, some are saying right now, proof that Brexit is the moral universe we all still inhabit, whether you like it or not.
Back then, most MPs supported Remain. Seventy-five per cent of them in total. A staggering 95 per cent of Labour MPs backed Remain. There has in modern times been no better illustration of the gaping chasm that separates the liberal elites from ordinary people than the fact that a paltry five per cent of Labour MPs backed Leave, compared with 52 per cent of the public. From the get-go, voters knew they were in a fight not only with Brussels but with Westminster, too.
And boy, what a fight. During the interminable Remainer Parliament, MPs openly sought to frustrate Brexit. Keir Starmer demanded a second referendum, which would have entailed voiding the votes of millions of people and forcing them to vote again. Voters were frequently libelled in the media as dumb, xenophobic, ‘didn’t know what we were voting for’, yada yada.
Even Jeremy Corbyn, lifelong Eurosceptic, made a bonfire of his principles and fell in line with the second-referendum scam. Under pressure from the posh Fisher-Price Marxists who made up Momentum – all of whom yap about revolution all the time but who then wept into their probiotics when the masses dared to vote against European neoliberalism – Corbyn skulked into the arms of the anti-Brexit establishment.
Yes, efforts were made to make Brexit, or Brexit-ish, happen. Theresa May tried, but there were too many compromises. It fell apart. It bamboozles me to this day that more people in my profession could not see what grave harm would be done to democracy – and to the sense of belonging of vast numbers of voters – if this great democratic act was thwarted.
Into this wild moment came Boris Johnson. ‘I’ll get Brexit done’, he said. That was all it took for 14 million people to give him their votes. It was a landslide, and it was a landslide for this reason: millions felt that, finally, someone was taking them seriously. It might have been a bumbling son of privilege, with an alien accent and strange habits, but beggars can’t be choosers. I know many of those voters who felt an extraordinary sense of relief when they realised there was a politician who was going to – wait for it – uphold their votes. Who was going to uphold the thing their great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers fought for: the right of citizens to determine the political future of the nation.
This is what Boris means, or at least meant, to many. Yes, some lost faith in him. Many think he squandered the potential of populism. I think they’re right about that. But you know what? He gave it a shot. He at least tried to give voice to the people’s political desires when almost nobody else would. This is why there are people out there now who are not sharing Boris-bashing memes or relishing in his fall from grace. They’re worrying about what will come next, and the possibility that it will be that old establishment again, with its wagging finger and its hard-to-hide disdain. You fear Boris, they fear what comes after Boris.
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