I came to Oxford from India the same year Boris Johnson was first elected to the parliament from the safe Conservative seat of Henley in Oxfordshire. I was reading philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), a degree that Andy Beckett of The Guardian termed “the Oxford degree that runs Britain.” Both David Cameron and Liz Truss read PPE as did Rishi Sunak, the frontrunner to be prime minister.
Like many foreign scholars before me, I debated at the Oxford Union. I met fiendishly clever debaters such as Ewan Smith, Sarah Munby (then Monroe) and Tom Hay. I also ran into knaves who are best left unnamed. In conversations with both the clever and the cads, a name came up repeatedly in discussion: Boris Johnson.
As a foreigner, I failed to see the charm of Johnson. To me, he seemed a pathological liar. Johnson was so transparently dishonest that it was surprising, if not shocking, to find clever people dance to his tune. Even then, he was truly a Pied Piper, especially for young Tories. They swore by The Spectator, used his phrases in debates and waxed lyrical about Boris’s brilliance.
Over time, I began to understand Johnson’s appeal. As I wrote on July 24, 2019, “this Old Etonian is a lovable Falstaffian rogue.” He is Lord Flashheart of the comedy classic Blackadder, a modern Henry VIII and even a portly James Bond known for derring-do and top-level shagging. Johnson breezes through life as the ultimate smooth-talking amateur, cool as a cucumber under pressure. In brief, Johnson or BoJo, as he is often called, is a British cultural archetype. It is for this reason that, in the words of fellow Old Etonian Cameron, Johnson “defies all forms of gravity.”
A Supremely English Cad
Ken Clarke was once known as the big beast in British politics. Today, the big beast is Boris. Persistent lies, numerous scandals and even illegitimate children have failed to sink BoJo. Like a phoenix, he has repeatedly risen from the ashes.
Yet it would be churlish to deny that BoJo has managed historic achievements. He made Brexit possible. Nigel Farage alone could not have led the Brexiteers to victory. As inflation, rising interest rates and mounting debt increase strains within the EU, Boris might emerge as the modern day Henry VIII who paved the way for the great escape from Europe.
Henry’s reasons for creating the Church of England were not quite honorable but, arguably, the breach with Rome led to the British Empire. Brexit might not lead to Empire II but it could save the UK from a disaster-headed EU. Many equanimous Brits see the current turbulence as a passing phase. After all, German cars, French cheeses and Italian wines are still sold in the UK. In Ukraine, Brits are playing a role second only to Americans in taking on Vladimir Putin. And they can thank BoJo for it. There is life in the canny old dog yet.
Arise King Boris, Father of Brexit and Foe of Brussels
BoJo has proved to be a winner. In 2019, the Conservatives won 365 seats out of 650 in the House of Commons. Under Boris, the Tories smashed the “red wall” of solid Labour seats in northern England. Not since Margaret Thatcher has anyone led the Tories to such a victory. Scandal and the loss of two key by-elections led to a palace coup. Conservative MPs ousted Johnson in much the same way as their predecessors defenestrated Thatcher.
After a protracted leadership election, Truss won. Her government proved to have “the shelf-life of a lettuce.” Unfunded tax cuts and energy-price guarantees spooked markets, put the pound in freefall and caused bond yields to rise. The Bank of England was forced to intervene twice. Truss resigned after 45 days, becoming the shortest-serving prime minister ever. Some would argue that, like Thatcher and Theresa May, Truss was a Roundhead. Cameron and Johnson are Cavaliers. The English Civil War of the 17th century continues within the Conservative Party with full-on blue-on-blue conflict. Now that a doctrinaire low-tax, high-growth Roundhead is out, Big Boris might be dreaming of returning à la the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
Dishy Rishi Stands in the Way
Even as Johnson is cutting short his holiday and flying back from the Dominican Republic, Sunak has already managed to get 93 MPs lined up behind him. Unlike Truss, Sunak is a Cavalier. He might be the son of immigrants but he went to Winchester College, a boarding school even older than Eton. Founded by William of Wykeham in 1382, the school’s former pupils are called Wykehamists or, as a wag remarked, the special ones. So special is Sunak that he confessed to not having any working class friends, causing some controversy during his campaign.
Sunak is not only a Wykehamist but he is also a PPEist. He worked at Goldman Sachs, did an MBA at Stanford and became a partner at The Children’s Investment (TCI) Fund Management, a top-level hedge fund. At Stanford, Sunak met Akshata Murty, the daughter of an Indian software billionaire, and went on to marry her. Unlike Johnson, Sunak is a family man. There is not even any rumor of an affair. As a mutual friend remarked, Sunak is smart and can count. An affair would be far too expensive a proposition. He has a taste for fine things in life and his natty suits have won him the nickname Dishy Rishi.
In the leadership election debate, Sunak was on the money when he declared that the most pressing priority for the new government was inflation. He opposed any “unfunded spree of borrowing and more debt,” which he predicted would make things worse. When Truss said that inflation was because of loose monetary policy, Sunak declared, “borrowing your way out of inflation is a fairytale.” Sunak has been proved right. Many are convinced that this Goldman Sachs golden boy is the best man for the top job.
Big and beefy Boris faces slim and sexy Sunak on his return to 10 Downing Street. Some hold that BoJo will back out, let Dishy Rishi deal with the mess he has created, let Labour win the next election, screw it up and then ride back to power on a triumphal chariot as the savior of the Tories. Others argue that he will never let Sunak, the snake he picked out of obscurity, slither into 10 Downing Street. Dishy Rishi’s resignation led to Big Boris’s downfall. Now, BoJo is plotting revenge.
Like last time, most MPs will back Sunak. They want a safe pair of hands on the tiller. However, the 172,000 members of the Conservative Party have the final say. They tend to be older and whiter in comparison to today’s multicultural and multiracial Britain. As a friend remarked, it is hard to get grannies in Dorset or Somerset to vote for a brownie fuzzy wuzzy even if he is rich and posh. The fact that Sunak’s wife had claimed non-domicile status, saving millions of pounds in tax, also makes many old school Tories suspicious. They have doubts about Dishy Rishi being entirely British.
Despite all his sins, the Tory rank and file adore Boris. They are likely to vote for him, not Sunak. If he can squeak through the parliamentary vote. Big Boris could well be back.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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