Me, me, me. That’s always been the bottom line for Boris Johnson, hasn’t it? And it’s what we’re all going to get now. A whole summer season devoted to just one man. His debut speech outside his new home on Downing Street! His first set of ministers to play with! His very own poll bounce!
Morsel after marvellous morsel shall be served up in the papers and on TV by Conservative MPs and commentators. For his boosters, there will be the first 100 days of speeches and photo ops, and endless bloviating optimism. For his critics, there will be his vast yellowing back catalogue of falsehoods and flubs. For Johnson, all of them wind around to the same fabulous end: him, him, him.
But for the rest of us, such slavish focus on Johnson misses precisely what is most dangerous about this moment. It is not that our new prime minister is evil, or even that he has a devilish strategy to remake the nation. It is that he is reckless, thoughtless, and couldn’t care less. The old Bullingdon boy has never outgrown the habit of trashing a place and leaving the skivvies to clear up and the bills to someone else. And just when the UK is at its most combustible in generations, a mere 92,000 people – 0.1% of the population – have chosen a man who enjoys playing with matches.
Yes, I do mean combustible. Look at a report last week from Hope Not Hate, a charity that monitors political extremism. It asked more than 6,000 Britons if they would join a campaign to defend Brexit from being reversed. Almost two-thirds of leave voters said they would. Then they were asked: what if that campaign turns violent? Again, almost two-thirds said it wouldn’t put them off. They would happily sit through ugly threats, bloodied faces, broken bones. Some might even join in, because the means can self-justify the ends.
My point is not that leave voters are a bunch of vicious brutes while remainers are all cut from the same handloom cloth as Gandhi; it is that this is where extreme polarisation of politics and economics, rolled up in the gift-wrap of identity, is taking the country. The fury that some of us spotted while reporting on the 2016 referendum has moved from the saloon bar into the party hustings.
“Bit by bit, Brexit is ripping down the firewalls to political violence,” says Cormac Hollingsworth, a Hope Not Hate director. At the hate crime monitoring unit, Tell Mama, Fiyaz Mughal talks of a “market for bigoted ideas that has grown significantly” over the past decade, even as “the middle ground has shrunk”.
This is not the UK you were told about. Central to this country’s origin myth is that it doesn’t do violent extremism. Britons never had a revolution, our textbooks inform us, and never swooned over a dictator; they preferred tolerance and a cup of tea. It wasn’t entirely true – just ask those massacred at St Peter’s Fields in 19th-century Manchester, or at Jallianwala Bagh in 20th-century Punjab – but it formed the eternal framing for the UK’s self-image. Until yesterday, when it became laughably redundant.
As recently as the 2016 EU referendum, leave mastermind Dominic Cummings froze out Nigel Farage and his Ukippers on the grounds that they were too nasty to win the vote. Yet today, Britain will have as its prime minister a Conservative whose chief claim to the job is that he can outflank the Farage army.
Add to that rancorous, resentful politics the shockwaves yet to come. Even without a disastrous Brexit, the economy is careering towards recession. The country’s entire business model will have to be reinvented, even while there are barely any politicians or scholars doing the necessary thinking. And then consider what crashing out of the EU without a deal will do to national life. That prospect this spring led to 10,000 riot police being readied to go on the streets.
Johnson has been briefed by Whitehall officials that no deal will produce civil unrest and possibly shortages of fresh food and clean water – a briefing that, the Sunday Times reports, left him “visibly shaken”.
Let us not waste our time pondering whether the new prime minister is prepared for such historic turbulence. He isn’t. “Do you look daunted? Do you feel daunted?” he asked Tory activists yesterday, expecting a big pantomime-style “No!”, when a quieter, wiser man would have known that the right answer should be yes. This is the most daunting set of circumstances Britain has faced in generations; we need a prime minister ready to face up to them.
Instead, we have the blond Nero, tousling his hair while the union disintegrates. Last week he promised the party faithful that a Halloween Brexit would not cause a Mars bar shortage. This week he compared leaving the EU to the Apollo landing on the moon. His gift is for rhetoric, not detail. His trademark is moneyed nihilism. At the Foreign Office his lack of preparedness as good as condemned an innocent mother to an indefinite term in an Iranian prison. As London’s mayor he scooped the credit for Ken Livingstone winning the Olympics bid, tried to stay on holiday during the 2011 riots, and spent the rest of his time dreaming up monuments to himself: Boris island airport, the garden bridge.
Among the iron laws of history is that when things get tough, some people always get hurt more than others. Among the iron laws of Johnson’s biography is that he always put himself on the side of the bully. Are you a Muslim woman being spat at in the street? Johnson will laugh at you as a letterbox in one of those columns that earns him £275,000 a year. Are you a black person suffering racial abuse? Then enjoy our most famous living Old Etonian joining in with his jibes about “picanninies” and “watermelon smiles”.
At times, Johnson sounds like Donald Trump using more syllables. But there is one crucial difference. The US president will happily allow crowds to chant about locking up Hillary Clinton or sending Ilhan Omar back and not care about inciting violence. Trump is after blood. Johnson, one suspects, would prefer a slobbering snog. He just wants to be liked by whoever is in the ascendancy. And the ascendant politician of our age is Farage. It is the man once dubbed a fruitcake by David Cameron who will lead our prime minister further and further into extremism. And it will be a path easy for Johnson to follow, as our politics become ever more sour and our economy heads south.
At the moment when the country needs a truth-teller, it has instead an incontinent liar. In one of this country’s darkest hours, we have installed in No 10 the poor man’s Winston Churchill. Except it isn’t a V for victory we see; it’s a V-sign that the millionaire manchild is flicking at the rest of us.
• Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist
The UK is at its most combustible. And now it’s led by a man who plays with matches – The Guardian