The Trade Dreams of Boris Johnson

“My chances of being PM are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive.”

— Boris Johnson, UK Foreign Secretary

Few characters in history have seen so much spoken about him for one seemingly so irrelevant.  Out of obscure follies and foolhardy decisions, he rose from being a questionable journalist for The Times, sacked, no less, for falsifying the news, to being editor at The Spectator. He also became a local Tory MP.  Stints at publicity and image management started to push him into the fray.

Before Donald Trump, before Brexit, there was Boris, sacked for philandering (to be more precise, lying about his philandering to his Tory constituency) in 2004 and for essentially charting parallel universes capable of only accommodating himself. That way lies not just madness but crowded, warped contradiction.

Then came the improbabilities made probable: the first politician to host the legendary satirical news program Have I Got News For You where he went like an enthusiastic lamb to the comedic slaughter; the position of Mayor of London, which provided another astonishment for the pollsters.

Having won the mayoral contest for London suspecting all the time that Prime Minister David Cameron wanted him out of the way, Boris sat prettily, and innocuously, from 2008. But what mattered, and where he came into his own, was the dream that became Brexit, his finger poking gesture at the European Union laced with mendacity and loose figures.

For months, he hedged his bets. He wrote columns in preparation for and against leaving the EU, tinkering the argument to suit the audience.  In truly schizophrenic fashion, he belies the British condition towards Europe, on the one hand finding the continent unavoidable and indispensable, yet loathing its paper pushing governance. As Sir Nicholas Soames had kept saying, Boris was “not an outer”, being very much, and very gaily, of the remain set.  For all that, he was outing all the way.

His entire campaign against the European Union, pursued with boyish enthusiasm on the stump and via the lucrative slot with The Daily Telegraph, was prefaced on conjuring up what was termed “a new reality”, where “correspondents witnessed Johnson shaping the narrative that morphed into our present-day populist Euroscepticism.”[1]  It was truly the stuff of Breitbart journalism, just wittier.

During his as Mayor, he also managed to create his own variant of the alt-fact world.  He dreamed about manned ticket officers for every station throughout the London transport network, but proceeded to close them down. He spoke of reducing transport fares, only to increase them by 4.2 percent.[2]

The end in this cornucopia, then, is illusion fed by no uncertain amount with bountiful delusion. His views on trade opportunities dragged out from former imperial domains is not merely speculation, but charmingly fanciful.

Sounding like a crazed Colonel Blimp, he believes that Indians will slash tariffs on whisky brought into the country with colonial charm and exuberance.  In January, on a trip to the country, he claimed that bringing something “for our Sikh relatives who live in both Delhi and Mumbai” was always mandatory given the “tariff of 150 per cent on whisky imports”.[3]

In his first major speech of the general election campaign, he dreamed about a plenitude of trade deals that drew more on an archive of fantasy than concrete, drawn up negotiations.  “I was amazed, when walking the backstreets of Uxbridge, to find a little company that makes the wooden display counters that are used to sell the duty free Toblerones in every Saudi Arabian airport.”  The key was to “crack markets like that”.

Then there was the United States, an enormous market that beckons.  Eager to cultivate relations with the Trump team, he scooted across the Atlantic in January to see if the position of the previous Obama administration placing the UK to the back of any free trade negotiating queue still held sway.  “We hear,” he chirped to journalists, “that we are first in line to do a great free trade deal with the United States.”[4]

He might have left such speculation there, but Johnson has never shied away from the foolish, not to mention bizarrely crumbling afterthought. A US-UK free trade deal, he surmised in the first campaign speech, could see the US overturn their “ban on British haggis”, one that has been in place since 1971.

Even peering into the suspicious minds of the US Department of Agriculture, which made the decision based on its objection to the use of sheep’s lung, a salient ingredient in haggis, is not beyond Johnson.

As Foreign Secretary, looking every bit a whimsical, witty loon who just might set the party on fire at any given moment, he is on electioneering duty for Prime Minister Theresa May.  He has already demonstrated school-boy maturity by observing that Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is no more than a “mutton-headed old mugwump”.

Not wanting to be outdone, deputy Labour Tom Watson came back with the retort that he was “a caggie-handed cheese-headed fopdoodle with a talent for slummocking about.”  Rarely has British politics descended to such a level of Hades, a point Johnson would find not just refreshing but natural and alternative.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/26/boris-johnson-latest-euro-myth-brexit

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/why-are-we-so-surprised-that-boris-johnson-lied-when-he-s-been-sacked-for-lying-twice-before-a7105976.html

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/foreign-secretarys-speech-at-raisina-dialogue-new-delhi

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/09/boris-johnson-holds-warm-and-frank-talks-with-trump-aides

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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