The UK’s Part-Time Prime Minister

The UK media are starting to refer to Boris “BoJo” Johnson as the “part-time prime minister” or “invisible man”.

Immediately after he won the general election in December BoJo took off with his latest mistress, Carrie Symonds, for a 2-week break (paid for by an unknown donor) on a private Caribbean island.

At the end of February, as parts of the UK were engulfed by record flooding, and the COVID-19 virus was starting appear, BoJo was nowhere to be found—he disappeared from public view for 12 days to take break at Chevening, a large country house in Kent available to the prime minister or a senior Cabinet member.

It was then announced that Symonds was expecting a child in mid-summer, and that Johnson and she were engaged. This would be the sixth child BoJo has acknowledged publicly, though there are thought to be others, and BoJo has never specified the number of children he’s fathered, despite being asked repeatedly to do so by journalists on the campaign trail.

The UK’s #1 deadbeat dad said he will start his paternity leave in the summer.

BoJo’s indolence goes a long way back.  Writing of him in his Eton school report in April 1982, his housemaster said:

“Boris really has adopted a disgracefully cavalier attitude to his classical studies . . .
Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of the School for next half): I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”.

Four decades later– punctuated by an indifferent career in journalism that owed more to the old-boy network than any talent (he managed to get himself fired from one job with a newspaper), and undistinguished spells in his political career as mayor of London and foreign secretary—  the “disgracefully cavalier” BoJo is still with us, and not only that, he’s even managed to con his way to the UK’s top political position (mainly by lying about “getting Brexit done” and having an “oven-ready Brexit deal”), and thanks to a combination of good fortune and brazen treachery towards his predecessor as prime minister Theresa May.

The COVID-19 crisis has caught-out BoJo, who is most at home being glib and facile, a clown act with a line in racist and homophobic jokes, very much the pantomime leader who does well in front of a sympathetic audience.

Panto BoJo is now required to show himself to be serious and well-informed, and that he can concentrate on the minutiae of a major crisis.

Alas, an incessant zest for fornication seems to be the only interest the part-time prime minister can pursue for any length of time and with any consistency of purpose.

Couple this with the fact BoJo has always been loyal to no-one but himself, and Ukania has thus managed to elect its worst prime minister of modern times, while facing its greatest (three-pronged) crisis—Brexit, historically bad weather, and the coronavirus pandemic– since World War II.

February was the UK’s wettest February since official records were first kept in 1862, beating the previous record set in 1990. Flooding was at unprecedented levels as well. BoJo was nowhere to be seen for most of February, and when he finally visited a flood-stricken town in the West Midlands he was jeered and met with calls of “traitor”.

Accused of going AWOL, BoJo said “what I was doing was directing operations … Obviously, I’m working around the clock on various things, as indeed is the government”.

It is clear from the questions he faced from journalists about the floods that BoJo knows nothing about these (or indeed any) flood defence operations, so his claim to be “directing operations” is poppycock.

To become prime minister, BoJo and his handlers came up with an election-campaign buffet of fantastic plans to transform the UK–  first, negotiate Brexit and secure a deal with the EU that gave him everything he wanted; then strike post-Brexit trade deals with everyone else, including Trump; somehow make London “the Singapore on the Thames”; spend billions on infrastructure; “level-up” the deprived north in relation to the economically-privileged south; build 40 new hospitals; fix social care and homelessness; make mental health provision available on demand; reshape the civil service; and so forth.

And all without raising taxes on the rich!

Astonishingly, though for many informed Brits this not really a major surprise, BoJo managed to convince/con a sufficient number of his compatriots to swallow this baloney and give him an 80-seat majority in the general election.

This is the electoral equivalent of convincing someone to buy a large tract of mosquito-infested swampland in the hope of turning it into a luxury property development– alas in these days of a massively media-inflected rightwing populism ((Murdoch!) such scenarios are somehow eminently realizable for the appropriately gullible.

It is easy to view this ostensible self-defeating populism as “turkeys voting for Christmas”, “chickens voting for the fox to guard their coop”, “deplorables shooting themselves in the foot”, and so on, but this assessment has to be resisted (though I confess to having succumbed to it occasionally on social media in the heat of the moment).

Why say this?

The late Benedict Anderson proposed the notion of an “imagined community” to account for the phenomenon of third-world nationalisms. This notion has since been generalized, since most of us happen to belong, whether overtly or covertly, to one or more imagined communities.

These imagined communities, in their myriad modes and phases of implementation, may already be realized, or are in the process of being realized, or are realizable as a future attainable prospect, or can be pretty much unrealizable even if powerfully active at the level of the imagination.

The truth is that BoJo’s right-wing Brexit scenario afforded large numbers of Brits– living in its blighted post-industrial regions, for decades mere pawns of the forces of globalization and neoliberalism, with many afflicted by a concomitant “Shit-Life Syndrome”– with only BoJo’s rose-tinted Brexit scenario as a horizon for anything like an “imagined community”.

How can any decent person disavow this desire, at once hopeful or perhaps hopeless at the same time, on the part of those who want a less shitty life?

The task facing a socialist Labour party is nothing less than the formation of an imagined community, for masses of women, men, and children, not ultimately constrained by the diktats of neoliberalism and globalization.

For now, however, Labour is caught-up in internal reflection and renegotiation, while going through its convoluted process of finding a successor to the much-traduced Jeremy Corbyn.

The front-runner in this contest so far has been the Blairite Sir Keir Starmer, a smooth-talking lawyer whose “forensic skills” are deemed by the media to be essential for taking on the blustering and often incoherent BoJo.

This seems odd, since the UK’s overwhelmingly right-wing media support BoJo to the hilt, while now somehow wanting Starmer to be the leader of the main party opposing BoJo.

The US’s media espousing Joe Biden as the “appropriate” Democratic candidate to challenge Trump comes to mind as an obvious comparison in this regard.

Starmer, while immensely more intelligent, capable and personable, is the UK’s functional equivalent of Joe Biden. The senile Biden comes across as a complete phony, while the same cannot be said of Starmer.

Commendable though many lawyers are, the last lawyer to lead the Labour party was the war criminal and bona fide neoliberal Tony Blair.

Electing Starmer as Labour leader will of course be an absolute coincidence when any comparison with regard to Blair comes to mind.

At the same time, it is clear that Labour’s Blairites, who were unrelenting in their efforts to undermine Corbyn and his supporters, are looking for revenge for what they regard as a Corbynite usurpation, and may have found their man in Starmer.

The possible choice of Starmer is mainly about the calculation of potential success in parliamentary elections, and not about the formation of an imagined community unconstrained by the edicts of neoliberalism and globalization.

The formation of this community was the heart of the Corbynite project.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.