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How Boris Johnson’s Ruthless Ambition Could Topple Theresa May

The Churchill wannabe’s resignation is the latest self-serving stunt from Britain’s most notorious politician.

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Hannah McKay/Reuters

Any British prime minister would want Boris Johnson inside the tent pissing out, not pissing in. The trouble for Theresa May has been that he was pissing in from inside.

Johnson is the most unscrupulously ambitious politician Britain has seen in generations. Now, by resigning as foreign secretary, he has chosen his moment to strike at the very wobbly edifice of May’s government as she tries to impose her vision of Brexit on her cabinet.

Since the true scale of the self-harm involved in a full-blown version of Brexit has become apparent, May has been desperately trying to pull back to what is euphemistically called a “soft” Brexit in which the essential commerce between Europe and the U.K. remains relatively undisrupted.

Johnson has always been the face of ultra-Brexit, pushing the delusional idea that Britain can revert to some fanciful independent glory of the past.

Whether he actually ever believed in this tosh is unclear. His whole blond-capped persona has been carefully modeled on an impersonation of the historical giant he fancies that he follows, Winston Churchill.

This is not the real Churchill, who was instinctively pro-European and had learned from his wartime experience that a down-sized Britain could flourish only through alliances, principally with the U.S. and a free Europe. No, Johnson’s Churchill was an imperial supremacist (Churchill’s weak spot was his reluctance to cede independence to India) and Little Englander.

This enabled Johnson to sell himself as the logical catalyst for a slew of resentments that surfaced in the Brexit movement, most of them related to immigrants. Until then he had shown few signs of xenophobia. As mayor of London he had presided over Europe’s largest city as it became a model of multiracial evolution.

Anyone watching the spectacular opening night of the 2012 London Olympics, with a surrogate Queen dropping into the arena with James Bond, could not have sensed that this great multi-cultural pageant concealed a seething pit of racism. Apparently, Johnson did. And decided to ignore the stench and, instead, exploit it.

The first and most effective peddler of the anti-immigrant toxins was a deceivingly clownish figure named Nigel Farage. He was usually seen clutching a pint of beer and grinning inanely as he worked up primitive prejudices in his audiences, composed mostly of members of his United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP.

Farage—who, for a while, was a pushy camp-follower during the Trump campaign—was noisy but politically incompetent, unable to protect the leadership of his party against the inroads of more lunatic fringes.

In contrast, Johnson was truly a career politician, both as a journalist and as a member of Parliament, and once he appropriated Farage’s message, albeit with more subtlety, and fed it into the receptive ears of the Tory party’s permanently disgruntled right wing he realized that he’d acquired a constituency of his own that he might just be able to ride to 10 Downing Street.

His ability to make this move reveals both Johnson’s instinctive strengths and his flaws. He was always a dissembler, able to shift shape and voice to the mood and opportunities of the moment. As mayor of London he acquired proprietorial ego. Everything was a Boris brand—from the Boris Bikes that he promoted as personal transport via rental stations all over the city to a fanciful conceit called the new Boris Airport, a replacement for Heathrow sited improbably on an island in the Thames Estuary.

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The flaw that went with the hoopla and self-promotion was a neglect of actual day-to-day application to the job. He took the credit for what was most often good staff work. Together with this went an incontinent love of personal publicity. Quite often, it left the impression of an egotistical buffoon. In fact, the term buffoon stuck to him to a degree that, in a strange way, it served as cover for the truly ruthless and unprincipled political schemer he had become.

There’s been a continuing commentary during his time as foreign secretary that he was terrible at the job, as he more or less told the European Union’s leadership that they had to swallow Brexit on his terms, not theirs, because they needed the U.K. more than the U.K. needed them.

This naked ultra-Brexit behavior undermined May’s negotiating position from the start—not that she was particularly coherent.

Then, lately, Johnson astounded leading British industrialists, who were growing increasingly alarmed by the absence of any post-Brexit design that enabled them to plan more than a few months ahead, by blurting out “Fuck business” as a response to their concerns.

Johnson was revealed as totally illiterate in the basic functions of international business. Some of Britain’s most advanced companies are inextricably linked with partners in both the U.S. and Europe. In aerospace, for example, Britain is a key partner in Airbus. Elaborate cross-border supply chains depend on the very freedom of commerce that Johnson’s ultra-Brexit would destroy.

The head of Airbus warned that if Johnson had his way Britain would most likely lose its role in making all the wings for Airbus jets—a devastating loss of both business and prestige. The Indian owners of the thriving Jaguar-Land Rover brands similarly warned that ultra-Brexit would force them to close British plants and move production to Europe.

Brexit could end up becoming the single greatest destroyer of the inherent worth of the British economy. Instead of restoring some atavistic self-confidence in the country, Johnson, if he succeeds in his intent to bring down May and replace her, will be revealed as the real architect of that catastrophe.