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Boris Johnson’s Luck Is About to Run Out

Boris Johnson’s career has been one long romp of consequence-free irresponsibility. Now, as he faces an impossible Brexit and unprecedented public scrutiny, his lucky streak is about to end.

Newly elected leader of the Conservative Party Boris Johnson gestures at Conservative Party HQ in Westminster on July 23, 2019 in London, England. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

With crushing inevitability, Boris Johnson becomes the next British prime minister: the twentieth Old Etonian to occupy 10 Downing Street, and a former member of the same exclusive dining club as David Cameron. A photograph of the pair at the infamous Bullingdon Club was unearthed several years ago and is indicative of the rot within the party: the invitation-only club was known for the appalling, drunken behavior of its members, with rumors they would trash restaurants then casually drop checks covering the damage. In an attempt to stymie the reputational damage, the party listed the Bullingdon Club as a proscribed organization at the end of last year. Conservative members can no more have membership in Cameron and Johnson’s former dinner society than in the Islamic State. The hangover remains, however, and the party is still riven with privilege and ostentatious wealth.

What will a Boris Johnson premiership possibly look like? A few clues have been dropped on his path to victory. When asked about Brexit repeatedly, Johnson stuck on the phrase “do or die”: the United Kingdom will leave the European Union by the deadline of October 31, “do or die.” On the BBC in the few hours before the official announcement, this phrase rang from the television every few minutes. Asked about specific policies, Johnson obfuscated and made jokes, but insisted time and again that he would take the United Kingdom out of Europe by Halloween with or without a deal. “Do or die” remains his philosophy, and he has made clear he is perfectly happy to behave in a far less cautious manner than Theresa May.

Johnson was never hugely committed to Brexit — he famously wrote two columns for the Telegraph, one anti-Brexit and one in favor of leaving, and decided which to submit at the last minute. His main political concern has always and only been his own advancement. Johnson has had multiple affairs that have been made public, has been sacked from many jobs for poor conduct, and failed to fulfill many of his duties as London mayor, essentially working part-time. Everything Johnson does is half-hearted, and the focus is on his own fulfillment rather than any abiding sense of public duty. A likely scenario after Johnson’s ascent to the premiership is that he simply won’t take the role seriously and will walk away as soon as the boredom hits.

Johnson has made clear he is happy to careen into a no-deal Brexit scenario; advocates of such a move routinely dismiss concerns over what that might mean in the short term. The National Health Service has been asked to stockpile four months worth of medication to ensure that serious health conditions aren’t exacerbated by a period without trade agreements in place: they have struggled in particular with medication for epilepsy and diabetes, two conditions that can cause death if even one dose is missed. Small businesses in the north of Ireland are at risk of collapse if we crash out with no deal; profits aren’t large enough to withstand a sudden collapse in exports, and attempts to gain clarity from the government has failed.

Johnson’s coronation is symptomatic of a sickness in British society: during the referendum in 2016, Conservative minister and Leave campaigner Michael Gove was widely mocked by stating in a televised debate that “The country has had enough of experts.” There was a truth to that claim that becomes ever clearer: the negotiations that followed the referendum have seen those with knowledge of trade agreements and European politics and law dismissed, and any attempt at fleshing out detail ridiculed. People with almost no knowledge of how the European Union works are happy to argue that any deal can be struck with Europe if the British politicians tasked with the burden simply brazen it out, grandstand, and threaten to walk away. Johnson will succeed where May failed, several politicians told TV cameras today. Why? Though nothing has changed, when May said the United Kingdom might leave with “No Deal,” the European Union did not believe her, but it will believe Johnson. This seems a small difference and not one that is concrete in its analysis, or borne out by speaking to people in Europe. Disappointment is likely to be swift.

“Do or die” as a philosophy is unlikely to bring unity to parliament any time soon. Johnson has already provoked a raft of resignations by Tory ministers who refuse to serve under a Johnson premiership. Those touring the airwaves praising Team Johnson are at the fringes of the party, on the extreme right, often having been sacked previously (such as former minister Priti Patel). Johnson’s honeymoon period will scarcely exist: his focus will instantly be on Brexit, and his approach will be scrutinized; when faced with Johnson’s “do or die” maxim, EU leaders are likely to force the “die” option.

Johnson’s political history has been marked by laziness, lies, arrogance, and a furious temper. He represents everything that is wrong with the English elite: over-privileged, prone to lazy sexism, racism, homophobic jibes, and unbearable class snobbery. Men from wealthy backgrounds are rarely confined by the limits of their abilities: they endlessly fail upwards, lifted out of roles where they would otherwise cause harm. Johnson has now reached his zenith, but this will also prove his undoing: with all eyes on him, it is harder to hide his failures. As London mayor and foreign secretary, he was lazy and unqualified, but attention was focused elsewhere. Now, his failures will be beamed into the homes of millions.

Johnson might be popular with a chunk of the Conservative electorate, but polling shows other voters find him repellent. Soon, he will discover that Brexit remains an insurmountable obstacle, with the only way out likely being a general election. He may get a short, sharp shock when an electorate of 47 million UK voters have a very different opinion than the 90,000 Conservative members who’ve made him prime minister.