So, the political situation is inclement, the room for maneuver limited, the stakes high. For another politician, assuming power in such circumstances would be daunting — but not necessarily dangerous. In a system that grants significant autonomy to prime ministers and relies on their propriety, character matters. The same scenario can play out differently in different hands. That’s why, in the end, analysis comes back to Mr. Johnson and his terrible personality.
He prizes victory above government — his first ambition as a child was to be “world king” — and his political career has been marked by ferocity of campaigning and indifference in office, as both London mayor and foreign secretary. His contempt of scrutiny is plain to see: He was irked and petulant when challenged over budget cuts, the waste of public money on vanity projects or diplomatic gaffes. His easy talk of parliamentary prorogation — effectively suspending the legislature — may be a taste of the chaos to come.
He seems not to have principles. In the late ’90s he told a surprised colleague he was “worried I haven’t got any political opinions” — before going on to rehearse a hit parade of right-wing classics about “picanninies” and “bum boys” in his Telegraph column. While the insight into the void at the heart of Mr. Johnson’s blond ambition is striking, there are some constants to his politics other than his spectacular mendacity: his defense of bankers and pursuit of tax cuts, and a loathing for those who call him to account over facts.
Reality will prove unavoidable on Oct. 31, however Mr. Johnson bluffs. Predictions about Brexit generally assume too much stability in the status quo; Mr. Johnson’s slipperiness makes it harder still to predict. Tackling Britain’s deep divisions requires depth of character, conviction and principle, none of which its incoming prime minister has ever hinted at possessing.
In Mr. Johnson’s queasy novel, thankfully his only one to date, a thinly disguised Boris-like politician muses that “the whole world just seemed to be a complicated joke.”
Britain may be about to discover how it feels to be the punch line.
James Butler (@piercepenniless) is a co-founder of Novara Media whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The London Review of Books and Vice.
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