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Boris Johnson, the 'Brexit Election' and Ireland
Last week, Boris Johnson was noticeably absent from a key campaign stop in the UK’s general election race, choosing to snub a Channel 4 leaders’ debate. The Prime Minister has form in this. He initially refused to take part in a televised debate during June’s Conservative leadership contest, until his rivals ganged up and goaded him into it. He has so far avoided the traditional pre-election interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, opting instead to speak with Andrew Marr last Sunday.
Fellow politicians have called Johnson out for being a ‘scaredy cat’ who ‘can’t take the heat’. He was a no-show at last Thursday’s debate on climate change, where he was replaced by a rapidly melting ice sculpture. The metaphors write themselves. Citing a diary clash, Boris sent his father—erstwhile Conservative MEP and Prime Minister of the I’m a Celebrity jungle camp Stanley Johnson—in his stead. That’s right, your da is at it again.
Before the Channel 4 debate, Stanley chatted with a television crew alongside Conservative MP Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for the Environment. While Stanley talked, the latter hovered like a cardboard cut-out stand-in for the Tories—a function for which the characterless Gove is supremely well-suited. Poor Gove was not allowed to participate in the debate and Stanley hardly let him get a word in edgewise. When asked why Boris failed to turn up, Stanley declared, ‘I have exchanged what are called “WhatsApps” with him, and he said Michael Gove is coming…I’m extremely surprised that Channel 4 is taking this very, very narrow-minded view…Look, prime ministers have their own diaries, that is the reality of this world.’
Stanley has gotten a lot of mileage out of his role as Downing Street mouthpiece in this new ‘reality’. The day after the Channel 4 debate, he appeared on the BBC Breakfast show to discuss his son’s election campaign. Presenter Joanna Gosling noted the Prime Minister’s well-documented record as a liar, stating, ‘One of the viewers in our comments section call[ed] your son Pinocchio.’ Stanley retorted:
‘Pinocchio—that requires a degree of literacy, which the Great British public doesn’t necessarily have…They couldn’t actually spell Pinocchio if they tried…I think it is utterly absurd and wrong that you can read out a tweet on air coming in from one of your [viewers] which calls the Prime Minister a liar…it is amazing you can do that.’
Not only does Stanley Johnson suffer from the same elitist affliction of bilious verbal incontinence as his son, he is similarly loath to qualify his appalling statements. When Gosling asked Stanley to explain his pejorative comment, he replied that he ‘doesn’t want to get into it.’ Significantly, Stanley Johnson’s denouncement of the British public demonstrates the astounding level of cultural illiteracy that he and Boris also share. Despite public dismay at the PM’s absence from the climate change debate so near to election day, Boris didn’t seem to mind that his party wasn’t represented onstage; for his father was waiting in the wings to serve as his spokesman.
If Boris is Pinocchio, then Stanley Johnson is Mastro Geppetto, creator of the mischievous puppet-boy. In this shoddy remake of the beloved animated film, Pinocchio lies to the Red, White and Blue Fairy and promises her that he’ll be a good boy, then promptly sets off on a series of misadventures. When his father goes on a mission to rescue the prodigal son, they are both swallowed by Brexit, a Monstro of their own making. Stanley was pro-Remain during the 2016 referendum campaign, but later switched sides. Sound familiar?
Due to his inability to read the public, the Prime Minister has woven a tangled web of lies designed to temporarily appease both sides of the Brexit divide, while ultimately exasperating everyone. His cultural illiteracy is not limited to the Home Counties, however. It extends across the sea to the island of Ireland, a place about which Boris and Stanley are woefully and wilfully unlearned. They could learn a thing or two just by reading Irish Twitter, but I’m guessing they haven’t heard of the hashtag #BrexitMeHole.
Although the border in Ireland has been the main stumbling block for the Brexiteers throughout the protracted negotiations, it is an issue about which they know very little. A potential hard border post-Brexit is cause for serious concern as it would violate the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, threaten a fragile peace, and cut vital ties between Northern Ireland and the EU. Nevertheless, when speaking to Channel 4 (again) last year, Stanley Johnson expressed his disdain for ‘the Irish question,’ making outrageous, ahistorical claims such as: ‘There’s never been a hard border in Northern Ireland,’ and ‘There are plenty of countries in the EU where one country is in the EU and another country is not...And they don't shoot each other.’
Similarly, when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in July, he made a racist comment about Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, questioning why he ‘isn’t called Murphy like the rest of them.’ Furthermore, footage surfaced last month of the Conservative leader delivering a rambling, incoherent speech to the Tory party which contradicted their Brexit stance. He proclaimed that preserving free movement and access to the single market for Northern Ireland would be a ‘great deal’—thereby implying that ending these benefits for Britain is a bad deal. The video exposed Johnson’s profound misunderstanding of his own Brexit proposal and its regulatory implications for both sides of the Irish Sea.
Varadkar stated in November that he still doesn’t know what type of post-Brexit trade deal Johnson wants with the EU, remarking, ‘I'm looking forward to finding out.’ Despite insisting he wants to ‘get Brexit done,’ the PM’s address to his party reveals that he doesn’t know what sort of deal he wants either. Ahead of what’s been dubbed the ‘Brexit election’, we wait to see whether the UK will elect Boris, and whether he will elect to tell anyone the truth.
Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is Visiting Research Fellow in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. She writes a regular series on Brexit and Ireland for the Honest Ulsterman. She is co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @drdawnmiranda.Image credit: CC by Number 10/Flickr.