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Boris Johnson's masterclass for Machiavelli
Don’t be fooled by Boris Johnson’s latest antic in Myanmar earlier this year where the foreign secretary was inside the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist site in the capital Yangon, when he started uttering the opening verse to The Road to Mandalay, including the line: “The temple bells they say/ Come you back you English soldier.”
Yes, the footage shot by Channel 4 as part of a documentary on Mr Johnson shown on Sunday with the foreign secretary’s impromptu recital of colonial-era poem was utterly embarrassing and completely against basic diplomatic protocol and yes the British ambassador was 100% correct in asking him to stop but such flag-waving nostalgia on display was not as impulsive as it looked. If you asked me, it was not impulsive at all.
Boris, in my view, knew what he is doing. In fact, contrary to popular belief, nothing Boris Johnson does, says, or writes is impulsive or careless. Every statement, every intervention and every ‘gaffe’ has been calculated with Swiss-made watch precision to get Johnson eventually where he desperately wants to be: 10 Downing St, Westminster, London SW1A 2AA
Let’s take, for example, his now infamous 4000-word essay (manifesto is perhaps a better description) for the Daily Telegraph in mid- September laying out his political vision on Brexit, days before his boss, Theresa May was scheduled to give a much-anticipated speech on her Brexit policy in Florence. The timing of the article said everything you needed to know about Johnson’s ambitions. For it was specifically designed to provoke, undermine and infuriate an already vulnerable Prime Minister. If Theresa May were to fire Johnson, she would instantly make him a martyr and even more dangerous. The whole idea of bringing Boris into the cabinet was precisely because it was thought that from inside he could be controlled and contained. So she didn’t. And so it goes on.
Johnson has been called many things: an egomaniac, a narcissist, a charlatan, a clown, a liar and he probably is all these things (traits, it has to be said, which characterise many of those who inhabit the Westminster village) but he seems to fully understand the relentless nature of present-day Brexit politics, and it’s sheer remorselessness. He is convinced that he will re-gain both his credibility and the ownership of the Brexit issue (both of which he lost during the Michael Gove leadership episode) only if he imposes the dual reality that Theresa May is unable to set the Brexit political agenda and also irrevocably damaged to lead the Tories into the next election without losing badly. A dual reality, to be perfectly honest, which with every passing day it becomes clearer.
We are witnessing a power struggle, a vicious war in a Tory party that is rapidly losing its political confidence to deal with the biggest economic and political challenge this country has faced since the Second World War, fought out between a Prime Minister who seems to lack the authority to set the political agenda and her main party political opponent who, sensing that the force is with him, will keep pushing, keep strengthening his language and his list of demands. His interview with the Sun newspaper on the eve of the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, when he insisted the proposed transition period when the UK leaves the EU must not last for more than two years ‘ and not a second more' is a case in point.
Ambitious politicians always operate in compromised territory, living on the edge, taking risks pushing the limits, constantly varnishing and distorting the truth. Once one begins looking at Boris Johnson in these terms, one begins to see just how brilliant a political operator he actually is. For all the drama and political theatre of the last few months, Boris Johnson has demonstrated a capacity for scheming, manipulation and ruthlessness that Machiavelli would have applauded.
This piece was first published on The Huffington Post
George Kassimeris is Chair in Security Studies at the University of Wolverhampton. He tweets @gkassimeris.