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Opinion

When Narcissism and Privilege Became the Keys to Number 10

Boris Johnson is the ultimate political narcissist. Within the past ten years alone, he has been a Europhile, a Brexiteer, a moderate, a Thatcherite, and now as  prime minister, he unfaithfully portrays himself as an amalgamation of choices two and three. For Johnson, it has never seemed to matter exactly what he believed, so long as it got him one step closer to Number 10 Downing Street. There has, however, been one consistent element in his political philosophy, for he has always been a proud Conservative. As mayor of London he was the shining star of the party’s moderate wing, as the leading Brexiteer he morphed into the darling of the party’s right, but always a Conservative nonetheless. Because if there is one thing Johnson believes in more than himself, it is the political and social establishment that made him the most powerful man in Britain. 

Boris Johnson’s ascendancy to the position of prime minister was not so much a democratic selection as a coronation. For starters, he found his mandate through the wrinkled hands of the elitist and regressive Conservative Party, and earned the actual votes of no more than 0.00137% of Britain’s population. But, more than that, the oligarchic and near-regal nature of Johnson’s life preceding the vote is a greater indictment on modern Britain than the election rules of one of its leading political parties. Now, as before, an Eton educated, wealthy product of Toryism has risen to the highest office in the land. Continuing in a tradition as old as history itself, the four words Prime Minister Boris Johnson prove that wealth breeds wealth, power breeds power, and the never ending goal of Conservatism to maintain order is far from being overcome, particularly with Johnson at the helm.

In 2003, during his first term as a member of parliament, Johnson spoke admirably of the institution he would later lead the fight against. “In some ways, I’m a bit of a fan of the European Union,” he said, “if we did not have one, we would invent something like it,” and while mayor of London gave several speeches supporting Britain’s membership of the single market. As late as February 2016, only four months before the referendum, he wrote a column in support of British membership, calling it “boon for the world and for Europe.” His support of the European Union was written plainly on his face the morning after the Brexit vote. As he stood beside Michael Gove, another chief advocate of the Vote Leave campaign, Johnson’s sunken eyes and long frown told a very different story from the words he spoke at the podium. Despite his bashful optimism and heartfelt advocacy in the weeks preceding that fateful day, the full time mayor and part time clown looked close to tears. In the words of one of his close friends, Johnson’s decision was “all about the leadership,” nothing more, nothing less. He had sold out the country for his own political gain.

The same was true of the sugar tax, the Heathrow airport expansion, and Donald Trump. Most notably, after Kim Darroch resigned as ambassador when his private opinions of the U.S. administration were leaked, Johnson refused to stand up for him. The great irony of which was that Johnson had previously accused the president of being “clearly out of his mind,” of “portraying a quite stupefying ignorance that makes him unfit to be president of the United States” and even “playing the game of the terrorists and those who seek to divide us.” Yet, during the election for the position he had always dreamed of, Johnson refused to defend the ambassador and, by his own admission, forced Darroch’s resignation over the matter. Principles, it seems, are seldom desirable when there are greater jewels to be won. 

For Johnson, who had everything he could ever dream of handed to him on a silver plate, facts, reality, and political consistency are mere irritants on his path to a more important, narcissistic goal. It is well known that the young, bumptious Boris, whenever asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, replied that he wanted to be “world king.” By the time he made it to Oxford, where he was elected President of the Oxford Union, it was no doubt clear to him that his quip wasn’t so outlandishly funny after all. Nepotism and the other enemies of meritocracy ensured that the Johnson bloodline remained wealthy and influential. His expensive education and familial connections propelled him to the The Times, The Telegraph, and eventually the House of Commons, where he would work to maintain the rigid class system that had helped him get there—returning the favor, if you will, to everything that had served him thus far. 

The most impressive part of Johnson’s act is that no matter how he performs professionally (and so long as other people are entertained), he’ll get the last laugh. He was fired as a journalist for his happy-go-lucky relationship with the truth, but came back to write for the paper again. His repeated use of homophobic and bigoted vitriol on the page was ignored, for his bumbling persona made him popular enough to keep him in print. The same was true when he was mayor of London, for despite his presiding over increasing inequality, wasteful spending, and numerous riots, the lasting image of his mayoralty is the jovial picture of him stuck on a zipwire during the 2012 Olympics. When asked why he speaks and acts in the way he does, Johnson’s answer best exemplifies the privilege with which he is able to operate. “In life,” Johnson admitted, “it is often useful to give the slight impression that you’re deliberately pretending not to know what is going on, because the reality may be that you don’t know what is going on, and people won’t be able to tell the difference.” 

The sad reality, however, is that some people are able to tell the difference. Just ask Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who remains imprisoned in Iran thanks to Johnson’s careless remarks when he was foreign secretary. A situation, it is worth mentioning, that remains unresolved to this day, even as both her and her husband are ten days into a hunger strike. 

But for Johnson, his relationship with the truth is about as secure as his relationship to his ideals, or one of his oft-cheated wives. All these become secondary to his higher task of elevating himself, and continuing the oligarchy that helped him. Now, he has promised tax cuts for the wealthy and assembled the most right wing cabinet in 40 years, all the while risking a no-deal Brexit that would devastate Britain’s working class. In classic form, Johnson exudes a case of cynicism extreme: give tax cuts for yourself, and watch the needy go hungry. 

Nick Boles, the recent Conservative member of parliament for Grantham and Stamford, said that “some will mourn the death [of] the modern compassionate Conservative Party. I do not. It was a makeover, and never more than skin deep.” Because the Conservative Party at its core, whether the moderate party of Johnson in 2008 or the extreme party of Johnson in 2019, only serves to protect the privilege that allowed Johnson to rise as high as he has. The worst thing about his cabinet is that the inclusion of certain members, notably Priti Patel and Dominic Raab, has normalized an extreme modern-day Thatcherism that no one asked for, let alone voted for.

It is said that the famous segregationist Governor George Wallace remorsed on his deathbed, claiming that all he had done had been for cynical political gain. The same was true of Lee Atwater, the architect of the Southern Strategy. And Johnson, like all men doomed to the wrong side of history, may find his departure from this world a similarly restless experience. 

But for all of this, for all the division, nationalism, and the impending horror of Brexit, as least Johnson got what he wanted.