Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 15 October 2019

The great drama of Brexit is more farce than tragedy

Boris Johnson and his sidekick Dominic Cummings might have tragic flaws but they are no heroes

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visiting North Manchester General Hospital ahead of the Conservative party conference in the city. Andy Stenning / pool via Reuters
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visiting North Manchester General Hospital ahead of the Conservative party conference in the city. Andy Stenning / pool via Reuters

In the Shakespearean play, a soothsayer prophesies the fate that awaits Julius Caesar. He is told to “beware the ides of March”, the date of his downfall. Caesar turns to his friend Mark Antony and whispers: “Let me have men about me that are fat …Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look/ He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.”

In the various plots and conspiracies right now in Britain’s Brexit-dominated politics, there is also a plotter with a “lean and hungry look” who “thinks too much”. He is Dominic Cummings, an unelected but extremely powerful adviser to prime minister Boris Caesar. Sorry, I mean Boris Johnson.

In this great drama, Boris Johnson and his political brain Dominic Cummings are less tragic Shakespearean heroes and more akin to the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy

In reality, Mr Johnson is no Caesar, even though he did try to run things without parliament for a while. Caesar brought Rome great victories. Mr Johnson’s 10 weeks in office have been a series of humiliations. He set his own date with destiny, not on the ides of March but Halloween, October 31, the day to “do or die” to leave the European Union – or not. At his Conservative party conference this week, Mr Johnson has remained popular with the party faithful, even if he is hugely divisive in the country he is supposed to lead. Both anti-Brexit – and some pro-Brexit – plotters are waiting for their chance to get rid of him.

The ardent pro-Brexiteer Nigel Farage says his party will challenge Mr Johnson in any election, while Remain politicians want Brexit stopped, either with a People’s Vote referendum on any deal or a general election leading to Britain revoking Article 50, the legal mechanism by which the Brexit process began.

Dominic Cummings, special adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Toby Melville / Reuters
Dominic Cummings, special adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Toby Melville / Reuters

In this great drama, Mr Johnson and his political brain Mr Cummings are less tragic Shakespearean heroes and more akin to the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. Their farcical double act has failed seven times in 10 weeks in votes in the House of Commons; they have failed to get anything from their supposed negotiations with the European Union; and they have failed in their attempt to shutter parliament after the move was deemed illegal by the Supreme Court. Their slapstick approach also includes the respected journalist Charlotte Edwardes now accusing Mr Johnson of groping her 20 years ago when she was a junior reporter working for The Spectator when Mr Johnson was then editor. He has denied the allegation, as well as the accusation that as London mayor, he granted public funds worth more than $123,000 to a friend, despite the American businesswoman in question failing to meet government criteria.

Any one of these scandals could ultimately undo Mr Johnson, although he seems without any sense of embarrassment or shame for serial failures or alleged indiscretions. But he also faces the beginnings of a more dangerous plot by opposition parties to bring him down.

His greatest success so far has been uniting parts of the opposition against him. Labour and the Scottish National Party (SNP) have for years – decades – fought each other for votes in my native Scotland. To say they do not like each other is an understatement. But Boris Caesar has helped bring them together, even though, like Antony and Cassius, the two parties have very different agendas. Labour wants its leader Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister. The SNP wants a vote on Scottish independence but will accept a temporary Corbyn leadership.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester. Phil Noble / Reuters
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester. Phil Noble / Reuters

Add into the mix other anti-Johnson parties and the plot becomes even more complex. The Liberal Democrats are rapidly picking up support and other former Conservative MPs have fallen foul of Mr Johnson and now sit as independents. All these groups agree Mr Johnson should be stopped if he tries to crash out of the EU without a deal. But they do not agree on what they want instead, or who they want to replace him.

Any one of these scandals could ultimately undo Boris Johnson, although he seems without any sense of embarrassment or shame for serial failures or alleged indiscretions

And so the plotters plot, the conspirators conspire, and the prime minister insists he knows what he is doing, all while Mr Cummings works on his latest cunning plan. Unlike the five acts of a Shakespeare tragedy, our political drama is stuck on act three. Mr Johnson makes speeches and headlines in his supportive press. He pitches himself as leading “the people” against the “elites” in parliament – quite a stretch for an Oxford graduate and an Old Etonian from a wealthy patrician family.

But whatever happens now, the curtain on Brexit truthfully cannot fall on October 31. Either Brexit will be delayed in some way, and the plotting will continue for months, or Britain will – somehow – leave the EU.

But leaving the EU will not be the end of Brexit either. It will be merely the beginning. The moment the UK leaves, we will have to start negotiating trade deals with all those countries we have just left behind, the EU 27, plus engage in further contentious negotiations with the US, Japan, Turkey and other key trading partners currently accessed through the EU.

Brexit is not a Shakespearean tragedy. Mr Johnson is in no way a Julius Caesar. Rather, the Brexit production is a neverending sitcom, in which flawed and ridiculous characters bumble around and after three years, no one knows how to cancel the production.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter

A Boris Johnson doll on display at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Frank Augstein / AP
A Boris Johnson doll on display at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Frank Augstein / AP

Updated: September 30, 2019 04:23 PM

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