John Bird: Now the test. Will our new PM be one of history’s survivors?

Nothing really makes sense in Boris Johnson’s life if he does not get it right and make Brexit work

There are too many coincidences between the new Prime Minister and the book he wrote glowingly in 2014 on the life of Winston Churchill, The Churchill Factor. Johnson sees himself as a Churchillian; how else can you describe the cock-ups, the mistakes, the bad judgement, the ‘in and out of favour’. And the ability at times to laugh at himself.

Churchill would not have been remembered for his up and down life if it were not for his brilliant impression of a bulldog, both in looks and pronouncements, in the early 1940s. Not wavering over opposition to the German war ambition. Not accepting compromise or hiding behind a spurious neutrality. There would be no surrender, no capitulation. And even without the arms or the soldiers he continued to harass and harangue from the sidelines of Europe. He had the sea between him and the true masters of Europe, but he had the vitriol in constant supply, if not the guns.

Nothing really makes sense in Johnson’s life if he does not get it right, pull the chestnuts out of the fire, and make Brexit work. Why? Because up until now his lack of precision can be put down to someone of genius waiting in the waiting room of history for his chance to shine. But once he grasps power, which he did last week, he has to become truly Churchillian and not simply a positive biographer of the briefly
Great leader.

Both, if they had any trade, were journalists. That’s where Johnson and Churchill made their money, or most of it. They were not independently wealthy. In spite of their toff-like appearance. Proving in some ways that toffs often are broke.


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Granted Churchill was like much of his class, toy soldiers for a period in their late teens and early manhood. Johnson was a backbench MP for a while, though never seeming to achieve distinction himself there. And as the Mayor of London he made it look, after the often seemingly dour, self-important scheming of Ken Livingstone, almost a joyous role. He did harm and some good, like most holders of office. But he built a reputation as once again a man who did not take himself too seriously. And that was lots of fun in a world of what looked like more viperous, self-seeking politicians holding court.

So this last act for Johnson, this saving Britain from a monumental slide into anarchy and disorder, as well as into financial ruin, is the fight for survival as an island people that the earlier Churchill set out likewise to do. This new self-appointed Churchill, guyed up more by Churchill’s ability to survive getting it wrong I would imagine, has one big chance: to show, as did Churchill, that all the ill-formed things he did were simply a rocky apprenticeship.

Johnson has to become truly Churchillian and not simply a positive biographer of the briefly Great leader

I read the book that Johnson wrote on Churchill and had planned a debate with him at Blenheim Palace, the home of the first wealthy Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough – John Churchill. Alas I could not get away for the Blenheim Book Festival that year so missed my chance of crossing swords with Johnson. Not that it would have been much of a contest. Book festivals are not the place to cross swords, unless you accuse the author of lying. I could not accuse him of that. All I could say is that his interpretation of Churchill was in my opinion bordering on the myopic.

Indecision and not being in one place or another is the worst of all possible scenarios. As a Remainer I dread what’s coming down the line. But a ‘no man’s land’ will make a complete mess of it all. We need resolution.

I suppose what I am worried about in British political life at the moment is that if things are not resolved then there will be an Oliver Cromwell figure, come to bang heads together at some stage and impose dictatorship. I don’t think we are too far from dictatorship. There will be political action and this continuous arguing and disagreeing with each other may lead to a Cromwell or a Bonaparte grasping us all by the short and curlies.

I don’t think Johnson is a Cromwell nor a Bonaparte. He does not have that outrageous steel. He is too much of the bohemian. But there will be among the ranks of the leadership someone who will grab all
by the throat and get agreement.

What a strange world we live in. We go through all of these niceties around representation and caring for each other. And yet our biggest problem is what to do when people disagree and you
have the machine for resolving differences, ie the ballot, completely devalued by large parts of the electorate.

Someone said to me as I walked into Parliament the other day, “Do you like Boris?”. I said “Representational democracy, where others make decisions on your behalf, is about as useful as an umbrella in a storm.” WhenI think of Johnson and the current situation I am in I want to say “If you don’t get involved in politics you get the politics that you deserve.” Don’t just complain. Do.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief  of The Big Issue.