The proprietor of the Cabinet of Horrors, sitting at the heart of darkness, is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, 77th Prime Minister of our so-called United Kingdom. All his visits to the three constituent parts of that kingdom outside England have been greeted with derision and dismay. He is a politician so divisive that senior Conservatives tried to block his ascent to power and several ministers made a point of resigning from Theresa May’s cabinet and publicly saying they would not serve in a Johnson administration.
So what has created this unprecedented hostility in a party whose hallmark is deference?
Questions about whether Johnson is fit for high office have tended to revolve around his resort to deceit, his racist and abusive language and his abominable treatment of women. These are concerns of a different order of magnitude from the questions usually raised about a new prime minister. Commentators are not only asking whether we can trust our new premier but whether he might actually be a sociopath.
Beneath his superficial charm, Johnson certainly shows some key signs of sociopathy: chronic lying, an inflated sense of self-worth, lack of remorse or guilt, anger management problems, and an inability to show empathy. But the reliability of the diagnosis is less important than the fact that a man of such qualities has been given power at such a critical time.
Johnson’s personal psychology is flawed and he seems barely developed as a man, much less as a leader. In his biography of Churchill (a thinly veiled portrait of Churchill as Johnson) Johnson notes psychologist Antony Storr’s discussion of Churchill’s fantasies of ‘infantile omnipotence’, which chime with Johnson’s own childhood desire to become ‘world king’. It is one of the few characteristics he shares with the wartime leader.
Did Johnson care about the balance of power between London and Brussels when he wrote his falsified stories about bananas and condoms? Does he care that he is lying about the packaging of kippers and that the lie can be swiftly exposed by the European Commission? Not at all. The point is only the joke, the headline, the publicity. This is the man we have put in a charge. A man who cares more about being on the front page telling a colourful lie than about matters of state.
The fact that our prime minister is an habitual liar is now so widely accepted that some have used it to justify his lies, on the basis that if we have allowed him to come to power then obviously truth is less of a concern than entertainment value. But commitment to truth has never mattered more: it underpins our democracy; without it we risk falling into tyranny.
Johnson’s disregard for truth is symptomatic of a deeper amorality that might permit pain and loss to millions of us merely to satisfy the most trivial of his desires. We must not be deceived by attempts to hide behind a floppy fringe or to distract with pig Latin: Boris Johnson is precisely the sort of person who would betray a friend from student days, or discard his wife, for his own entirely selfish ends.
For Johnson, Brexit is a route to power, not a project he believes in. Just a few weeks before reinventing himself as a Brexiter in 2016, he wrote in his Telegraph column that ‘leaving would cause at least some business uncertainty, while embroiling the Government for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems of this country—low skills, low social mobility, low investment, etc—that have nothing to do with Europe.’
Such a man is also quite capable of betraying the national interest for the sake of allying himself with powerful friends abroad. If he were to do such a thing, the ideal smokescreen would be the very nationalistic guff we saw in his first speech on the steps of Downing Street, then magnified by newspapers owned by foreign oligarchs and tax avoiders.
In reality, Johnson’s loyalty to Britain is in question. We know that Theresa May did not trust him with state secrets, although it is unclear whether this was because she deemed him essentially unreliable or because she knew he was compromised. He has now joined the group of national leaders who flirt with Trump to enhance their own power, and it is a national humiliation to see ‘Britain’s Trump’ vying for attention with the likes of Kim, Putin, Erdogan and Modi.
Johnson’s Russian connections are close and concerning. He has embarrassing links with a number of oligarchs in Putin’s inner circle. Alexander Temerko, who made his millions in the Russian arms industry and is well-connected with Russian intelligence services, considers Boris Johnson a friend. He has been a frequent guest at the lavish parties of Evgeny Lebedev, the Russian owner of the Evening Standard.
We know that in November 2017 Johnson was one of three ministers targeted by people linked to the FBI investigation into Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with Moscow, including the ‘London professor’ named in FBI indictments as having high-level connections to the Russian state (subsequently identified as Maltese academic, Joseph Mifsud) . As former Labour Cabinet Minister Ben Bradshaw said: ‘It’s inconceivable that the FBI didn’t tell their UK counterparts about Mifsud … so how was this allowed to happen?’
On his first day in Downing Street these connections resurfaced as part of the US House Intelligence Committee evidence in connection with Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election. Republican representative Devin Nunes held up a picture of Johnson with Mifsud and told Mueller: ‘What we’re trying to figure out here is if our NATO allies and Boris Johnson have been compromised.’
Less than a month after saying he had seen no sign of Russian meddling in British politics, in December 2017 Johnson told a Moscow press conference that there was in fact ‘abundant evidence’ and that he would ‘not stand for it’ – though he also asserted that attempts to influence the referendum result ‘had fallen flat’. Whatever the truth of this, commentators on Russian state TV have expressed delight at Johnson’s accession to power: ‘For Russia, Johnson is a very convenient negotiator, just like Trump. He will inject instability into European politics.’
Johnson’s close connections with Russian wealth and power is in no way inconsistent with his apparently close relationship with Trump cheerleader Steve Bannon, who has been trying to create a pan-European alliance of far right parties and leaders. In the post-truth world of 2019, these citizens of nowhere are more concerned to consolidate power than with national identity. Racism and victimisation of minorities are simply their most useful tools.
Johnson had publicly denied any recent connection with Bannon until a tape of Bannon discussing a phone conversation surfaced in June 2019. Bannon reveals that Johnson spoke with him to discuss his speech when he resigned as Foreign Secretary, and commented: ‘So today we’re going to see if Boris Johnson tries to overthrow the British government.’ It seems likely that it was conversations with Bannon that led Johnson to use racist rhetoric to turbo-charge his appeal to the Tory party members who controlled the prize of the premiership. And it was shortly after an earlier meeting with Bannon in July 2018 that Johnson attacked Muslims with his suggestion that a woman wearing a niqab resembles ‘a bank robber’ and that it is ‘absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes’.
Here we have a man who will do anything to achieve the power his ego craves and who has clearly been singled out by foreign interests as a weak link. With or without their support, this weak link is now the most powerful man in Britain.