Boris Johnson’s fate awaits Joe Biden

On the face of it, President Biden and outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could not seem to be more different. The Oxford-educated Johnson, a former star journalist, has made a living due to his felicity with the English language, long an enemy of the syntax-mangling Biden. Whereas Biden is famously tribal and family-oriented — perhaps to his detriment in the case of his scandal-plagued son, Hunter — Johnson’s life has amounted to a series of romantic adventures. The American president, a lifelong politician, worked his way up the greasy pole of U.S. politics glacially, but Johnson shot to the top of the British political firmament like a supernova, only to crash just as spectacularly.

No, on the surface, it’s hard to think of two major Western leaders with such disparate biographies.

But this is to miss the dangerous commonalities between the two men regarding policy. The problems and dangers confronting their countries are frighteningly similar. For this structural, underlying reason, it is likely that Biden will be shown the door in two years’ time, just as Johnson was unedifyingly ousted this past week.

The policy similarities between the United States and the United Kingdom are striking. First, the two governments’ central banks — the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England — have both utterly lost the plot, printing more money than they ought to, setting free the beast of inflation. With double-digit inflation likely to occur in both countries soon, the consequent cost-of-living crisis that is brewing will be the bane of people’s lives, serving as a misery tax on the lower and middle classes. In both cases, given the banks’ independence, neither Biden nor Johnson, who remains as interim prime minister, could do much except haplessly cheerlead about their economies from the sidelines — even as everyone knows the governing establishments have ineptly driven the two economies into a ditch.

Second, compounding the first error, Biden and Johnson have chosen to increase government spending like a pair of drunken sailors. In Johnson’s case, ignoring the glorious fiscal record of Margaret Thatcher, he has championed ever-higher spending, while increasing the U.K.’s tax burden to levels not seen since the Labour governments of Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s. Biden, in the damning verdict of former Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, has fiscally poured gasoline on a roaring fire, passing “emergency” spending bills totaling trillions of dollars as the U.S. economy bounced back from the pandemic. As such, this marked increase in federal spending was bound to spur inflation. If the Fed and the Bank of England are complicit in reigniting inflation, Biden and Johnson have served as willing accomplices.

Third, neither leader has used his mandate to increase productivity in his country by deregulating the economy. Given the policy gift of “Getting Brexit Done,” Johnson did not use his newfound policy freedom to make the U.K. a more competitive, deregulated country, able to better the regulatory practices of the next-door, sclerotic European Union. Instead, bored by economics, Johnson chose to swan around international conferences, far more interested in what was happening to Ukrainians than to his own hard-pressed people. Likewise, Biden often has seemed more worried about Kyiv than Kansas City. A captive of the far left of his Democratic Party, Biden has done his level best to increase U.S. government regulation, certainly never seeing a lighter touch as an answer to the brewing economic storm that confronts him. 

Fourth, both leaders have seemed clueless in grappling with the global energy crisis brought to a head by the Russo-Ukrainian war. In Biden’s case, he has nonsensically spurned the great gift of the U.S. shale revolution, wherein through a technical revolution (fracking), in terms of natural gas and oil, America had dramatically morphed from global energy mendicant to energy superpower. Instead, Biden has throttled the Keystone pipeline with Canada and forbidden the drilling for energy on federal land. Such energy self-harm has had obvious deleterious consequences, but the president has blamed energy companies for his basic misunderstanding of economics and the energy market.

Johnson, blithely thinking that the U.K.’s limited direct dependence on Russian energy would shield his country from the coming energy crisis, forgot to factor in the basic fact that the energy market is global in nature and that if prices in nearby Europe were to stratospherically rise (as they have), energy prices in Britain inevitably would follow. While Biden’s energy policy has made things immeasurably worse for America, Johnson’s non-policy has put his country behind the energy eight ball.

There is a final, gratifying, political commonality between the two. As happened in the stagflation-ridden 1970s — when President Jimmy Carter and Prime Minister James Callaghan were swept from power for failing to deal with these very same problems — it is overwhelmingly likely that both Johnson and Biden will soon find themselves out the door. Because of their failure to come to grips with the problems of their people, both will end up on the ash heap of history.

This post was originally published in The Hill.

How we knew Boris Johnson’s days were numbered

There is a hypocrisy to my profession that I find especially galling; the rush to protect at all costs the feelings of mediocrity. All too often, those who are analytically on the money are pressured into somehow not mentioning this salient fact, if only to spare the feelings of the legions of inept snake-oil salesmen out there. On the other hand, the third rate disappear into a sea of one another, a school of fish of the overrated, who as quickly as possible change the subject from their egregious errors.

This is a terrible way to get better at anything. Political risk analysis resembles nothing so much as method acting. At the height of his powers, even the great Marlon Brando knew that he could continue to get better only if he dispassionately addressed what he did right in his performances, as well as what he had gotten wrong. In our case, as regular readers of this column well know, in getting “partygate” right months ago, there is much to be learned.

This past week’s Conservative Party leadership vote in Britain greatly favored the incumbent. First, with only a few hours between the referendum on Boris Johnson’s leadership being announced and the vote itself, rebels had almost no time to organize. Second, the prime minister started with the support of the 140 Tory MPs who were already on his government’s payroll — members of the Cabinet, junior ministers and parliamentary private secretaries. As Johnson needed only half of the MPs plus one to side with him (180), this was a monumental advantage. Third, the rebellion was largely leaderless and without focus, so there was no single person or idea to rally around.

Despite these awesome advantages, the result was a disaster for the PM. In the end, fully 41 percent of Tory MPs (148) voted to remove him. To put this in the proper historical context, his Pyrrhic victory came by the exact same percentage as that of Margaret Thatcher in 1990; two days later, she was unceremoniously turfed out of No. 10. Strikingly, it appears that fully three-quarters of Tory backbench MPs, who were free to vote as they chose, opted to rebel. As we have said for months, and again just last week, the prime minister was always likely to win the vote “ugly,” and be mortally wounded while carrying on. All of this has come to pass.

What did we see that so many missed? A real understanding of Greek classics, Johnson’s personal biography and the history of the British Conservative Party were essential. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it so well: “Character is destiny.” A person making it to the top of politics in any country does not change their spots upon getting there. More often, overconfident in their abilities, they instead double down on seeing their character as an essential advantage that explains their worldly success.

In the case of Johnson, this classical way of looking at the world is confirmed regarding partygate, when he was on the one hand urging people not to visit their dying loved ones, while on the other he treated No. 10 as a nightclub. Yet, speaking just before the vote was called, the prime minister astonishingly said: “I’d do it again,” in reference to a drinks party he attended for a leaving colleague while the rest of the country was locked down. The gloomy Greek notion that people tend to learn nothing about their failings gave us a unique insight into how Johnson would react to partygate.

Second, the prime minister’s biography made it crystal clear that partygate was merely the foreground — Johnson was always overwhelmingly likely to get himself into some sort of moral difficulty. Whether being fired for lying while a high-flying journalist, his famously chaotic private life or his breezy, well-documented unconcern for the details of governing, his track record showed this was a train wreck always waiting to happen. In the end, Johnson’s present difficulties come down to the fact that the world changed, while he stayed the same. A cavalier disregard for the rules seemed interestingly eccentric in quieter days. During the mass tragedy of the pandemic, it instead seemed elitist, hypocritical and almost diabolical.

Third, knowledge of how the Tory party works is essential. It has been the most successful political party in modern history for one quality above all: A ruthless unsentimentality. Johnson’s ties to the Conservative Party have always been transactional. He did not work his way up through the ranks, but (as ever) jumped to the head of the line for the simple reason that he brought them electoral success in leftist London and broke the parliamentary logjam over Brexit in 2019. Now, with his winning ways deserting him, as Labour has an average eight to 10-point lead over the Tories in opinion polls, look for the party to defenestrate him within a year.

We cannot count on Johnson to do the decent thing and resign because, all his life, he has never done the decent thing. Instead, an enervating war of attrition is likely to follow, which could well gift the Labour Party victory in the next general election. All of this has been clear for a while, but only if we look at political risk through the right lenses.

This post was originally published by Arab News.

Boris Johnson’s Houdini act is coming to an end

During a recent trip to London, I did my usual deep dive, meeting as many British political players as I could over the course of a fascinating (if frenetic) three days. As ever, my political marathon did its job, giving me a thorough, if impressionistic, view of what is going on in Westminster.

I spoke to 20 or so high-level political people and invariably asked them the same question: “Can Boris Johnson really somehow keep up the Harry Houdini act and survive ‘partygate?’” To my intense surprise, improving poll numbers to the contrary, all of them said the same thing: “No, not into the medium term. Boris is about done.”

There is no denying that escapology — the hallmark of Houdini’s illustrious vaudeville career — is also the defining characteristic of the present British prime minister. Long known for his humor, sense of fun and cheerful conviction that the rules of the world are not for him, Johnson took first the Conservative Party, and then the country, by storm, winning the largest Tory majority (80 seats) since the Thatcher era.

But these very qualities that made Johnson such a delightful and highly effective campaigner have come back to haunt him, given the horror of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Partygate,” at its essence, is a very simple thing. On numerous occasions, the prime minister and his staff engaged in parties in defiance of the draconian pandemic rules they themselves had drawn up and that the largely dutiful British public was keeping to. The nuance of the story (how many parties there were and how many the prime minister attended) matters far less than the overall picture. Yet again, Johnson thought that ridiculous rules needed to be followed by the little people but were not for him.

The immediate aftermath was dreadful for Johnson, with his premiership hanging by a thread. But then, like the great escapologist and showman who he so resembles, at the very last minute fortune seemed to come to the prime minister’s aid. The Russian invasion of Ukraine crashed down upon the world’s consciousness and changed the subject for Johnson.

The prime minister was propelled onto the international stage, where the mention of something as seemingly trivial as lockdown parties seemed poor form for the press to even bring up, given the life and death stakes unfolding. Changing leaders in wartime is something most publics tend to avoid, if at all possible, though there are plenty of historical exceptions (Winston Churchill in the Second World War and David Lloyd George in the First World War). Seemingly, Johnson was given a second wind, with the subject being changed and him being able to look prime ministerial. So, has the old rogue managed to slip by again? As Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader, wailed at Prime Minister’s Questions this week: “Why is he (Johnson) still here?”

Polling numbers would seem to suggest that Johnson has yet again gotten away with it. A March 11 Opinium poll found the prime minister’s heretofore crashing numbers stabilizing, if from a very low base. A bare majority of those polled (53 percent) still want Johnson to resign, but this is down 10 points from January. Labour’s lead over the Tories has shrunk to just two percentage points, well within the margin of error. It would seem the prime minister, gifted with a pressing international crisis to deal with, has managed to politically turn the corner.

But the experts I spoke with confirmed my feeling that this settling political wisdom is likely to be wrong. Johnson has survived (just) but is on last-chance probation with party leaders and MPs who worry that, when “things get back to normal,” the indelible stain of his previous actions will come back to haunt them. It is not likely that the British public will forget that, while they were making the greatest of social sacrifices demanded of them by their government, the leader of that government was hanging out at what seems to have been a fairly regular booze-fest.

Nor do future events seem likely to rescue Johnson. Year-on-year inflation rose in February to 6.2 percent, its highest rate in 30 years, with skyrocketing food, fuel and electricity costs leading the way. None of these are likely to drop in the near term, as the energy, food and commodities markets have all been roiled by the Ukraine war. Ironically, what the British press is calling “the cost-of-living crisis” is being exacerbated by the very war that politically saved the prime minister in the first place.

The next British local elections are set to be held on May 5, with the government possibly facing a drubbing that will once again call into question Johnson’s electoral prospects. This, coupled with the general misery inflation invariably brings and the seared memory of the prime minister partying while the country suffered, will do for Johnson at long last.

But you have to give the man credit for a brazen lack of self-awareness. Just this past week, Johnson held a party for Conservative MPs at the Park Plaza Hotel near the House of Commons. I hope he enjoyed himself; in political terms, it is likely to be his last.

This post was originally published on Arab News.

Johnson will never be able to overcome his Marie Antoinette problem

It is one of the most famous historical anecdotes in history and the prime example of a self-centered ruling elite narcissistically out of touch with its suffering people. When told of the fact that the hard-pressed peasants could no longer afford to buy their staple of bread, Marie Antoinette, the bubble-headed queen of pre-revolutionary France, supposedly said, “Let them eat cake.” The only problem with this telling, damning story is that there is absolutely no evidence that she ever said anything of the sort, with the whole fabricated incident most likely conjured up fully 50 years after the French Revolution.

But what makes the story memorable, and why it has lasted, is that she could well have said something exactly along those lines. The French aristocracy, mired in crippling debt and addicted to a lifestyle the country simply could no longer afford, quickly collapsed under its own weight in the late 1780s-early 1790s precisely because the famous quote does sum up its oblivious attitude. The story has stuck because, while technically not factual, it exposes a greater truth about the decadent French ruling elite and why history swept it away.

Amid all the bureaucratic hustle and bustle that presently surrounds UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s travails, what ultimately matters is not the details of what the civil servant, Sue Gray, concludes in her investigation about supposedly illegal parties both the prime minister and his senior staff attended on numerous occasions during the long lockdown period — even as they sonorously cautioned the rest of the country to stay strictly quarantined. It does not really matter the precise number of illicit gatherings (which will be counted on more than two hands), which ones Johnson actually attended or whether the prime minister knew the gatherings were technically “parties” or not.

In the end, it also does not matter overmuch about the police investigation into the incidents, which have superseded the Gray report, either. If convicted of committing an actual crime, the prime minister will merely be forced to pay the equivalent of a parking ticket. All this legal and bureaucratic flummery is a sign of our mediocre age, as if the rest of us need a technocratic, expert-driven determination as to what a party is. While British officialdom may thrill to such ridiculous trivialities, they do nothing in the long term to change Johnson’s basic Marie Antoinette problem. The precise details of his alleged crimes matter far less than the fact they confirm a damning, greater truth.

Johnson, at the height of the COVID-19 tragedy and with his suffering country forced to quarantine itself from burying their dead, thought the restrictive pandemic rules he himself had formulated were ridiculous and beneath him. Or, in the genuine words of arrogant, convicted 1980s tax evader Leona Helmsley, “only the little people pay taxes.” This stigma is what will dog Johnson for the rest of his days and, in the medium term, lead to his removal as prime minister.

The story of “partygate” merely confirms a larger, already-suspected truth about the man and his character. His elitist belief that rules are for the little people is incendiary and unforgivable, coupled with the mass suffering of his people. This reality cannot be investigated away or talked away and it will not be forgotten by the British people. The Johnson premiership is living on borrowed time.

A January Times/YouGov poll confirms this. When asked the question, “Do you believe the prime minister when he said the party he was attending was a work event?” an overwhelming 70 percent of those polled said no, with a mere 13 percent believing this lamest of excuses (there are reportedly pictures showing him cradling a beer at the time). As to whether Johnson should resign over this, a large majority, 63 to 24 percent, said that he should. Only 8 percent of those polled said the prime minister had been honest about the allegations of parties in 10 Downing Street. Given that Johnson has gone from saying there were no parties, to saying if there were parties he is shocked, to saying he attended some of those parties but thought they were work events, I am incredulous that he managed the 8 percent.

The Metropolitan Police investigation, and then the release of the Gray report, will buy Johnson some time, as will the upcoming local elections. Even an internal Conservative leadership challenge (and one is coming) could see him remain in power. But all of this is merely window dressing, obscuring the larger fact that, in policy terms, the historic Johnson premiership — dominated by Brexit and the pandemic — is at an end.

The Conservative Party, in many ways the most successful modern party in the Western world, has thrived precisely because of its lack of sentimentality about its leaders once they fall upon hard times. Famously, even the invincible Margaret Thatcher, winner of three barnstorming elections, was swiftly dispatched as her popularity plummeted over the poll tax. With the Tories about 10 points behind Labour in recent polling, and with the public’s mind made up about him, it is only a matter of time until Johnson is shown the door. He simply cannot overcome his Marie Antoinette problem.