It is about 40 minutes’ drive to the nearest cinema, so we seldom go to films. A few evenings ago, however, we went to watch The Darkest Hour, and we are very glad that we did. It provides an extraordinarily perceptive close-up view of Winston Churchill in his first days as British Prime Minister as he makes up his mind on how Britain should react to the invasion of France, Belgium and the Netherlands by Hitler’s well-equipped forces. Thanks to impressively good acting, it felt as though we were watching a video of what was actually happening in May 1940 rather than a film shot over 75 years later!
A couple of years ago, I much enjoyed reading Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. I read it aloud over several winter evenings to my wife while she was ironing. It is highly readable, often entertaining, and paints a very convincing portrait of its subject, warts and all.
Like many others who have read Boris’ book, however, I could not help thinking that it was telling us not only about Churchill but also about its author and hinting at his ambitions. He waxed lyrical over Churchill’s extraordinary capacity to harness the power of the English language, whether spoken or written, to inspire others and rally their support for his actions. He admired his opportunism in switching political loyalties as well as his ability to tell blatant lies when it suited him. And he marvelled at Churchill’s capacity to find imaginative and very practical means of addressing problems for which there were no obvious conventional solutions.
Boris’ problem is that his huge admiration for Churchill seems to have convinced him that he could follow in his mentor’s footsteps and has nurtured an undisguised ambition to serve as Britain’s prime minister. Indeed, he shares much of Churchill’s skill as an orator and writer and these, combined with some Churchillian economies with the truth, served him well in leading the EU referendum “leave” campaign to victory in June 2016.
As we saw in The Darkest Hour, Churchill applied his genius as a speaker to stir up nationalist fervour in order to generate a vast wave of public support for his hugely daring approaches to confronting the immediate threats posed to the freedoms enjoyed by Britain and our close allies in Europe by Hitler’s Nazi forces.
In contrast, at a moment when Britain had no particular quarrel with its European allies, Boris successfully used his skills as an orator to fan public hostility towards the European Union. He (and his xenophobic co-campaigners from UKIP) persuaded voters to blame their many woes on the bureaucrats in Brussels rather than on their own government. He sought to propagate a vision of a proud British nation that would regain its true greatness as an independent trading country when freed of the restrictions implied by continued membership the European Union.
It seems fair to question whether Boris himself even truly believed in the story he told voters or whether his mind was simply focussed on building his own visibility and furthering his political ambitions. No more than two years before the EU referendum, Johnson wrote of Winston Churchill that it was his “idea to bring these countries together, to bind them so indissolubly that they could never go to war again – and who can deny that the idea has been a spectacular success?”. Even one week before the opening of the referendum campaign, it seems that Johnson was in two minds as to which side he would support.
For a moment, immediately after the referendum results were declared and Cameron had resigned as Prime Minister, it looked as though Boris might end up in 10 Downing Street. He still harbours this ambition and has continued, since being appointed Foreign Secretary, to use every opportunity to undermine the chances of Britain arriving at a new but constructive long-term relationship with Europe. Seemingly to further his own goals, he has bullied his Prime Minister to follow an approach to a “hard” Brexit formula that, apart from being non-negotiable with the EU, would, according to the Government’s own estimates, cause massive damage to the British economy. Claiming that he is following “the will of the people”, he is endangering hard-won peace in Ireland, risking breaking up the United Kingdom, deepening divisions in his own governing party and, most seriously, weakening the European institutions that Churchill foresaw would guarantee that we “could never go to war again”.
If you allow me to share my thoughts with you, what I have watched over the best part of two years are the egocentric actions of a clever and highly articulate man who is obsessed by a wish for visibility and power but bereft of any practical proposals of how to manage the complex situation into which he has put us. He has emerged as a man of contradictions who has told people to “take back control”, to “regain sovereignty” and to make a bonfire of regulations, while doing his best to prevent the engagement of Parliament – where Britain’s sovereignty resides – in taking decisions on the most important issue now facing this country since Churchill’s victory.
Apart from occasional gratuitous remarks about funding the NHS, Johnson has shown little concern for the victims of around ten years of austerity. As a Foreign Secretary, prone to gaffes and quirky jokes, he has diminished the respect and influence that Britain has enjoyed on the international stage. By repeatedly attempting to force Theresa May to tread the hardest of Brexit lines, he has deliberately undermined her authority and prevented her from engaging constructively in her negotiations with the EU to chart a future relationship that is in the long-term mutual interests of both Britain and our European neighbours.
Perhaps it is time for Boris to write his own confessional autobiography. The Clown with a Lunatic Fringe: How, in spite of being Winston Churchill’s greatest fan, I picked a quarrel with Britain’s closest allies and undermined the institutions that have cemented over 70 years of peace in Europe.