Britons must not repeat the mistakes that have dogged opposition to the US president, says Guardian correspondent Jonathan Freedland
All we need now is for Boris Johnson to praise Mark Field, the government-minister-cum-self-appointed-close-protection-officer who imagined the best way to deal with a quiet distributor of circulars was to ram her into a pillar and grasp her by the neck. If Johnson lauds Field as” my kind of guy”, then the already long list of similarities between Britain’s near-certain next prime minister and Donald Trump will get longer still. Compiling that index might once have been an amusing parlour game for politics geeks; now it is essential preparation for what is to come.
For Trump, you will recall, did not share the public shock at one of his party’s lawmakers use physical violence against a citizen exercising a basic democratic right. In the US case, the sinner was Republican congressman Greg Gianforte, who bodyslammed a reporter- a Guardian reporter, as it happens- whose desire to ask a question harassed him. Trump offered no censure. Instead, the president said:” Any person that can do a bodyslam, he’s my kind of guy .”
Still, we need not wait for Johnson to hymn Field’s prowess in manhandling the unarmed to recognise multiple similarities between America’s current president and Britain’s likely next one. The signature burrow of blond hair; the political career forged by unexpected success on a TV indicate; the knack for grabbing notice by ensuring every public moment carries a frisson of danger, generated by the possibility that the rules are about to be broken, often through a statement that is crude or unkind or both. Both followers are skilled at making their looks seem daringly, and therefore compellingly, unscripted- “seem” being the operative word in Johnson’s case. Note Jeremy Vine’s riveting account of watching the former London mayor deliver an apparently impromptu, even chaotically ad-libbed after-dinner speech- exclusively to see him recited the exact same performance, word for word, stumble for stumble, several years later.
More substantive similarities have been well documented. Both humankinds have the same elastic approach to the truth that they had to their wedding dedicates. Trump’s lies are so legion, CNN has appointed a reporter whose premier exercise is to tally them. Johnson’s figure in this area is scarcely less impressive. The PS350m on the side of the bus goes most of the attention, but let’s not forget the false claim that Turkey was on course to accede to the EU, specific claims repeated by Johnson himself in a televised debate- merely for him to deny earlier this year that he had so much as mentioned Turkey during the 2016 referendum campaign. In other texts, he lied and then lied about his lie.
On Thursday, Johnson’s editor for a decade, Max Hastings, said,” I’m not sure he’s capable of caring for any human being other than himself ,” messages that have been said often of Trump, a boy who seems devoid of basic human empathy. That was one reason why many Republicans swore to stop him ever gaining influence:” Never Trump” was their motto. And hitherto, when the crunch came, they fell into line, so that today’s Republican defendant is exclusively his soul. Likewise, many were the Tories who in recent years would passionately tell any journalist within earshot that there was no need to worry, theirs was the army of ABB- Anyone But Boris- that they would coordinate in parliament and ensure Johnson got nowhere near the final two in a leadership rivalry. That decide melted away the moment the Brexit party topped the canvas in the European elections, motivating frightened Tory MPs to reach for a male they knew was, like Trump, wholly unfit to lead.
You can keep going in this vein , remark the uncanny similarities. But that’s only helpful if we learn the lessons these last three years of Trump have taught us, if we use the US experience as a guidebook to what’s coming- and how to deal with it.
First, the Trump precedent proposes the notion of a brand-new, tamed Johnson will prove to be baloney. Plenty in Washington acquired Trump would moderate once he was the Republican nominee and then, when that didn’t happen, formerly he was in office. He didn’t moderate. It would be equally naive to bank on Johnson discarding the shtick that got him to the summit once he contacts it. He might play benign Boris during this summer’s likely honeymoon period, but once things get difficult he’ll turn nasty, looking for whichever scapegoat he envisions might usefully avoid courtesy- and if that makes baiting a vulnerable minority, say Muslim maidens, he’ll do it.
Second, the Trump and Johnson suits present a similar challenge: how do you resist a chassis to whom the usual rules of political duel don’t apply? It’s often said that the only person who can destroy Boris Johnson in the coming weeks is … Boris Johnson. Merely a unseemly disclosure could ruin him. But would even that hurt? Think of the number of appalling floors that have risen about Trump and how they have just rebounded off him. What are able to surface about Johnson that the Tory faithful would not forgive or shrug off? Anything that would break a normal nominee- whether it’s adulterous affairs, drug users, racism or lies- is accompanied by the admirers of a Trump or Johnson as exactly part of the rule-breaking brand.( That said, the former foreign secretary’s Teflon coating might be about to be tested, following the Guardian’s report of a” loud altercation” at the Johnson residence in the early hours of Friday morning .)
The Trump experience surely recommends it’s more effective to tackle Johnson on his own terrain. Trump promised a wall with Mexico and said Mexico would pay for it: it could never happen, and it duly hasn’t. Johnson has predicted two things that are equally hopeless: a brand-new Brexit deal, which Brussels will not give him, or a no-deal Brexit, which parliament will block. Challenge Johnson on that and he withdraws into cake-and-eat-it nonsense: his latest fragment of magical thinking was his suggestion on Tuesday that we can crash out without a cope, but enjoy a “standstill” on our current EU terms while we work out a brand-new design. You can try this at home: nullify your Netflix subscription, but tell them you require a “standstill” that will allow you to keep watching all the shows you like. See how that works out.
These are the proofs Jeremy Hunt- the Tim Henman of British politics, who surely has ” Surrey” carved on his center- should be pressing. He was necessary to punched his adversary in his supposedly strongest recognize. Johnson’s preaches speak of him as if he’s electoral catnip, irresistible to the public, even liberal and Labour-minded voters. Their evidence is those two London mayoral success, the last of which was more than seven years ago. Those Tory optimists may not have noticed, but something happened between 2012 and today, something that rather took the blush off the Johnson rose in the eyes of non-Tories. By heading the leave safarus, Johnson induced himself poison to a large slab of the electorate.
For proof, gaze no further than those members of Team Corbyn who ambled with a spring in their pace this week. They calculate they can bring millions of Labour voters otherwise disenchanted with Jeremy Corbyn, and who voted Liberal Democrat or Green last-place month, back home when the alternative in a Westminster election is Prime Minister Johnson.
Tories should take note. Yes, the blond dissenter can stimulate your basi. But he can also fire up your opponents, sometimes just as much. Republicans decided to take that gamble three years ago. Now Britain’s Conservatives are due to be roster the same dice.
* Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist