In a series of events that belong in a slapstick comedy, the bumbling former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is set to become our next prime minister. Widely seen as an endearing eccentric, Johnson has carefully shaped his image with the media. Who could forget how he responded to the controversy that ensued when he called Muslim women ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank robbers’? Immediately afterwards he turned up on television wearing Hawaiian shorts and offering journalists tea from whimsically mismatched mugs instead of answers or an apology.
Johnson is an alumnus of both Eton and Oxford, and once belonged to the notorious all-male society ‘The Bullingdon Club’—the initiation ceremony for which included burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person. But that won’t stop his media friends recasting him as a man of the people in the coming weeks. Over five million people in the UK are currently struggling to make ends meet as a result of low-paid, insecure employment, coupled with steadily rising costs of living. And the best the Tories can give them is a toff promising tax cuts for the rich.
A careerist whose hypocrisy knows few bounds, it can be easy to forget today’s Brexiteer hero once said that the only benefit of leaving the European Union would be that it would make us “recognise that most of our problems are not caused by Brussels, but by chronic British short-termism, inadequate management, sloth, low skills, a culture of easy gratification, and under-investment in both human and physical capital and infrastructure.”
Anyone who read Johnson’s April 2016 Telegraph column would have been forgiven for mistaking him for a Remainer, as he outlined the benefits of the EU and claimed that “the membership fee seems rather small for all that market access.” Yet later that same day he found himself at the top of a well-financed campaign to Leave.
Boris Johnson epitomises everything the Tory party stands for. A racist who called black people “picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and said Barack Obama had an “ancestral dislike” of Britain because of his Kenyan heritage, he also argued that the problem with colonised countries was “not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”
This act continued for many years—describing the people of Papua New Guinea as “cannibals,” saying women only went to college “to find men to marry,” and describing gay men as “tank-topped bum boys.” A fitting record for a man who promised at his campaign launch to “bring the country together.”
But in all of these discussions in recent weeks, one part of Boris Johnson’s sordid history is left out: his record on workers. Johnson has spent almost his entire career bashing trade unions. In the 2000s he was one of the most prominent opponents of the minimum wage, saying it would “destroy jobs.” And as mayor of London he regularly clashed with the RMT and London Underground workers.
It’s worth remembering why that happened. Boris Johnson campaigned for mayor with a pledge not to close London Underground ticket offices. He even called the press photographers in to sign a contract. “The answer to the number of ticket office closures,” he said, “is nil.” When Johnson reneged on this promise, the RMT went on strike. Rather than keep his word, he instead set about a campaign to ban strike action. He demanded a minimum 50 per cent turnout on union ballots before any strike could be called. This formed the basis of the Tories’ anti-union Trade Union Act reforms that were introduced in 2016.
Boris Johnson’s hatred for working-class people runs deep. Imagine, in the wake of all we have discovered over so many years about the Hillsborough disaster, writing that the people of Liverpool were “wallowing” in “victim status”? Or that they needed to acknowledge the role played “by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground”?
Today, 130,000 largely wealthy members of the Conservative Party have catapulted Boris Johnson to 10 Downing Street. They don’t mind his record of supporting austerity, privatisation, or deregulation. In fact, many of them cheered when he said in a recent interview that he “couldn’t think of anyone who stood up for bankers” more than he did in the wake of the 2008 crash. “I defended them,” he reminded us, “day in, day out.”
Maybe that’s why he is so determined to oppose the “red-toothed, red-clawed socialism” of the Labour Party. But the stakes for working people in any future election against Boris Johnson are stark. That much should be clear from his friendships with Donald Trump and Steve Bannon—vultures who could be expected to pick apart Britain’s public sector after a no-deal Brexit.
As Boris Johnson takes the country towards a cliff edge on 31 October, it’s worth remembering what he said when he was sacked from the Tory front bench in 2004. “My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.” If you’re as rich as Boris, there is no disaster too great for you to benefit from.