Boris Johnson’s danger lies beyond his words - Lesley Riddoch

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The Prime Minister has shown he is a master of distraction, writes Lesley Riddoch.

We’ve had virtue signalling. Now we have disruption signalling. And Boris Johnson stands revealed as a master of the art.

Take Sunday’s interview on the BBC’s Marr programme in which the answer to every question was full of provocative evasive and contemptuous repetition.

Would the Prime Minister apologise for his humbug response to a Labour MP revealing death threats? “The best thing for the people’s overall psychological health is to get Brexit done.”

Would he abide by the Benn Act and seek an extension from the EU if no deal is forthcoming in a fortnight’s time?

“The best thing is to get Brexit done.”

Did he regret using language condemned by Amber Rudd as likely to promote violence and by others as redolent of 1930s right wing demagogues?

“The best thing is to get Brexit done.”

It’s Brexit - nothing else matters

If Boris was asked whether night is day or Saturn really is a planet in our solar system, the PM’s non-answer would be the same.

It’s Brexit, stupid – nothing else matters. Not being taken seriously by erstwhile journalistic chums, not being regarded as responsible by “polite” society, not making sense, not appearing statesmanlike or professional to right-thinking people. Boris is willing to sacrifice everything (except his private millions) for Brexit – the cause of the people. He will threaten, cajole and move well beyond the pale. No greater sacrifice has a nice, Tory Etonian boy ever made than (apparently) laying down his comfortable, entitled life to take the side of “ordinary people” against the “tyranny” of parliament.

Of course, this is a totally warped version of recent events. But it’s worked.

Leave voters love him. He is the toff who turned. OK – his “do or die” position might have been chosen by the flip of a coin. OK – his Brexiteer roots are recent and shallow. Agreed, he and his wealthy pals stand to make millions from “gaming” Brexit and will then doubtless plunge Britain into a frenzy of deregulation and privatisation so vigorous that our current society – cursed with benefits cruelty, precarious employment, homelessness and despair – will soon resemble Britain’s Golden Age.

No matter. Boris intends to fight for the Leave majority’s “right” to be heard, and even if Brexit is counter-productive and self-harming, these voters value being heard more than guarantees of an economic prosperity few believe in and even fewer have experienced.

On message

So, there’s a massive and growing mismatch in perceptions of Boris Johnson – his behaviour, purpose in government and use of language.

The Prime Minister’s weekend exchange with Andrew Marr was dismissed by political opponents as yet another car crash interview. But “car-crash” Boris was absolutely on message for the people he wanted to reach – just like Jeremy Corbyn during the 2017 snap election, when talk of a living wage and railway renationalisation was heard loud and clear by trachled commuters and low-paid workers, even while commentators were talking incessantly about the Labour leader’s unelectability.

Boris Johnson is not aiming his behaviour, comments, language or “policies” at Remain-voting Scots or England’s (mostly) liberal, middle classes. He is aiming largely at the sceptical have-nots and every howl of complaint from the “haves” only serves to confirm the Tory leader’s primary contention – that professionals aim to block the will of the people, while he aims to “drain the swamp” and disrupt the status quo. It may sound ridiculous, given his party’s track record and personal, private wealth. But Johnson’s accomplished populism is forcing law-abiding, reasonable, polite, middle-class Remain supporters to become defenders of a ropey, unrepresentative, and archaic democracy many would rather completely overhaul.

Defending the indefensible, is not a good look. Joanna Cherry manages to walk that fine line because, despite the “girly swot” labels, the formidable QC is a prominent member of the SNP, a party intent on major disruption to the status quo.

For Westminster’s unionist Remain parties, opposing Boris is a much more difficult task – running the risk of sounding offended and even pious in the face of the Prime Minister’s premeditated taunts.

Take words like “surrender” “traitor” and “betrayal”. Are they likely to seem violence-inducing to people whose lives are constantly dogged by aggression and threat? To be crystal clear, mocking women on the receiving end of death threats is wrong and alarming behaviour from anyone – unacceptable and quite unprecedented from a Prime Minister. But everyday British life is full of so much worse.

Unpleasant realities

Tens of thousands have been cast adrift on Universal Credit and thousands have contemplated or committed suicide over benefit sanctions. Yet despite some valiant public campaigns, life in the leafy suburbs goes on as normal. Might outrage over words not seem like double standards to some folk on the breadline?

The most significant statement of this weekend for those living in poverty was Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to scrap Universal Credit. Yet it also got least media coverage - side-lined by rage over Boris Johnson’s latest verbal outrage and cunning act of displacement.

The crude and inflammatory language of last week reflects unpleasant realities about power that have long been bubbling beneath the civilised veneer of Westminster. The Commons itself is built on confrontation – at the heart of our democracy, the despatch boxes are set two swords-lengths apart. Us versus them. Capital versus Labour. North versus south. Compromise is a dirty word and the means justify the ends.

Even TV programmes reflect this fondness for the gladiatorial “fight to the death,” embodied in that now compulsory moment when “the weakest link” is eliminated, sacked or evicted. So yes, Boris Johnson is sanitising violence and condoning aggression by his choice of words – but the Conservatives’ decade-long mission to perpetuate poverty and inequality has been far more effective in turning citizen against citizen. I’d imagine very few Brexit voters watched Boris Johnson on the Marr programme yesterday – ironically its Remain voters who are glued to his every word, transfixed as if watching a horror film they can’t turn off.

So, stop. Of course, Boris Johnson’s words and claims must be subject to vigorous challenge. But it might be wise to concentrate more energy on the weakness and opportunism of his policies than his verbal traps and prancing distractions.