Why there’s hope that Boris Johnson will not drift to far-right – Christine Jardine

So what happens next? That was the question on many minds as we waited to see what metaphorical rabbit our new Prime Minister would attempt to produce at the despatch box.

Boris Johnson may have realised that the UK will not be enticed too far to the political right (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson may have realised that the UK will not be enticed too far to the political right (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Although, being Boris, I suppose there was always the potential for it to be an actual rabbit.

In the end, what we got was another bravura performance, big on bluster and short on substance. I’m not ashamed to admit there are times when I’m watching him that I am reminded of an old joke from the Now Show: What do you get if you cross a Tory politician with Winnie-the-Pooh? Boris Johnson.

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It was particularly hard to get away from that image as the main theme of his first Prime Ministerial statement was to accuse the official opposition of being ‘pessimistic’. You might say they were cast in the role of Eeyore to his Winnie. The problem is, of course, that none of it is actually funny.

The man that we laughed at as he infamously got stuck on that Olympic Zip-wire, or rolled our eyes at as he steam-rollered a Japanese schoolboy in a touch rugby match, now holds our fate in his hands.

And buried in all that bluster and buffoonery there is a very serious intent. And we dismiss it at our peril.

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Why Boris Johnson really is like Winston Churchill – Joyce McMillan

The country is in the midst of the biggest crisis since the end of the Second World War and there is a 31 October deadline to meet if we are not to crash out of the EU and into chaos.

Our new Prime Minister tells us he is prepared to “do or die” in making sure that we leave on that date but doesn’t seem too fussed over whether we have a deal or not.

And his answer when he is challenged on how he will do it and how we will cope with the impact on jobs, medical supplies, food imports and exports? Optimism. Yes, we should all just put our concerns aside and think positive.

I appreciate that at this point the new premier has had a few days in post. But already we see a trend which we should all be aware of in a man who exhibits behaviour which, in my opinion, reflects little of the genuine views and aspirations of conservatives I speak to every day.

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Much has been written about his lack of attention to detail – we all saw the danger that created for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe when, as Foreign Secretary, his astonishing gaffe undermined attempts to secure her release from an Iranian prison.

We have seen that he apparently has no qualms about adopting offensive, even racist, language in describing Muslim women wearing burkas as looking like letter-boxes or talking about Africans having “water-melon” smiles. And we know there has been much debate in the press about his character and suitability.

But now, when we face that crisis, and have witnessed a worrying increase in the nationalist and populist rhetoric in British politics, we are to be governed by a Cabinet which is more glaringly right-wing than any I can remember in my lifetime.

As someone brought up in a Conservative household, I do not recognise what I hear from them as the one-nation approach and desire for a fairer society which informed my own political development.

The new leadership is to the right of the Conservative party, committed Brexiteers and in the case of our new Home Secretary, Priti Patel, a one-time supporter of the return of the death penalty and allowing pregnant women to be held in immigration detention centres.

That lurch away from the traditional Conservative base and towards to the right at the top of British politics reflects much of the wave that has swept across the Western world. Historically, the UK has managed to buck the international trend when other countries fell victim to ultra-nationalism.

The most obvious example was the 1930s. While countries on the continent were held fast in the grip of fascism, Britain’s own flirtation with the extreme right was brief and unremarkable. Since then, we have of course seen ultra-right-wing movements come and go with little success.

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In its heyday of the early 2000s, the now near-extinct British National Party had more than 50 seats in local government, one seat on the London Assembly, and two Members of the European Parliament. But, like their chums in the English Defence League, the party has since suffered electoral wipe-out and an ever-dwindling support base.

Something we haven’t been successful in remaining immune to recently, however, is populism. Which brings me back to Boris.

The leave campaign in 2016 was built on populist promises which, apart from being totally undeliverable, appealed to voters who felt that the country was no longer working for them or their families. But with a Johnson government in Whitehall, we can finally start to ‘believe in Britain’ again, they tell us.

And here is the crux of the it: the problem with populism is that it is dangerously entwined with nationalism. We’ve seen it with Trump in the US and Putin in Russia, building an idealised image of the nation state and using external actors and minorities at home as scapegoats to distract from the real causes of people’s problems.

But, perhaps ironically, the one thing I do share with Boris is optimism. And even as I recoil from the increasing volume of nationalistic, populist and misogynist rhetoric I continue to hope that reasonable voices like Jo Swinson will prevail.

I have confidence that she will lead a movement which will successfully oppose the growth of nationalism of all kinds in our politics. There’s even a suggestion in Boris’s promise of a changed attitude to immigration and improved social care that our Prime Minister recognises that the people will not be enticed to the right, however amusing or entertaining the messenger.

And regardless of how much he might bluster or perform, we will never be fooled into thinking that he is anything akin to AA Milne’s loveable bear of little brain.