Just weeks after Boris Johnson reportedly held secret talks with American ‘alt-right guru’ Steve Bannon, the former Foreign Secretary was putting his own spin on one of Donald Trump’s favourite slogans.
Instead of the US President’s sinister chant of “lock her up” – directed at Hillary Clinton for supposed email irregularities – Johnson ‘joked’ that Theresa May could be prosecuted if her Chequers Brexit plan was adopted under an obscure 14th-century English statute. But this attempt at his humour was also accompanied by a serious allegation that Chequers would “cheat the electorate”. “This is not democracy. This is not what we voted for. This is an outrage,” he told a packed hall of more than 1,000 people at the Conservative Party conference. It was ‘enemy of the people’ rhetoric and the crowd lapped it up.
Since leaving his job as a Trump advisor, Bannon has been travelling Europe seeking to boost anti-EU, populist and far-right figures like Tommy Robinson, the English Defence League’s founder. Bannon has refused to comment on reports he has secretly advised Johnson, but has praised him to the hilt, saying “I think he has the potential to be a great Prime Minister, not [just] a good one”. It’s not hard to see the inspiration of Bannon in Johnson’s public statements, such as his Trump-esque comments about the burka. Many of those who have condemned such remarks are members of his own party, people like Conservative peer Lord Cooper, David Cameron’s ex-director of strategy, who accused Johnson of “casual racism and ... equally casual courting of fascism”. But, in a wide-ranging speech that sounded a lot like an election manifesto, Johnson had the temerity to claim the Chequers plan would lead to a surge in support for the far-right.
There are senior Conservatives who regard him as a silver-tongued charlatan motivated by personal ambition above all else – Scottish Secretary David Mundell said people were “concerned about Mr Johnson’s behaviour” – but it is also clear there are many in his party who are falling under his spell. The EU has problems with May’s Brexit proposals but would have even bigger ones with Johnson’s ill-defined fantasies, making a potentially catastrophic no-deal exit much more likely. If the UK is to leave the EU, it must do so with a trade deal. The lead-tongued May will address her party today. Seldom has so much depended on so few words.