Unless a group of Conservative MPs suddenly discover spines and consciences in the next couple of hours, at some point this afternoon Boris Johnson will become Prime Minister. As he begins assembling his first Cabinet, we’ll know for sure that Britain has finally shed all its old illusions and completely given up on the prospect of being a serious country for the foreseeable future.
Now, I know some people will argue with this statement. Mostly, they’ll say that we passed the event horizon from serious to silly a long time ago and that is just one brief moment of focus as we descend into the black hole our politics has been circling for a long time. There’s a case to be made for that, but I prefer to see today as the point when our descent out of seriousness became terminal and unstoppable, when all those forces that could have prevented this from happening have all officially decided that they’re not going to.
Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister is a clear statement that the government of the UK no longer wishes to engage with the world as it actually is, and will instead be retreating into silliness and a belief that the world is something else instead. While Theresa May’s ministry was three years of ongoing disaster after humiliation that we were all forced to sit through and watch in agonising detail, her problem was that she couldn’t answer the questions the situation put to her. There were truckloads of incompetence on display, but it was the incompetence of someone who was at least trying to do the job they were meant to do.
Boris Johnson’s government (and there’s three words that would have been a punchline just a few years ago) can’t even reach that basic level of incompetence because they don’t accept that the world is going to ask them questions and demand answers. May was the student turning up to an exam, realising she’d got her revision completely wrong, and asking to do a resit. Johnson’s the one who turns up having done no preparation and decides that setting fire to the exam papers and possibly the whole school is the best way out of the situation. The official policy of Britain on all important issues from now on can be characterised as being whatever bluster and bullshit might appeal to the Prime Minister on the day, all bellowed out with a exhortation to believe that things aren’t the way they seem.
We’re about to get a Prime Minister whose political career would have spluttered and burned out years ago in a country that took itself seriously. Every supposed bulwark against this happening has instead thrust him further and further up the ladder, happily fanning the flames of his ambition at every stage. The media pushed him to prominence and shied away from scrutiny, business showered him cash in the hope of profiting from his celebrity and then his power, the Conservative Party proved itself a hollow and collapsing shell eager to embrace and envelop the hope he might prop it up, and Parliament allowed itself to be steamrollered by nonsense rhetoric about the “will of the people” giving him a mandate for whatever shiny policy catches his eye that day.
And so, as he sits in the car to Buckingham Palace, making sure his hair is the right amount of messed up, rehearsing a speech that will be devoid of content but full of the blowhard confidence of someone who’s just proved that no god can stop a hungry man, we can start painting a sign on the White Cliffs of Dover: taking a break from being a serious country, please try again later.