Friday, June 9, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Boris Johnson Rattles UK Politics With Abrasive Style

Boris Johnson has acted like John Bull in a china shop this week as he's rampaged through the House of Commons and across the political stage of a stunned United Kingdom.

(CN) — Boris Johnson has acted like John Bull in a china shop this week as he's rampaged through the House of Commons and across the political stage of a stunned United Kingdom.

Johnson, the new 55-year-old mop-haired Conservative prime minister with a style that combines angry bluster and comedy, is living up to expectations: He's made Great Britain's political chaos over Brexit an even bigger mess.

In his debut to take questions in the House of Commons as prime minister on Wednesday, Johnson raised eyebrows.

He was seen mouthing, “You great big girl's blouse” in response to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn's accusation that his government was “desperate to avoid scrutiny.” He'd used that sexist expression before in his career.

He called Corbyn a “chlorinated chicken” afraid of holding an election, and said Labour's view of its own economic policy was “shit or bust.” Commentators and critics said it was unbecoming behavior for a prime minister.

Later, he glibly ignored a Sikh Labour parliamentarian asking for an apology because Johnson once wrote in a newspaper column that burka-clad Muslim women look like “letterboxes.”

Labour Party member Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who is of Indian origin and a follower of the Sikh religion and wears a turban, stood up and asked Johnson for an apology for describing burka-clad Muslim women as looking like "letterboxes." Johnson ignored his request and did not apologize.

Attacking, laughing at criticism, grinning with glee, finger-pointing, accusing, gesticulating, making rosy promises, evading questions and lying: This is Johnson's style — and it was on full throttle this week.

When Tory members voted this summer in favor of making Johnson their prime minister, many were banking on his bullish style pushing Great Britain out of the European Union once and for all.

It's still too soon to say if this plan will work, but it has left a lot of broken china on the floor already.

Ministers are resigning — even his own brother, Jo Johnson, quit on him and left his Cabinet. He kicked Winston Churchill's 71-year-old grandson out of the Conservative Party for voting against him. Johnson expelled 20 other Tory House members who opposed his plan to leave the EU with or without a deal. Under party rules, Johnson’s opponents were “deselected,” meaning they cannot run in the next election as a Tory party member.

He's got tempers flaring in the House of Commons. Expletives were deployed during debates this week. The opposition benches are seething with hatred.

“The prime minister that we have at the moment is playing some bully-boy game of some bully-boy public school,” Jess Phillips, a Labour member, said in an emotional attack in the House of Commons. Johnson attended the exclusive private schools Eton College and Oxford University, known as public schools in Britain.

His opponents in the House seem to be trying to outdo themselves in flaying Johnson. He's been called a “dictator,” “shambolic,” and “untrustworthy.” Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill's grandson, told the House that Johnson's “serial disloyalty” to the Tory party had become an “inspiration” for many others in the party.

Johnson's move to purge his party of rebels was labeled as hypocritical because he voted against former Prime Minister Theresa May when she tried to get her Brexit deal through Parliament. He and other pro-Brexit members were not punished by May for voting against her.

On Thursday, Johnson was hit by an unexpected resignation from his Cabinet — his younger brother.

Jo Johnson issued a statement saying he was “torn between family loyalty and the national interest.” He called it “an unresolvable tension” that left him no choice but to resign from the Tory party and his seat in the Cabinet as universities minister.

“For his own brother to say he's not acting in the national interest … I don't think you can have a more devastating critique of our prime minister,” said Guto Bebb, one of 21 Conservative rebels kicked out of the party on Wednesday.

The prime minister shrugged off his brother's departure Thursday while he headed to a campaign rally in northern England. Johnson is calling for a general election because his Brexit plans are being stymied in the House, where the Tories do not hold a majority.

But escaping London did not help him. During a long event where he took questions from the media with police officers at his back, one officer suffering in the heat nearly fainted and dropped to her knees. News media reported that the officers, clad in police jackets and hats, had been made to stand in the heat for about an hour because the prime minister was running late.

“You all right?” the prime minister asked, briefly turning to the officer. “I'm so sorry. That is a signal to me, actively, to wind up, OK,” he said with a wry smile. He wrapped up after rapping Corbyn a bit more and accusing him of hypocrisy.

During the same visit to the north, British media showed Johnson confronted by a man on a street who chastised the prime minister for campaigning and not working with European officials to come up with a deal to get Britain smoothly out of the EU.

“You're playing games!” the man was seen saying loudly. “You should be in Brussels negotiating!”

For many, it seems that Johnson — the political wonder boy who's so good at winning elections thanks to his flair and intellect — might not have a Midas touch after all.

His supporters aren't so sure.

“Johnson’s gamble was breathtaking in its ambition: He would take over a fatally divided Tory party with no majority, forcibly reform it in his image and gain a pro-Brexit majority,” a columnist in the Daily Telegraph wrote Thursday. “For all of the madness of the past few days, I’m still predicting that he will pull it off.”

The columnist, Allister Heath, predicted Johnson's relentless attacks will push Labour into accepting an election they will lose.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

Categories:International, Politics

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.