Eighteen months ago, I had the pleasure of telling Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s now departed head of communications, about the nickname that the American president had come up with for Britain’s new Prime Minister: ‘Britain Trump’.
My amusement was matched by the look of horror on Cain’s face. This was very much not the label that Number 10 wanted for their man in 2019, and it’s even less so in 2021. The coincidence that both men rose after uprisings at the polls in 2016 is just that, they argue – a coincidence.
The ‘Johnson isn’t Trump’ case is well made by James Forsyth in the Times, and it’s right, as far as it goes. Donald Trump is one of a kind. But this doesn’t quite get Johnson, or the Tories, off the hook.
Yes, it’s true that you have to deal with the US president that you have. It’s hard to imagine that Theresa May will be dropping in on Trump Tower for a catch-up the next time she’s in New York, but she nevertheless set out to court and flatter the new president, as did other European leaders.
But some Tories, including Johnson, went further. His private comments in 2018 that he was ‘increasingly admiring of Donald Trump’ and was ‘convinced that there is method in his madness’ weren’t part of a diplomatic strategy. He asked his audience to ‘imagine Trump doing Brexit’. There’d be ‘all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.’
In admiring Trump’s wrecking ball style, Johnson was in line with plenty of Tory thought. Much ink has been spent explaining the president’s skills and the reasons he is a friend of Britain. Some of this is explained by Trump’s enthusiasm for Brexit. Overseas admirers of the Conservative party’s central project are hard to find, and the president is – or was, anyway – probably a preferable brand ambassador to Vladimir Putin.
There was also, of course, the idea that Trump would use his authority to swiftly deliver a generous US trade deal. There were strong incentives for Tories to tell themselves that Trump was a serious figure and an international deal-maker.
But some British Conservatives also admired Trump’s style. After a decade of Tory rebranding under David Cameron, many welcomed a bit of muscular fighting back against political correctness. They had good reason to enjoy the sight of someone winning an election by articulating white working class anger at the way the world had changed.
As for Johnson himself, it is hardly surprising that one political arsonist should admire the blazes being started by another. The Prime Minister has lived his life unmindful of consequences. He didn’t need to share all of the president’s views to enjoy the thrill of seeing the world stage dominated by another man who ignored the rules and got away with it.
Johnson is indeed a different man from Trump. He is, for a start, both a reader and a writer of books. But his relative sophistication doesn’t acquit him. Both men are happy to offer alternative facts when the real ones are awkward. It’s hard to imagine Johnson inciting a mob to storm parliament, but one doesn’t need a long memory to recall him shutting parliament down because he didn’t like the way it voted. If Trump is at ease with political violence, Johnson was dismissive of suggestions he moderate his language as MPs were sent death threats.
Following the chaos in Washington this week, there is now a certain amount of revisionism going on in Conservative circles. It’s worth going back to comments that Michael Gove made after interviewing Trump four years ago. ‘I can’t make a window into Donald Trump’s soul,’ he said. ‘But what I can tell is that he is enthusiastic about Brexit.’
The trouble is that no one needed to make a window into Donald Trump’s soul to see what he thought. The man was the opposite of an enigma. We haven’t learned anything new about him this week. He is who he always was, and it’s not unreasonable to judge Boris Johnson for being a little too comfortable with him.