BERLIN – Should anyone require further proof that the promises of populists are worthless, they need only watch the latest psychodrama in London.
Boris Johnson, the ex-London mayor and mop-haired Donald Trump clone who led the Conservative party’s “leave” faction, just dropped his bid to become Britain’s next prime minister. This was almost as shocking as the voters’ decision to leave the European Union, since Johnson was the face of the Brexit campaign.
But every glowing promise Johnson made before the Brexit vote has been walked back since by leading Brexiteers. Perhaps Boris realized he could no longer fool the voters and didn’t want to be around when they got angry.
His political demise, and the swift debunking of his prevote claims, is further proof — as if it were needed — that voting for the pap peddled by populists guarantees a rude shock if they win.
Only nine days ago Johnson was promising — in the last televised Brexit debate — that there would be no economic cost if Britain left the EU. He called such claims by the opposition “Project Fear.”
He told voters that nothing would change except for the better. Britain would still have access to the European common market, but would no longer have to freely admit workers from other European countries. (The Brexit camp whipped up fears of Muslim immigrants when, in fact, Britain admitted almost no Arab refugees. It mainly took in migrants from Europe as required under EU rules.)
Boris also assured voters that there would be huge financial gains from Brexit because they would no longer have to send 350 million pounds ($462 million) a week to Brussels, headquarters of the EU. That money would go to bolster Britain’s National Health Service, the Brexiteers said.
Yet immediately after the vote Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party — the hard right group that pushed most fervently for “leave” — denied there had ever been such a pledge. And it turned out the 350 million figure was a gross exaggeration.
Next, it emerged that the main Brexit (and Boris) promise, that Britain would “take back control” of immigration, was also a fantasy. Germany’s Angela Merkel and other European leaders made very clear that, if Britain wanted to remain in the common market, it would have to accept EU rules permitting free movement of Europeans across borders.
The blows kept coming. The British pound tanked. Johnson’s assurance that Scotland — which wanted to remain in the EU — would not hold a second independence referendum if the “leave” vote won, was quickly contradicted by Scottish political leaders.
Yet Boris kept ladling out lies even after the vote, insisting in a Daily Telegraph column that Brits could “take back democratic control of immigration policy” and still retain access to the single European market. He repeated this blatant untruth even as Merkel was saying the exact opposite.
This reminded me of the impossible media task of keeping up with the whoppers peddled by Donald Trump in every speech.
The Washington Post, whose fact checkers rate political fibs on both sides of the aisle with “Pinocchios,” with four as the max, has noted that Trump has earned so many “four Pinocchios” they have no room for them all.
Johnson’s Brexit statements were four Pinocchios all the way.
Yet this Conservative MP — born in New York City to upper-class Brits, and an Eton and Oxford grad — could convince a large slice of the British public that he was anti-establishment and on their side. He was clever enough to realize that the wave of populist nationalism rising in Europe and in the United States is based more on emotions than facts.
Large segments of citizenry, left behind by globalization, are understandably angry at politicians. They are susceptible to promises of an easy fix, and what could be easier than to promise that Brexit would make Britain great again?
And let’s not forget Johnson’s political ambitions. He clearly hoped to ride the populist wave to become the next Conservative prime minister, after David Cameron — who had backed “remain” — announced he would step down in the fall.
So why did Johnson abandon his plan?
Perhaps he realized what he had done to his country, as the warnings of Project Fear became realities. It quickly became clear that Johnson had no plans for how to handle the Brexit aftermath. And, as if a sign from the gods of how far Britain had fallen, England’s soccer team lost to Iceland 2-1 shortly after the vote.
Or perhaps Johnson’s ambitions curdled when his Conservative ally Michael Gove announced his plan to campaign for prime minister. Obviously, the Conservatives who pushed Brexit were inspired more by ambition than by detailed plans for Britain.
The saga of Boris Johnson does serve one useful purpose. It lays bare the risk of voting based on emotions and ignoring facts. It underlines the risk of embracing a Pied Piper who makes promises that are clearly too good to be true.
The British example could prove instructive come November in America. But that depends on whether voters are willing to take it to heart — and to head.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.