Last week, at one of the last major events of his party election campaign, at the conclusion of his 40-year drive to become leader of the British Conservative Party and thus prime minister of Britain, Boris Johnson made a speech. Unusually for Johnson, who often speaks off the cuff, he brought a prop to the hustings. It was a kipper – a smoked fish – wrapped in plastic.
He held it aloft, to a round of laughter. This kipper, he told his audience, came from a kipper smoker on the Isle of Man – an angry kipper smoker. “After decades of sending them through the post like this, he has had his costs massively increased by Brussels bureaucrats who are insisting that each kipper must be accompanied by a plastic ice pillow.” He held aloft the plastic ice pillow; more laughter. And then the denunciation: “pointless, pointless, expensive, environmentally damaging”. And the promise: When Britain leaves the European Union after Brexit, “we will bring the kippers back. It’s not a red herring”.
What a tour de force! Hilarious! Amusing! And all of it, every word of it, completely untrue. The European Union does not regulate food shipments within Britain. The requirement that smoked fish be packed with ice is a regulation passed by the British government. On the following day, an unamusing, not at all hilarious spokeswoman from the European Commission confirmed, “The case described by Mr. Johnson falls outside the scope of the EU legislation and it’s purely a UK national competence.”
It did not matter. In the end, Johnson emerged victorious, capturing 66% of the vote to become Britain’s next prime minister.
Though perhaps that slightly misstates the case: the fact is that the Tory party has chosen Johnson not despite the fact that he is an inventor of elaborate and untrue stories about the regulation of kippers, condoms, shrimp-cocktail-flavoured potato chips and much else. They have chosen him because he is an inventor of elaborate and untrue stories. It is fiction, not fact, that they now want to hear.
And no wonder: In European parliamentary elections held in May, the Conservatives, one of the world’s oldest and most successful political parties, came in fifth place. Not only did the Tories lose to their traditional rivals in the Labour Party, they haemorrhaged votes both to the brand-new Brexit Party, which is angry that they have not managed to leave the EU yet, as well to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, the two clearly pro-European parties in Britain, who are angry that they still want to go. If they repeat that performance at the next British parliamentary elections, they might be wiped out together.
One solution to that problem could be to actually make Brexit happen. But as I have written before, possibly more than once, Brexit requires Britain to make some stark and unpleasant choices, none of which the Conservative Party has yet proved willing to make. At some point, for example, the next prime minister must choose one of three options. Either the country stays inside Europe’s customs union; or a border is rebuilt between the Irish republic and Northern Ireland; or a customs border is placed, in practice, in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country. For different reasons, each one of these decisions would be totally unacceptable to at least one loud and politically important constituency. Theresa May tried to fudge the choice by putting it off, and that failed. Johnson appears to have no alternative, except to offer, as usual, some happy stories: Britain just needs some ‘can-do spirit’ and everything will be fine.
But even if there were no unresolvable Irish question, Brexit would still be an unsolvable riddle. Unless something changes, there is no workable majority in the House of Commons for any version of Brexit. Not for staying in the European Union, not for leaving with May’s fudge of a deal, and not for leaving without a deal, an outcome that would in any case force Britain, on the day afterwards, to start negotiating again with Europe, except from a worse position.
Of course it would be possible to decide all of these Brexit dilemmas with some form of democracy, perhaps a general election, a new referendum, or both. But then – and now the circle is complete – you get back to the existential problem for the Tories: They are deeply unpopular, and whatever they propose is likely to lose.
Faced with dilemmas like that, would not you prefer a fantasy about a smoked kipper? Or some other amusing story designed to flatter you, to appeal to your down-to-earth British common sense, to make you laugh at those silly foreigners and their pesky ways? Or someone who, if nothing else, is at least ‘optimistic’? Extinction looms. Bad choices are ahead. The forks in the road all seem to lead to disaster. There’s no way out – so let’s at least entertain ourselves while the ship sinks.
Applebaum is a Washington Post columnist, covering national politics and foreign policy, with a special focus on Europe and Russia. She is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a professor of practice at the London School of Economics. She is a former member of The Washington Post’s editorial board. © 2019, The Washington Post