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Liberals, some advice – your apocalyptic prophecies actually make Boris Johnson look pretty competent

It’s the 2019 version of taxi drivers shouting ‘the country’s gone to the dogs’ when nothing particularly bad has happened. But increasingly hysterical commentary just gives the prime minister more space to come in ahead of expectations

Geoff Norcott
Friday 09 August 2019 10:10 BST
Boris Johnson posts video claiming he'll help 'restore faith' in UK democracy

I remember when Donald Trump first got elected there was an ill-fated Twitter campaign called #100DaysMax. It sounded like a bold product pledge for balding men, but was in fact a prediction he wouldn’t last more than 100 days in office.

Because, as we all know, there’s nothing more politically powerful than a hashtag. If only we’d had them in the 1940s everything could’ve been sorted with a simple #GoAwayAdolf.

At the time, I thought simply not being impeached for just over three months set his success criteria far too low. Sort of like Manchester United demanding that Harry Maguire spends his first season learning to tie shoelaces.

The same is happening in the UK with the left and Boris Johnson. Recently, I had a letter to my podcast from “a worried liberal”. Is there any other kind of liberal these days? There are legitimate things to worry about in 2019, but it doesn’t change the fact that the “brand” of the centre-left carries a permanent “end is nigh” placard. For many on that side of politics, the glass isn’t just half-empty, it’s been smashed against the side of a bar to be used as a shank. This guy was worried that Britain under Johnson would reverse decades of social liberalism and become a worse place for gay people and people of colour.

This catastrophising is a potential problem, primarily because it’s not always tethered to likelihood. Despite using homophobic language in an article, Johnson’s political record on the gay community is decent. His “pillar box” comments contrast with him suggesting one of the most radical courses of actions over the settlement of undocumented migrants.

Dystopian prophesising has become a habit for liberals. Mention Brexit and they’ll conjure up an image of The Hunger Games crossed with It’s a Knockout. Mention Johnson and they’ll talk of Britain going to “hell in a handbasket”. It’s the political equivalent of clickbaiting.

Some are so pessimistic they’ve become a modern parallel to that taxi driver convinced “the country’s gone to the dogs”.

What if we do leave without a deal on 31 October? What wiggle room have liberals left themselves after years of predicting no-deal Britain would look like the set of Peaky Blinders? Say the planes do still land. Say your nan can still get that hip replacement. Say we don’t have to milk the cat for nutrition.

Despite voting Leave, I’m not instinctively a no-dealer, though I admit I would like to know what would happen if we did drive over that “cliff edge” (not just because it looked so cool in The Italian Job). It’s not through any desire to discover the taste of roasted cockroach, I just want to know who was right about the impact of leaving the EU without a deal. Maybe it’s also a touch of nihilism: if there was a giant red button saying “definitely don’t press this”, I’d toy with giving it a go. You might scoff at that recklessness, but I admit I’m prey to the basic foibles of human nature. It’s why I’ve never waited for a USB stick to be properly ejected before pulling it out of the computer. I know, I’m a maverick.

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And coming back to Johnson, if the target he’s set himself with the EU and the scale of opposition in the Commons to no deal are insurmountable, as his critics argue, this should come undone pretty quickly. However, this is Johnson, a man whose career should by rights have ended up a zipwire. Maybe the hyperbole comes from justifiable anxiety at his tendency to subvert the known rules of politics. However, increasingly hysterical commentary just gives him more space to come in ahead of expectations.

If the past five years have taught us anything, it’s that for a political movement to succeed there needs to be some message of hope. The hard left, for all their flaws, are at least suggesting that – show trials for hedge-fund managers aside – a fairer economic future awaits the less well-off.

Hard Brexiteers, for all their bluster, do seem to genuinely believe Britain can thrive outside the EU. The liberal left, on the other hand, is making the tempting offer that, if you listen to it, we might avoid having to eat our own pets. It’s not about lying to the public, but remembering to include some sliver of a promise that at some point things might, quite possibly, be a bit better than they are now.

Geoff Norcott tours "Taking Liberties" between September and November this year - Click here for ticket details.

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