A few months ago in Germany, Family Secretary Anne Spiegel resigned because she was on holiday for too long during a flood disaster. Also, she had falsely claimed she had virtually attended a cabinet meeting while on holiday. The public outrage and the resulting pressure were enormous, so she said in her resignation statement that she was resigning to “prevent damage to the office”. You often hear that in Germany when politicians leave. I am doing this completely unselfishly, the country is more important to me than myself, that is the message.
The extent to which Boris Johnson goes off the “Anne-Spiegel-scale” was on display recently when Johnson was questioned by the Liaison Committee. He effectively admitted for the first time that when he was still Foreign Secretary he met Evgeny Lebedev and his father, a former high-ranking KGB officer – just two days after a NATO summit, without telling anyone. There are even photos of him standing at the airport, visibly deranged and apparently alone. Prevent damage to the office? Alexander de Pfeffel Johnson – by name alone more of an illusionist than a politician – was not dismissed or forced to resign. He eventually became Prime Minister.
In the past weeks – at least until Boris Johnson’s resignation speech – I have spent quite some time explaining to my colleagues, friends and readers in Germany why he is still Prime Minister. Why “the British” elected him, and why he could get away with so many things. I keep saying, firstly, Boris Johnson was not the prime minister of “the British”, the polls have been showing for many months how many in the country would have liked to throw him out of Downing Street immediately. He won, secondly, in 2019, despite not being overly popular, because he was running against an extremely unpopular opponent (Jeremy Corbyn), while also promising to end the pesky Brexit issue. And thirdly, he was bred by the political system.
On a superficial view the House of Commons is exemplary of a democracy. But underneath the glittering surface, it is pretty grim in some places. “Prime Minister’s Questions” are quite often so theatrical that when you sit in the press gallery in Parliament for the first time, as a German used to boredom, you sometimes wonder whether this is actually the heart of one of the oldest democracies in the world or a Netflix set. On other days of the week, House of Commons debates are so sparsely attended that you can quickly count those present one by one. Yes, the Liberal Democrats have had their successes recently, but essentially everything is focused on the polarisation between right and left, between the Tories and Labour, between Vote and Leave, still.
Since the referendum, Brexit-Britain has been moving dangerously towards the US, where voters can only choose between black and white (rather: red and blue). The problem is: If there is only nut-chocolate and the one with mint filling left in the supermarket, I won’t buy any at all, even though I love chocolate. In Germany, the party shelf is filled with so many varieties and colours that British friends sometimes ask me how one is supposed to govern a country like that. I know: an overly full shelf can be overstraining sometimes. And the last coalition between the Tories and the LibDems didn’t work. But the apparent fundamental aversion to coalitions in this country is puzzling.
Nothing is perfect of course, and a coalition of, as is currently the case in Germany, the Social Democrats, the Greens and the FDP may be exhausting for those involved because compromises have to be found all the time. But it is precisely these compromises that often represent what society is: not a block cut into two halves of colour, but a diverse mass of many coloured dots.
In addition, in a polarised political system, divisions and fissures can emerge that are harder to mend. Boris Johnson has used exactly that, though the question would be which came first, the polarised political system or him, the master of polarising.
A few weeks ago, I experienced for myself how good he is at it. I was at 10 Downing Street with three colleagues from other major European newspapers to interview him. We sat at a round table, the conversation lasted a little over half an hour, it was interesting to sit opposite him and talk to him without the distance of a press conference. I had documents with me, figures on the economic situation, facts on the refugee issue, I wanted to be prepared. I wanted to counter when he talks the way he usually does: when he says things that are not or at least not completely true. The fact that we were sitting in Margaret Thatcher’s former office was a bit curious. Johnson was sitting with a huge portrait of a grinning Thatcher hanging in the background.
Boris Johnson was exactly as you would expect. He was friendly and, sorry to say, somehow charming, and he never stopped talking of his own accord. We had to constantly interrupt him, which, by the way, is a peculiarity I have noticed more often in this country: journalists very rarely let politicians finish, and politicians never stop talking of their own accord. Anyway, after the interview, I had to explain to my editors why it is better to leave out some of his sentences altogether, because there were so many wrong facts in them that it would be too complicated to put everything right.
This is exactly how polarisation works: saying sentences that one’s own fans want to hear, completely unflinchingly and sometimes with a charming smile, regardless of whether they are true or not. Or, as Maradona once famously did against England: a hand ball is only a hand ball when the referee sees it.
It is striking that all candidates in the Tory Leadership Contest emphasised that they wanted to stick to the rules, they talked about honesty and responsibility and seriousness. The contest is being followed with great interest in Germany, because Britain is not someone. And Germany is, as am I, used to the fact that following British politics is entertaining, because that’s what comes with polarisation, that’s the nucleus of a thrilling movie, stressing good and bad just for the sake of excitement. The question for the new leader above all will be if a Post-Johnson-Britain is ready for a bit more boredom.
Michael Neudecker is the UK and Ireland correspondent for Germany’s leading national daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung