If British voters are struggling to keep up with the latest artful policy dodges and rhetorical zingers of Boris Johnson, think how those across the water feel. In Germany in particular, the UK prime minister triggers a charged mix of puzzlement and anger. For a country that tends to take its politicians on the dull-but-competent side, the fact that a joker can make it to the top of government leaves many Germans baffled, even horrified. (They may not be the only ones.)
As the commentator Jan Ross puts it, many Germans see Mr Johnson’s approach to politics as nothing short of a “provocation”. While the prime minister deploys the classics to pepper up his speeches, German politicians tend to use Latin as a solemn reminder of eternal responsibilities, such as sticking to legal agreements. It is unsurprising then that “Johnson bashing” is all the rage — he is routinely dismissed as a clown or (in another display of the German language’s ability to offer up an expansively compounded barb for any occasion) a spätimperialistischer Oxfordschnösel (late imperialist Oxford snotty-nosed brat).
In an attempt to explain the Johnson phenomenon, Mr Ross, a journalist with Die Zeit — a high-minded news weekly that, like its hometown of Hamburg, has long harboured strong Anglophile sympathies — has written a short primer on the British prime minister.
The book’s subtitle, “Portrait of a Troublemaker”, might seem an indication of the direction of travel. Yet the result is an intelligent analysis of the man and his world view that benefits from informed distance. The book explores whether the injection of unruly populist impulses into a mainstream conservative setting represents another of those British experiments — such as the Thatcher revolution or New Labour — that have captured continental imagination.
Mr Ross is no Johnson apologist. Much of the criticism of the PM is well-deserved, he says. He portrays a man with seemingly no moral compass, a character of unrooted flexibility that might have slipped off the pages of a John le Carré novel. That reverence for the classics is viewed less as an expression of good breeding and education and more as a celebration of a pagan world where rhetoric and performance are what counts and there are no absolute truths, only relative perspectives. Which side you take in an argument is less important than how you prosecute it — and whether you win.
Yet in the midst of Mr Ross’s own bit of Boris bashing there is also understanding for his subject and some of the causes he has come — by intention, accident or raw ambition (or all three) — to champion. He concluded that the Brexit vote was not a wholly irrational act: there were plausible reasons for wanting to leave the EU. And not all the Brexiters he met on his travels in the UK were the swivel-eyed loons of Remainer characterisation.
Mr Ross is not the only German commentator to have made this point. In 2018, Jochen Buchsteiner, a London-based political correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s self-styled paper of record, ruffled more than a few policy-wonk feathers in Berlin with a book in which he sought to explain Britain’s “escape” from the “utopia” of the EU. Rather than an act of collective madness, the vote reflected legitimate criticisms of the European project — something Germany and the other EU member states would do well to recognise and act upon. Not to do so would be a mistake.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, such scepticism does not go down well in Germany. For all its vibrant pluralism and variety, the German media can at times be a homogeneous place — not least when it comes to such orthodoxies as the country’s stance on Europe. The space for critical assessment of the EU and Germany’s position within it has narrowed, thanks in part to the chaotic, angry progress of Brexit and Mr Johnson’s troublemaking.
If anything rather than inspiring others to follow suit, as some hardline Brexiters hoped, the UK vote has, in Mr Ross’s view “consolidated and ossified” the consensus view. It might even be something of a treppenwitz — the zinging witticism that occurs on the point of departure. If only it wasn’t so serious.
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