British Political Turmoil Makes America's Look Like Amateur Hour

Boris Johnson stabbed David Cameron in the back. Michael Gove stabbed David Cameron in the back. Michael Gove stabbed Boris Johnson in the back. It’s very simple.

He who smiles last (Neil Hall / Reuters)

“We have really everything in common with America nowadays,” Oscar Wilde wrote in the Canterville Ghost, “except, of course, language.” And, apparently, political intrigue.

In the United States, the political class has been stunned by the rise of a candidate who bested more than a dozen better-qualified rivals, partly by means of rhetoric as simplistic as monikers like “Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted.” But that’s amateur hour. The political machinations on display across the Atlantic in the wake of Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union are far more sophisticated, and if politics is a game, America’s would be checkers to the U.K.’s three-dimensional chess.

On Thursday, Boris Johnson, the former London mayor who championed and ultimately won the vote for “Brexit,” stunned the political establishment by saying he wouldn’t seek to replace David Cameron as head of the ruling Conservative Party (and, consequently, take the prime ministership). But that only happened after Michael Gove, Johnson’s friend and ally in the “leave” campaign, put forth his own leadership bid instead. It was, as many on Twitter pointed out, a twist worthy of House of Cards (which, after all, was a British show to begin with). The British media, of course, found a way to class that reference up, with one headline saying Gove had “done a double Brutus.”

“Double” because, in this account, before Gove betrayed Johnson, he betrayed Cameron, the outgoing prime minister who staked his political future on the U.K. remaining in the EU. Gove had been a close friend of Cameron’s—the two men, their wives, and children even vacationed together—but picked the other side. (On the other hand, the friendship might not have been altogether healthy to begin with; a friend of both men described as Cameron’s treatment of Gove as an “under-butler.”)

Here already is a complicated welter of deep friendship, intense rivalries, and deep-seated resentments—and that’s before you even introduce Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, a columnist for the Daily Mail, the right-wing newspaper that championed Britain’s exit from the EU. Vine’s behind-the-scenes maneuverings—in an email accidentally made public, she urged her husband to get “SPECIFIC assurances from Boris OTHERWISE you cannot guarantee your support”have drawn even more House of Cards comparisons, given the machinations of the villainous protagonist Frank Underwood’s wife, Claire Underwood. But the British press again went higher-brow, preferring to compare Gove and Vine to Lord and Lady Macbeth.  

And lest you think it’s Gove who’s the villain of the drama, let’s now turn our attention back to Johnson, a man who has been labeled a buffoon (another headline, this one from The Guardian, said he’s “blond, plays stupid, and wants to lead the country”). To his credit, when asked by Piers Morgan whether it was possible to be both a buffoon and a prime minister, Johnson replied: “I think it’s very difficult to be both, I agree. Mind you, there have been quite a few prime ministers who’ve done a pretty good job of it.” It’s that kind of verbal dexterity that made Johnson an extremely popular London mayor and politician, and he made no attempt to hide that his ultimate ambition was to be prime minister. If he is a buffoon, furthermore, he’s one that can sing “Ode to Joy” in German and read Voltaire in French—which are not skills generally associated with a certain American politician who has also attracted the label.

Johnson, in other words, is charismatic—news that he wasn’t running to replace Cameron prompted some of his supporters to cry, though his critics pointed out that since he managed to get the U.K. out of the EU, he should probably stick around to take responsibility for what he’d done.

In summary: Gove is being portrayed as the man who stuck a dagger in Cameron’s back, by backing the “leave” campaign. But Johnson, many of his critics claim, stabbed Cameron in the back first. (Confusingly, those same critics also say that Gove stabbed Johnson in the back—which implies three stabbings total, two of them lodged between poor Cameron’s shoulderblades.) Indeed, the Cameron-Johnson friendship predates the Cameron-Gove friendship by years. (Newsweek has a comprehensive account of it.)  They were together at Eton and Oxford, and were friends and rivals, until, The Guardian noted, Cameron, who is younger by two years, beat Johnson to the “top of the greasy pole” of British politics by becoming prime minister. The Brexit campaign drove them even further apart; Cameron said of their relationship: “We are still friends— just not such good friends.”

After Britain’s exit from the European Union a week ago, and with two political careers now in ruins, Michael Gove, the son of an Aberdeen fishmonger, appears to have triumphed over his Eton-educated peers. In that context it’s worth revisiting another Etonian, George Orwell, who even in death proves prophetic: “Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton,” he wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn, “but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there.”