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Delivering Brexit: Boris Johnson, Balliol & I

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on: 31 August 2019, 15:55 IST
Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson at first implied that he intends staying on as prime minister, even if he loses the no-confidence vote, which was expected to be tabled by Labour as soon as Parliament reconvenes after the summer recess. He then repeatedly side-stepped questions about the vote, effectively refusing to rule out ignoring the vote altogether. Johnson has his eyes firmly set on a singular goal: ‘We are going to leave the European Union on 31 October ... that is what I think the parliamentarians of this country should get on and do."

Now he’s gone and done the unprecedented. Johnson’s decision to suspend or ‘prorogue’ the British Parliament has evoked outrage. He’s also managed to get the Queen’s approval. As the BBC reports: ‘Three Conservative members of the Queen's Privy Council took the request to suspend Parliament to the monarch's Scottish residence in Balmoral on Wednesday morning on behalf of the prime minister. It has been approved, allowing the government to suspend Parliament no earlier than Monday 9 September and no later than Thursday 12 September, until Monday 14 October.’

Meanwhile, a legal challenge has been mounted, led by anti-Brexit campaigner, Gina Miller– not against the Queen’s approval; that isn’t allowed – but against the advice given by the incumbent PM to the Queen. Members across party lines, including Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, Labour deputy leader Tom Watson and former Tory PM John Major (from Johnson’s own party) have joined hands. This cross-party group of legislators is still clinging to hope that a court judgement just might throw a spanner in Johnson’s works.

On Friday, they suffered a minor setback in the form of a delay, with The Court of Session in Edinburgh refusing to take immediate legal action to prevent Johnson’s decision. Judge Raymond Doherty insisted though that a full hearing on the case will be heard on Tuesday, September 3, raising the sliver of a prospect that the government's move could still be blocked. We might not have heard the last of this yet.
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Boris Johnson and I attended the same college at Oxford, Balliol. Fifteen years separate our undergraduate degrees and yet the alumni connection runs deep. While liberals wring their hands in despair at the anointing of audacious Boris, let me try and unlock Boris’ mind using the secret Balliol key. Boris can be seen as a quintessential Balliol product but there are crucial ways in which he diverges from the set pattern as well. Please take this with a pinch of salt.

Jasper Griffin, Boris’ languages tutor at Balliol, composed and recited an ode in Greek to mark Boris’ 50th birthday. I remember having a glass of sherry with Griffin the year I’d arrived (1998), and discussing the price of onions in India.

Balliol has produced three British prime ministers till now: H H Asquith, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath. Boris is only following College tradition by moving his belongings into 10, Downing Street.

PPE or Philosophy, Politics and Economics, the honours degree I read for, is supposed to be the degree that runs Britain. Governments down the years, both Tory and Labour, have been filled with PPEists. David Cameron was one. Boris is different.

He did the four-year course in classical literature, history and philosophy known as Literae Humaniores. A Classics degree is traditionally considered a notch higher than the PPE. Boris failed to get the coveted First, which Cameron did. It remains a sore point with competitive Boris who, when reminded of this, never ceases to remind one back as to who took on the challenge of a ‘difficult’ degree.

Some of the world’s most famous writers attended Balliol, which was founded in the 13th century. The galaxy of literary stars includes Gerard Manley Hopkins, Aldous Huxley, Antony Powell, Neville Chute, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Graham Greene and the cannabis smuggler, Howard Marks.

Boris, the author of ten books, is part of this tradition as well. Among the books he’s written are The Dream of Rome, in which he discusses how the Roman Empire achieved political and cultural unity in Europe, and compares it to the failure of the European Union to do the same; The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History; Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius and a novel, Seventy Two Virgins. He also has an illustrated book of poems to his name - The Perils of the Pushy Parents – of which the Guardian reviewer wrote: ‘He not only writes duff verse, he illustrates it too with inept drawings. At least Roald Dahl had the good sense to seek out Quentin Blake to draw Willy Wonka.’

Balliol has always maintained an India connection. Benjamin Jowett was Master of Balliol from 1870 to 1893 and a great friend of Cornelia Sorabjee, the first woman to study law at Oxford. While Jowett was Master, forty-nine Indians were at the university, twenty-two of those at Balliol. Jowett pioneered reforms in the Indian Civil Service. Under his watch, Balliol sent three viceroys to India: Landsdowne, Elgin and Curzon. The probationary training for the ICS was done at Balliol. Jowett also inaugurated the India Institute in 1883. The two Nawabs of Pataudi, Iftikhar Ali and Mansur Ali Khan, studied at Balliol; when I was there bumped into Soha Ali Khan, quietly continuing the family tradition.

Boris has upheld the Balliol-Indian subcontinent connection. One of the first things he did on becoming PM was to appoint Indians in top positions: Priti Patel as home secretary, Alok Sharma as international development secretary, Rishi Sunak as chief secretary to the treasury and Sajid Javed, the chancellor. Boris has also removed the cap on migrant arrivals.

The India connection manifests itself in Boris’ personal life as well: for twenty-five years he was married to Marina Wheeler, the niece of Khushwant Singh (her mother, Dip, was married to Khushwant’s brother, Daljit). In the past Boris has referred to himself as the son-in-law of India.

Balliol has always had somewhat of a radical reputation. In the 1960s, the college witnessed an abortive coup when students took over the college and declared it the ‘People’s Republic of Balliol’. This is where Boris takes a different path. While at Balliol, he avoided the JCR (college student’s union) elections, knowing that it was a bastion of the Left. He stood for and won the Oxford Union elections (on the second try) by pretending to be a Social Democrat; the Union was dominated by the Left as well.

When Anthony Kenny - Master of Balliol while Boris was an undergraduate – recommended his name to a Social Democrat MP looking for an intern, Boris, fresh out of university, declined saying: ‘ Master, don’t you know I am a dyed-in-the-wool Tory?”

Kenny writes in Brief Encounters: Notes from a Philosopher’s Diary: ‘His strategy recalled Thomas Macaulay’s words about the difference between lying and deceiving: “Metternich told lies all the time, and never deceived any one; Talleyrand never told a lie and deceived the whole world.”’

One of the whimsical traditions at Balliol is the college tortoise who is looked after by a student with the designation, Tortoise Comrade. When I was there I occasionally spotted Rosa Luxembourg, named after the famous German Marxist. Rosa disappeared in 2004 and hasn’t been traced. Rosa was around for 43 years; Boris and I petted the same tortoise.

Politically speaking, Boris’ approach more resembles that of a hare. As Lord Michael Heseltine, businessman and politician, said last year, Boris ‘waits to see the way the crowd is running and then dashes in front.’ Certainly not Rosa’s style.

(The writer is the author of The Butterfly Generation & the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India)

First published: 31 August 2019, 14:33 IST