If you had to distill the entire 2017 British election campaign into a single exchange it would probably be this one, which occurred yesterday between the Prime Minister Theresa May and a BBC radio host:
BBC: “Do you know what a mugwump is?”
Prime Minister: “What I recognize is that what we need in this country is strong and stable leadership.”
Confused? Allow me to provide some background.
Earlier this week, the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made waves when he waded into election fray by publishing a column in the Sun calling Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn a “mutton-headed old mugwump.”
There was nothing particularly surprising in this. Boris, or BoJo as the tabloids like to call him, is a verbose—some would say buffoonish—eccentric with a penchant for stealing headlines by way of pratfalls and pull quotes. This was the same politician, don’t forget, who caused an international media storm during the Olympics by getting stuck on a zipline waving a Union Jack. He has also said he has about as much chance of becoming PM as “Elvis being discovered on Mars or my being reincarnated as an olive.”
But the British press love a good bun fight and so “mugwump” instantly trended on Twitter as bibliophiles and journalists across the country set to arguing about its meaning and etymology. According to Johnson the term was an insult used by Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (in fact it was from the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator in which Wonka calls another character “my dear old muddle-headed mugwump”) and its precise meaning is someone who remains aloof or independent, particularly politically. In 19th century America it was also widely used to mean a political turncoat from the Republican party. So, not terribly accurate where Corbyn is concerned—a man who, despite his many faults, has not altered his political outlook one iota since 1968.
But no matter. Jokes—not accuracy—are BoJo’s strong suit.
In this, of course, the Foreign Secretary could not be more at odds with Theresa May, a woman who could—and now that the election campaign is on, literally does—talk for hours on end without ever saying anything remotely funny, surprising or new.
If she was anymore on message May would have “strong and stable” tattooed on her forehead.
BoJo, on the other hand, is always full of surprises.
And speaking of surprises, what was far more interesting (and indeed headline worthy) was what he said in a follow up interview to the mugwump column on the BBC Radio 4’s Today program yesterday. Asked about his thoughts on the escalating conflict in Syria, Johnson said that if Donald Trump requested Britain’s support in another round of air strikes, both he and the prime minister “would find it difficult to say ‘no’.” He also added that the Prime Minister would be willing to take unilateral action on the matter by not allowing MPs a vote.
It was an extraordinary admission to make during a campaign but one that presumably May must have endorsed him to make.
But as the day wore on this seemed increasingly unlikely.
In the same interview in which the Prime Minister had her automaton-like “mugwump” non-sequitor, May was also pressed on her position when it came to unilateral air strikes in Syria. She refused to be drawn, dismissing the question as “hypothetical.”
It has been reported that the Prime Minister takes a somewhat less hawkish view on the matter of Syria than Johnson and that this has been a point of contention in the past. In a subsequent interview yesterday she signalled her preference for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict and added, passive aggressively, “Boris has been doing very well working towards a political solution”.
May also refused to be drawn on the subject of her relationship with Johnson and whether he would continue in his post as Foreign Secretary if the Tories win the election. There has been much speculation that if the Tories win a landslide, as they are expected to, May might take the opportunity to strip Johnson of his post in a cabinet shuffle. Their political styles are like oil and water after all. And if May gets a huge majority she won’t need the buoying effect of BoJo’s popularity.
And so a campaign day that began with Johnson being celebrated as a great wit, ended with his political future being called into question. The whole debacle brought to mind another memorable Johnson quote: “As I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”
Who’s the mugwump now?