Dispatch

The Clown Prince Across the Water

Could Boris Johnson actually end up as Britain's prime minister?

LONDON — There are many ways by which you may measure the depth of the hole in which David Cameron finds himself. For one, the British economy remains stagnant: this week's budget halved the forecast for economic growth this year to just 0.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Long-term government debt is forecast to rise to 85 percent of GDP. Five years on from the financial crisis, more than 2.5 million Britons remain unemployed. And Cameron's party has been humiliated in a string of special elections; the Conservatives remain 10 points behind Labour in the polls.

None of this can be considered good news. But perhaps the greatest symptom of Cameron's difficulties is the recent chatter about his own future as leader of the Conservative Party. Once secure, Cameron's position is no longer a subject of backroom, clandestine discussions. It is a matter of open speculation that is by no means confined to those MPs who have long loathed the prime minister. Backbench discontent is the price of power in gloomy times but now senior cabinet ministers -- such as Home Secretary Teresa May and Defense Secretary Philip Hammond -- are perceived to be maneuvering, jostling for position in the race to succeed Cameron. 

Neither May, Hammond, nor any of the other contenders who presently sit around the cabinet table, however, excite or titillate pundits like another pretender to the throne. Yes, Boris Johnson is back in the news and, as is his wont, making mischief. 

The shambles-haired mayor of London is incapable of not making "news." This week he was at it again, admitting in a forthcoming television documentary that, dash it, all things being equal he'd really quite fancy being prime minister. Beneath that bumbling exterior lurks a politician whose ambition has only been marginally downgraded from childhood days when, as he told his sister, he aspired to be "world king."

Though he offered the pro forma caveat that "it's not going to happen," the mayor's suggestion he would like to "have a crack" at the job -- if, using a rugby metaphor, "the ball came loose from the back of a scrum" -- is a more candid admission of ambition than he has previously offered.

A decade ago, Boris suggested he had "as much chance of becoming prime minister as of being decapitated by a Frisbee or of finding Elvis." A year later, those odds, by Boris's own estimation, had lengthened still further. Then it was as probable as "finding Elvis on Mars" or of Boris himself being "reincarnated as an olive." This is no longer as far-fetched as once it seemed.

Boris -- the only British politician universally known by his forename -- is the most reliably entertaining character in British politics. Part vaudeville-shaman, part P.G. Wodehouse character, the mayor of London is the antithesis of the identikit, on-message modern politician. Despite not being a member of Parliament, he remains the bookmakers' favorite to succeed Cameron as leader of the Conservative party.

Right on cue, one veteran Conservative parliamentarian announced this month that he is "keeping his seat warm for Boris" and would be prepared to vacate his place in Parliament if the mayor wished to take it. According to Sir Peter Tapsell, Boris would make an "excellent" leader of the opposition.

And in that key word lies the rub -- and Cameron's worst nightmare. The rise in prices on the Boris Index is a sign that many Tories are resigned to losing the next general election. The right, which has never wholly trusted Cameron's attempt to "detoxify" the party's image, is disgruntled; the center worried that a panicky "lurch to the right" spells electoral calamity. It remains rather easier to imagine Boris as leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition than as prime minister. Indeed, even Tapsell only ventured that "perhaps" Boris could be a credible prime minister.

Boris is fun. But political prime-time is not the same as light entertainment. 

So a large part of the pro-Boris bandwagon is predicated upon Cameron being ejected from office after a humiliating election defeat in 2015. Boris, back in parliament by then (even though his second mayoral term does not end until 2016) would then be swept into the leader's office by depressed Tory members who want nothing more than to be cheered-up. 

It takes no great powers of political analysis to perceive that this would be a high-risk adventure. For instance, the idea of Boris ever -- even accidentally -- having responsibility for Britain's nuclear missiles is not a soothing one. But nor is it an idea that can be dismissed as evident nonsense. 

For the time being, Boris is urging some measure of loyalty. "After 2016 who knows what will happen" he says. "But I'm very, very happy with the job of mayor of London." Discontented Tories -- i.e., his putative rivals -- should "cool their porridge" and "save their breath." They need to "put their shoulders to the wheel, all hands to the mast, and all shoot from the same trench -- to mix my metaphors."

And yet none of this quite convinces. Boris's relationship with Cameron has long been uneasy. Cameron was two years Boris's junior at Eton (and Oxford) and, befitting the time-honored conventions of the British boarding school, the older boy has never quite lost the sense of superiority first ingrained by seniority when the pair were teenagers. 

It certainly seems that way. In an interview with a French radio station this month, Boris suggested, in his typical style, that he and David Cameron were "like Wallace and Gromit" though, as the Guardian observed, "he didn't say which was the absent-minded inventor and which his far brainier dog." 

Be that as it may, many Tories still consider Boris the Clown Prince Across the Water. This despite a record of achievement that is, by objective standards, negligible. Boris has performed adequately as mayor of the capital city, but even his staunchest admirers are hard-pressed to produce any lengthy list of achievements he has to his name. London's mayor has relatively few powers. Like being governor of Texas, it sounds a weightier position than it really is. There is a fear that, just as the United States was lumbered with George W. Bush, so Britain could be stuck with Boris. Like Bush -- whom Boris once described as a "cross-eyed Texan warmonger" -- Johnson's appeal is as much a matter of style as substance. He talks "Real Tory." From his euroscepticism to his enthusiasm for lower taxes, Boris tickles the Tory party's erogenous zones. And he does so in a fashion that seems to entertain the public.

Perhaps it is a feature of these rancorous and gloomy times that Boris is no longer as preposterous a notion as he once seemed. He is not a "serious" politician but, as election results in Italy and Israel have shown recently, non-serious, populist, politicians are able to capitalize upon public discontent. 

Before he became mayor of London, Boris briefly served as shadow arts minister in 2004. Upon his appointment he told one interviewer, that "Look the point is ... er, what is the point? It is a tough job but somebody has got to do it."

We may yet hear a variation on that refrain once again. Being leader of the Conservative Party is a tough job that someone has to do. So why not Boris?

The mind, as Boris might admit himself, boggles. 

MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

A Government in Search of a Country

Can the newly appointed opposition prime minister form an interim government that Syrians can get behind?

ISTANBUL — Pushing aside international skepticism, the Syrian opposition gathered in Istanbul, Turkey, on March 18 to take the first steps toward setting up a government to rival that of President Bashar al-Assad's regime. In a meeting that stretched into the early hours of March 19, they finally settled on an interim prime minister: Ghassan Hitto, a 50-year-old technology executive who built his career in Dallas, Texas.

Hitto's task is nothing less than the formation of an interim government that can establish itself on the ground in northern Syria, administer local services, and provide a viable alternative to Assad's rule. He has his work cut out for him: Not only is the opposition starting from scratch in building government institutions, his selection provoked a mutiny among certain members, who see him as the handpicked choice of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which they fear is trying to dominate the opposition.

At least 12 members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which aims to be an umbrella group for the anti-Assad forces, announced they had suspended their membership following Hitto's selection. One of those figures is Suheir Atassi, a vice president of the coalition and a leading secular activist: "I won't be a woman who they think decorates their conferences and their meetings while they decide and argue about fateful things," she wrote in a Facebook post.

Another member who resigned, Walid al-Bunni, told Foreign Policy that Hitto was installed at the direction of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. "That one being chosen as prime minister was chosen without anyone knowing about him," he said. "I think this is some kind of humiliation for Syria."

It's true that Hitto, an ethnic Kurd who immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, had not previously been one of the opposition coalition's more visible members. His LinkedIn profile identifies him as a employee of the mobile communication firm Integrated Telecom Solutions, and after the 9/11 attacks he advocated on behalf of Muslim-Americans with the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The coalition's media team had identified him to journalists in the days before the election as the likely victor, due to his effectiveness in providing humanitarian aid inside Syria. Hitto became directly involved in the uprising in November, when he was appointed deputy head of the coalition's humanitarian relief unit.

In his first speech after being selected, Hitto promised to return all Syrian refugees "to the freed provinces," and install an interim government to handle local administrative issues there.

Even if Hitto can win the support of the dissident coalition members, he still has a daunting task before him. The interim government aims to provide humanitarian aid, medical assistance, electricity, water, communications, courts, and education in the rebel-held areas. Whether it can do so depends on its ability to establish a foothold within Syria, and gain major international backing for its efforts. While pledges of financial support have been made by a number of countries, little has been received, according to coalition members.

Hitto could see his support within the coalition fade quickly if he cannot show progress in developing functional institutions. Coalition members already want to hear about his specific goals: "He should come back to us with his time frame and his action plan," said Hisham Marwah, a member of the coalition's legal committee. "Otherwise we should nominate someone else."

Hitto's next step is to choose a cabinet and create the basic infrastructure of government. According to a timeline sketched out in several of the coalition's working papers, he must appoint ministers and form a temporary government within about two weeks, Marwah said. Members of the coalition have contemplated the creation of seven to 11 ministries, including a Defense Ministry, an Interior Ministry, and a ministry devoted to the management of energy resources.

Hitto will also "communicate with the revolutionary powers to see if they are ready to support the government," said Samir Nachar, a coalition member, describing how Hitto will have to move quickly to connect with local committees, rebel fighters, and activists inside Syria. "He will be given a month to measure the support."

It's unclear, however, whether Assad's grip over northern Syria has loosened to the extent that an interim government can operate effectively. Despite assurances from coalition members that the north is "liberated," the regime still carries out frequent airstrikes, and fires shells and missiles into rebel territory. On March 19, the Assad regime and the rebels each blamed each other for launching a chemical weapons attack in Khan al-Asal, a village near the northern city of Aleppo.

Hitto not only has to worry about Assad's army, he must consider the reception his interim government will receive from radical Islamist rebels. The northern province of Raqqa, which became the first to be largely liberated from the regime, is largely in the hands of Salafist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham -- they may not give up their newfound authority easily.

"[Extremists] are being pragmatic now...because everyone has the same goals," said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "I expect after the regime falls -- whenever that happens -- that there will then be an intra-rebel civil war."  

If it hopes to win over the naysayers, the new government is going to have to bring some significant resources to the table. Marwah estimated that a government would need $200 million in monthly support for humanitarian aid alone, in addition to "weekly tons of arms to make balance and protect ourselves...from Scuds and aircraft." The weapons will be provided via the yet-to-be-created Defense Ministry to the rebel Supreme Military Council, which has pledged fealty to the opposition government.

The interim government will only be officially formed after Hitto presents the coalition with an action plan and appoints ministers. It does not yet have its own offices or set budget, according to coalition members.  

"It really needs some substantial commitments from the international community led by the United States in terms of financial resources, technical advice and assistance on the ground, and for that matter self-defense," said Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center and former State Department special representative on Syria.

Multiple members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition said Washington had advised them to slow down its creation. Such a government, U.S. officials feared, could be an obstacle to a negotiated settlement: Assad is unlikely to negotiate with a transitional government, as that could be seen as implicit recognition of an alternative authority within Syria.

Hof said the establishment of the interim government will require international players opposed to Assad to change course. "[I]n order for the U.S. and others to really get behind this and encourage this, a basic change in strategy is required," he said. "This kind of thing is never easy. You've got to get presidents and prime minsters to sign up for that."

Yet, even as the opposition coalition works to build financial and military support, it also has its eyes set on shorter-term diplomatic goals. In Hitto's speech, he said that the interim government would seek to secure Syria's seat at the Arab League, which has been vacant since the membership of Assad's government was suspended in November 2011. He also said that it would look to assume control over Syria's seat at the United Nations. According to coalition member Najib Ghadbian, such a step would likely be achieved through forcing a vote in the U.N. General Assembly.

Such political recognition, coalition members hope, could serve as building blocks in the effort to forge a financially viable and militarily protected interim government in Syria.

But the projection of confidence is critical, and all coalition members interviewed expressed a willingness to return to Syria despite the dangers. But what, I asked Marwah, could officials in the interim government do if faced with an incoming ballistic missile attack? In that case, he said, all they could hope for is "just to escape."

AFP/Getty Images