Kevin Cullen

Sorry, terribly sorry, but the Brits will survive Brexit and Boris Johnson

Anti-Brexit protesters held British and European flags in London last month.
Anti-Brexit protesters held British and European flags in London last month.Vudi Xhymshiti/Associated Press/Associated Press

I see where the UK’s ambassador to the United States, Kim Darroch, had to resign for telling the truth.

In what these days amounts to diplomatic furor, Sir Kim apparently said, in some leaked e-mails, that Donald Trump’s administration is inept.

And for that, stating the blindingly obvious, Sir Kim had to say a big humiliating sorry and slink away from perhaps the best gig and certainly the coolest digs in Washington. The British embassy, on Massachusetts Avenue in D.C., is so nice, so plush, so utterly marvelous that you’d think the Brits still had an empire.

The British Embassy in Washington.
The British Embassy in Washington.SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Instead, they have a soon-to-be Brempire, as Brexit, the UK’s departure from the European Union, will lead to, depending on which doomsday scenario you believe: a) the collapse of the currency, b) a surge in right-wing nationalism, c) isolation from the international community, or d) Manchester United finally acquiring someone who can play the midfield like Roy Keane and winning the Premiership again.

For all the naysayers out there when it comes to Brexit, I’m far more sanguine. I lived in London for a few years and have spent enough time around Brits to know two things: They don’t floss nearly enough, and I would never count them out when the going gets tough.


Many people — especially my tribe, the Irish — have spent the last couple of years gleefully predicting the inevitable collapse of the United Kingdom because a majority of people living there don’t like the Germans and the French telling them what to do.

Not to overdo the whole German thing, but the Irish are especially feeling a sense of schadenfreude as they contemplate Brexit. If you read the Irish papers, you’d think the UK will disappear into a pit of fire as soon as Brexit happens.


Of course, the Irish don’t like to be reminded that on more than one occasion they have voted against the EU in nationwide referendums, giving two fingers to the bureaucrats in Brussels.

But then, the Irish always had an Irish solution to an Irish problem: They would hold a second referendum, and, after the mandarins in Dublin warned them that farmers would starve in the fields and Google would move out of the country, the Irish would vote the “right” way.

Many people have suggested that if only the Brits would have a second referendum, the poor, misguided people of Sheffield and Leeds will finally come to their senses and vote the “right” way.

Not only is that paternalistic and patronizing, it’s probably wrong. Polls have consistently shown that support for Brexit remains high in most parts of England — at least, outside of London.

The Scots don’t want to leave, but, frankly, when’s the last time the English gave a toss about what the Scots think? As for the Welsh, forget about it.

In Northern Ireland, a strong majority want to remain in the EU, and why wouldn’t they? The EU sends more money to Belfast than anybody except the British exchequer.

To be serious for a moment, there are real, genuine concerns about what Brexit means to Northern Ireland, some 20 years after they finally stopped killing each other in large numbers over history and power and prejudice. If Brexit leads to a reestablishment of any kind of border between the North and the Republic of Ireland, you might as well hand over a cache of weapons to the dissident republicans who are itching to go back to war.


Boris Johnson, the presumptive next prime minister of the UK, has promised that won’t happen, that there will be no return to a border. Good for Boris.

And speaking of Boris, I never thought I would type these words: I used to drink with the next prime minister of the UK.

Boris Johnson visited Wetherspoons Metropolitan Bar on Wednesday in London.
Boris Johnson visited Wetherspoons Metropolitan Bar on Wednesday in London.Henry Nicholls/WPA Pool/Getty Images/Getty Images

Years ago, when Boris was a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and I was the Globe’s European correspondent based in London, we crossed each other’s paths quite regularly, professionally and socially, and covered the war in Kosovo at the same time, staying at the same hotel.

Boris was a good reporter, and he ventured out into the field every day, like the rest of us, chronicling the demise of some poor Serbian lady who got blown to kingdom come by a NATO bomb while tending to her tomatoes, or interviewing nutty Albanian separatists who tried to shake us down while proclaiming they were freedom fighters.

During the war, I traveled with foreign correspondents far more seasoned than me, Tom Hundley from the Chicago Tribune and Bill Glauber from the Baltimore Sun, and they got a kick out of Boris, too, though when Boris had a few G&Ts in him, he sounded like a tipsy Winston Churchill and we sometimes didn’t know what he was going on about.


Every night, we’d retire to the bar at the Hyatt in Belgrade, where Boris would hold court and drink everything not marked poison. On a fine May evening, I sat in the hotel’s TV area, watching the Champions League final between my beloved Manchester United and Bayern Munich. Boris was there, as was Arkan, the Serbian gangster who styled himself a nationalist.

When the war started, Arkan showed up at the Hyatt one night and told the assembled international press corps to leave Serbia. He was carrying a gun when he said this, which led us to seriously consider his advice.

For whatever reason, Arkan relented and instead of threatening us and ordering us to leave his country, he started drinking with us at the Hyatt bar every night. Arkan looked like Frank Vincent, the actor who played wiseguys in all those Martin Scorsese movies. For a serial killer, he was very charismatic and a good conversationalist.

For some bizarre reason, Arkan liked me. What can I say? Arkan, whose real name was Zeljko Raznatovic, was a war criminal and not exactly the best judge of character.

Arkan was visibly disappointed when he learned I was a Man U supporter. He didn’t bother asking Boris which team he supported, Boris being English and all. Arkan surprised us when he expressed full support of Bayern Munich.

Boris, being a student of history, pointed out that Arkan’s support of a German football team was slightly ironic, given that Serbia was occupied by the Nazis during World War II.


“Yes,” Arkan said, “but your country is bombing my country right now.”

Boris thought about correcting Arkan, pointing out that the Brits were flying very few sorties over Serbia at the moment and that the vast majority, if not all, of the bombing was being done by the Americans.

But Boris thought better of it, I think because he realized that it might put me, the sole Yank in the room, in an uncomfortable position, not to mention that Arkan was carrying a gun and was half in the wrapper by this point.

By the way, Man U won the match, 2-1, dramatically erasing a 1-nil Bayern lead on two injury-time goals by Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who is now the Man U manager.

Arkan got up in a huff. Boris and I thought he was going to shoot the TV or, worse, us. Instead, he just staggered into the night, trailed by his morose bodyguards, mumbling Serbian curse words.

Arkan could have used some better bodyguards. Eight months after he watched the Champions League final with us at the Hyatt, Arkan was shot to death at the Intercontinental Hotel in Belgrade. He should have stuck to the Hyatt. It’s way easier to collect points.

Oh, well, where was I?

Oh, yeah. Boris and Brexit.

Partisans have dismissed Boris Johnson as a British Donald Trump. That’s very simplistic, inaccurate, and an insult to Boris. That said, Boris deserves to be raked over the coals for some of his less attractive qualities, including his propensity to make racist remarks, his temper, and his arrogance.

He’s human. He makes mistakes. But deeming him a failure before he takes office seems unfair. Give him a chance.

Boris is a lot smarter than Donald Trump, and while I realize that is damning with faint praise, Boris did a pretty good job as mayor of London. Call me naive, but I have no reason to believe he won’t be a decent prime minister. He’ll certainly be the wittiest since Churchill, his hero. Though that famous, caustic wit can hurt him as often as it helps him.

This might not go down well with my tribe or my Europhile friends, but I have a little confidence in Boris and a lot of confidence in the Brits.

They’ll be fine.

Now, if they could only stop apologizing for everything.

With apologies to Sir Elton John, who is chairman of Watford, a proper English football team, sorry doesn’t seem to be the hardest word. For the Brits, it seems to be the easiest.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.