When Boris Johnson was appointed editor of this magazine two decades ago, an unkind soul said it was like ‘entrusting a Ming vase in the hands of an ape’. The remark encapsulated many people’s worst fears about the man who will almost certainly be Britain’s prime minister in four weeks’ time, if not before: that Boris is an irresponsible joker. Similar warnings were made when he was elected London mayor. His refusal to conform to type encourages a constant expectation of imminent disaster.
What if Boris flops in No. 10? Even his supporters can’t be sure he won’t fail: his election as leader is a gamble from a party that believes its very survival is at stake. Much depends on which Boris Johnson it is who takes up residence in Downing Street: the inspired campaigner who was twice elected mayor of London, against the odds, and who left that office more popular than when he arrived — or the bungler who spent two years at the Foreign Office achieving little other than to upset diplomatic relations.
The case against Boris is made with eloquence, force and regularity by his army of detractors. But we don’t hear so much about the case for him. How his election as party leader might mark the moment when the wounds of Brexit start to heal and the Conservative party rediscovers purpose and direction. The case is not hard to make. It only requires a simple trick: to place more attention on what Boris Johnson does than what he says.
As mayor of London, he possessed the remarkable talent of appearing as much at home addressing a power breakfast of bankers and business leaders as attending a Pride march or visiting a mosque. At the London Olympics, Boris was cheered by the crowds, while the then chancellor George Osborne was booed. Knife crime fell, as did taxes. Affordable housing was built. You might say that this was all the work of his large number of deputies, not the man himself — but, for Londoners, did that matter? The benefits came anyway. He has a gift for hiring, inspiring and empowering talented people.
For many people, Boris’s image has been irreparably poisoned by Brexit. They will never forgive him for campaigning for Leave, and, aggrieved by the outcome, persist in accusing him of turning the referendum with lies. The question for him is how to approach Brexit now. Theresa May did so appallingly, posing at first as a kind of Brexit warrior out to slay those who would not accept the result of democracy. To alienate half of the country was idiocy, and we can expect a Boris premiership to ditch this kind of language immediately. He must recognise as legitimate the fears of those who think Britain is about to take a great leap backwards.
Boris can and should turn his ‘global Britain’ agenda into meaningful government policy — rather than, as it was in the Foreign Office, a theme for speeches. There should be scholarships offered to EU students, unlimited immigration for high-skilled workers and immediate, unconditional assurance to all EU nationals, as well as warm words for our European allies — even if we end up without a deal. Tone matters, and Theresa May’s tone was awful. At a time when the world was asking what Brexit meant, she painted a picture of a drawbridge being hoisted up. It has caused needless damage and led to deserved failure.
As foreign secretary, Boris ought to have been in a good position to counter this with a more open-hearted vision of the world — but he didn’t. Which is worrying. Was this because he was censored by No. 10, or he was just unable to convert his thoughts and beliefs into a message that could be projected from government?
We know what kind of man Boris Johnson is. His personal life is messy, but he never seeks to preach. He is a social liberal, an early advocate of gay marriage, a supporter of Ken Clarke and David Cameron in previous leadership campaigns. He celebrates wealth creation and defends high earners — and did so even after the crash, when banker-bashing was at its height. He is passionately in favour of immigration and once proposed an amnesty for illegal immigrants in London. He is worryingly unserious about tax cuts, and may disappoint Thatcher-ite Tories who’d like a smaller state. He has always been internationalist in outlook, someone who sees in Brexit a chance not to retreat from globalism but to manage better its effects.
Such values could be used to unite his party and his country — if he were able to translate them into government. He’ll only manage to do that if he delivers Brexit. That would require mastering the civil service in a way Theresa May failed to do, and being able to govern with a focus that has not always been his defining characteristic.
Making Boris prime minister comes with a wide range of risks: he could self-destruct at any point. If he chooses the wrong people to guide his government, the whole project could end in failure and a general election. His premiership will be a gamble, but it is one the Tories have no choice but to make.