The hybrid Boris Johnson
How is it that the likeable Boris Johnson has become such a hate-figure? The British Left of course reserves a special fury for Tories who went to Eton and Oxford; it caricatures him, on flimsy evidence, as a reactionary, a racist and homophobe. Then there are the Remainers who hate him for backing Brexit. You’re not supposed to be a Brexiteer if you’re a highly-educated French-speaking sophisticate. Trump’s approval of him is a further black mark.
The accusations go on – serial philanderer, liar, insulter of Scots, Liverpudlians and even of Australia’s dear closest neighbour: he once observed that ‘we in the Tory party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism’. Then there’s lazy and disorganised, though those charges are harder to assert given Johnson’s prodigious writing output while holding down demanding political jobs.
Another charge is that he failed as Foreign Secretary. A persistent Whitehall conspiracy theory is that Theresa May gave Johnson this job as the fanatically pro-EU Foreign Office would happily look for ways to undermine his reputation. Sure enough, British diplomats have been in overdrive briefing that Johnson wasn’t ‘serious’ – translation: they didn’t like his anarchic humour, he was bored by their windy briefs and he wasn’t persuaded to their view that the EU is a good thing.
And just as leadership rival Jeremy Hunt claims he’s the safer pair of hands dealing with Europe – voilà! – a leaked Whitehall memo reveals that Johnson while foreign secretary referred to the French as ‘turds’. But strangely, Hunt’s team doesn’t invite scrutiny of his recent visit to EU member Slovenia, which he insulted, probably confusing it with Slovakia, as an ex-‘Soviet vassal state’ – like if an Australian minister mixed up South and North Korea. Foreign Office incompetence in allowing this shambles was compounded by tweeting the wrong name of the foreign minister Hunt was to meet.
There is another anti-Johnson charge – that he has no beliefs and will express views to please one audience, with contradictory ones in another. Johnson’s visit to Australia in 2013, ahead of the federal election, suggests the claim is dubious. At Coalition campaign headquarters, he wished us well but also criticised our stop-the- boats policy: people who risked journeys on rickety boats to reach Australia were plucky and enterprising and would make excellent migrants. This wasn’t what his audience wanted to hear. But it was consistent with his long-held soft views on immigration. He has called for an amnesty for up to 700,000 illegal immigrants and hasn’t repeated the Cameron and May commitment to getting annual net migration down from the hundreds to the tens of thousands.
UK Speccie editor Fraser Nelson recently noted that the contenders in the Tory race are ‘the biggest collection of bleeding-hearted, latte-sipping, social-justice-warrior wets ever to fight over the Tory crown.’ Indeed, in addition to his soft-left immigration position, Johnson has been silent on Britain’s skyhigh spending on aid while the armed forces face severe under-spending. On climate change, he’s moved from scepticism to accepting warmist orthodoxies, even if he says activists should pressure China rather than the UK.
Still, Johnson’s support for leftish positions on some issues doesn’t change the fact that he’s the best choice for the Conservatives. He has a plausible plan to achieve Brexit and unlike May or Hunt has a genuine desire to escape Brussels’ control; he believes EU membership means Britain is no longer an independent country.
Johnson’s team probably used dark arts to ensure that the leadership race is between him and Remain supporter Jeremy Hunt, the establishment’s dull choice to succeed May. Hunt initially rejected but is now saying he’ll match Johnson’s unqualified commitment to leave the EU on 31 October. The Tory rank and file will almost certanly choose Johnson. He would easily have the better chance of winning back Tory supporters who have drifted to the Brexit Party and so ending the split conservative vote which risks putting Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10.
If Johnson can deliver a Brexit which restores Britain’s sovereignty while safeguarding the 44 per cent of UK exports which go to the EU and keeping the Irish soft border, he would go down as one of the great Conservative prime ministers. But he stretches credulity with his claim that there is only ‘a one in a million’ chance that he won’t achieve such a deal with the EU by 31 October. His Plan B, that, based on GATT article 24, the UK and the EU could agree before Brexit to maintain unrestricted trade while they negotiate a free trade agreement, is similarly rubbished by rivals. The plan is in fact doable if the EU agrees to it. Johnson hints he might use the EU’s £39 billion departure bill as leverage.
Johnson is an odd political hybrid but more a traditional Conservative than Theresa May, not only on Brexit but in his commitments to reduce taxes, to restore police numbers and in his often magnificently non-PC plain speaking, for example on the burqa – even if on the substance of some issues he disappoints conservatives. Overall, a prime minister Johnson could confound his many critics; he would certainly cheer Britain up. It may even become apparent that, as Harry Mount, editor of his Daily Telegraph columns has remarked, Johnson’s buffoonery and faux-cluelessness mask a smooth and effective machine.
Mark Higgie is The Spectator Australia’s Europe correspondent