Alex Massie

Boris’s backers have a lot to answer for

Boris's backers have a lot to answer for
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In today’s Times, a “long-standing friend” of Boris Johnson complains that “there’s a tendency to infantilise Boris”. Putting the man who still looks likely to be the next leader of the Conservative and Unionist party and prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland under a form of, well, house-arrest must have seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, the race is his to lose and can only be lost by him. “Clearly”, the chum adds, “there was a need to protect him but it went too far”. 

This seems revealing. A number of questions arise. First, *why* do people feel inclined to “infantilise” Johnson? Secondly, *why* was there “clearly” a need to “protect” the candidate?

In other, better, circumstances you might like to think there’d be no need for such measures because the favourite to be the next prime minister would not be treated as a child by his friends and supporters and might not require this kind of protection from scrutiny and, indeed, himself. As so often, the implied meaning of the defence is more dismally revealing than anything Johnson’s opponents have said about him. 

But if you watched Johnson’s performance – an apt word, I’m afraid – in his interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg last night you begin to think house-arrest was a very prudent strategy. This is not a candidate for high office who can be let out unsupervised. 

Tory MPs backing him know this and so do the journalists who are busy granting Johnson an indulgence they would not allow any other candidate. The rules, it seems, are different for him, though for deeply mysterious reasons.

If you stripped the transcript of all identifying marks, removing all the familiar Johnsonian flummery and fluff, and asked MPs and hacks if this was the talk of a man – or woman – who should be prime minister and demanded they give you their honest opinion you know almost all of them would assume this must be some no-hoper, deeply weird and possibly thunderingly stupid, backbencher. 

Holding your own side to the standard you’d expect from the other team is a highly unfashionable view these days. Far too many Labour MPs, including many who really do know better, know Jeremy Corbyn is no good; far too many Tory MPs, including many who are voting for him, know Boris Johnson is no good either. This is not, despite what Toby Young says, evidence of “Boris Derangement Syndrome”; it is the evidence of what we see and hear before us. 

There is something deeply corrosive about this moment in British politics; something shameful too. Being better than Corbyn – or better than Johnson – is a miserably low bar to set. Deep down many people know this, yet they go along with it anyway. There is a helplessness here that’s at the mercy of arrant knavery. 

It seems telling that when Johnson’s supporters want to tell you something good about their man they reach for language borrowed from the worlds of advertising and marketing. Boris is a product, I suppose, though in terms of substance he’s more a rumour than a fact. But you can sell a legend; indeed you can print it too. 

In better times this would not be enough; not nearly enough. Perhaps it is unfair to judge a politician by the worst of his supporters but for every Richard Burgon or Rebecca Long-Bailey on the left backing Corbyn there’s a Johnny Mercer, a Ross Thomson, and a dozen other thrusting young codpieces on the right backing Boris. The next election gives every impression of being a contest between kooks and spivs. What a glorious prospect. 

I don’t know Boris Johnson well – our paths have crossed, just fleetingly, only once or twice – but I still believe it reasonable to expect many of those who know him better to, well, know better just as it is not unreasonable to demand more, and better, from those people on the left who grant Corbyn a similarly unearned pass.

But when Johnson’s friends and supporters tell us he’s not quite as infantile as people think they’re signalling he’s still a man-child.

When they say he needs protecting and directing they admit he’s not capable of making the decisions a prime minister must make. Those are, almost invariably, difficult decisions that must be made by the prime minister because they cannot be made lower down the chain of political command.

When they say it will all be fine because he will delegate they forget that not everything can be delegated and, in any event, the argument that Boris Johnson will be a successful prime minister because other people will do much of the work is an argument accepting that Boris Johnson is not fit or ready to be prime minister. 

Again, if the friends and supporters of the other team’s leader were saying such things Tory MPs and sympathetic columnists would leap upon such admissions, recognising them for the proof of inadequacy they really are. Is it just partisanship that renders them blind to their own fellow’s shortcomings? I suppose it is, though there must also be some copious amount of wishful-thinking here too.

Perhaps he will surprise us all. If so, however, it will be the most remarkable transformation in political fortune any of us can remember. Remarkable because it will require the emergence of a Boris Johnson quite unlike any Boris Johnson we have seen before.

Let us hope such a chap emerges but let us not be in the business of fooling ourselves by thinking such a thing is in any way probable. But just as we should neither forget nor forgive the people who have aided and abetted in the ruining of the Labour party, so we should hold those destroying the Conservative party as a serious force for serious government to the same standard.

But, hey, everything will be fine, so long as you’s prepared to ignore everything you see and everything you hear. What larks.