Anyone would be lucky to possess half the wit of my National Review colleague Madeleine Kearns. And likewise, anyone would be lucky to possess half the wit of U.K. prime-minister hopeful Boris Johnson. But perhaps shared charm can lead to a wistful shared affinity. Judging by Madeleine’s post endorsing Johnson’s candidacy, perhaps it already has.
On one point, Madeleine and I absolutely agree: Boris Johnson is almost certain to become the United Kingdom’s next prime minister. He has always been popular with the unelected group of 150,000 Tory members who choose between the final two candidates. And, more recently, he has managed to amass an impressive bandwagon of Tory MPs to send him to that final stage. This has been an effective, calculated campaign, full of spreadsheets, predictions, and private conversations. Barring a horrific blunder, he will be in No. 10 within weeks — possibly sooner, if his opponents decide to spare themselves the embarrassment.
How has he done it? As I explained a few weeks ago, the Conservative party is facing possible extinction; their complete failure to implement Brexit has lost them the majority of their voters. Many of Johnson’s supporters in Parliament are deeply skeptical of his character, but they are voting for him because they see him as the only way out of their crisis. This is the point made by Madeleine: Boris Johnson is not Jeremy Corbyn — if the Tories are to face a general election, they want a chance of surviving it.
But are they wrong to see him as a winner? In the long term, absolutely. Johnson is no longer the same man who twice won the London mayoral election. In those days, he was seen as a pro-immigration liberal conservative — the Tory for people who don’t vote Tory. Now, rightly or wrongly, he has become associated with a hostile brand of divisiveness — and it is Rory Stewart, as it happens, who has adopted the “outsider Tory” mantle. Johnson’s showman popularity among right-wing voters might be enough to win him the next election, but the average age of a Conservative voter has been increasing consistently for decades. People are forgetting that this is a party that has had one outright majority in 25 years. If it wants to survive, it needs to attract voters from the center ground.
For the party, then, there are no good outcomes. Either they opt for a candidate who will delay Brexit, thereby postponing an election but further weakening their immediate position, or they opt for an unpredictable renegade who, if tamed, might help them keep their parliamentary seats. I am writing this while listening to a fascinating discussion of the issue on the Talking Politics podcast (highly recommended to anyone with the slightest interest in British affairs). Here, the ever-insightful David Runciman asks his Cambridge colleagues the following: Is the fact that the Tory party is even contemplating making Boris Johnson its prime minister such an unusual thing that it’s a symptom of a party that’s already dying?
It’s an interesting question, and it pays a moment’s thought. Ask almost anybody who has worked closely with Johnson, and they speak of a Class A impostor — in the words of former Telegraph editor Max Hastings, a “gold medal egomaniac.” Any scarce praise usually refers to his ability to delegate — deference may suit a mayorship, but it will not suffice as prime minister. A deeply questionable personal life aside, Johnson’s career has been a collection of mishaps — one of which, during his time as foreign secretary, helped send a British citizen to prison. He is charming because of his Bertie Wooster-esque meandering mode of speech, but baseless bluster is not a characteristic that bodes well for a future as prime minister. He has never been a good performer in the House of Commons or in media interviews, and one daren’t imagine how his waffle will fare in Prime Minister’s Questions.
But the implications of Boris’s success go far beyond the party. When Gordon Brown was made prime minister without receiving a public mandate after Tony Blair’s resignation, Johnson called it an arrogant and contemptuous stamp on the democratic will of the British people. Now, he seems perfectly willing to do exactly the same thing. His previously held belief in the “essential” need for having “lots of leadership debates” has apparently been replaced by the view that a prospective leader should hide from his people. He has rejected public appearance after public appearance for an entire year, deciding to appear only in a single television debate — which, somewhat conveniently, happens to be after the second round of voting.
Most significantly, Johnson is threatening to leave the EU without a deal in October — a move that, at the very least, will lead to more delay, division, and disruption. Martin Wolf breaks this down in the Financial Times, and it does not make happy reading. If Johnson is bluffing to try and get something out of Brussels, that bluff would be entirely without substance — he could not leave without a deal without locking the doors on Parliament, and how would that move fare with the electorate?
Supporters of a second referendum stopped Theresa May from allowing Parliament to choose between her withdrawal agreement and leaving without a deal, but it is far less likely they could stop Johnson from allowing it to choose between no deal and putting an end to Brexit entirely. You need not be a hopeful Remainer to recognize that Westminster would not opt for no deal, so the outcome would be either a general election, a second referendum, or yet another attempted compromise. If it were a general election, Johnson would have to go to the polls without having delivered on Brexit — and with Nigel Farage’s new party ready to pounce, that would not be an easy ride.
If the Tories wish to implement Brexit while retaining an ounce of fiscal responsibility, promising such prolonged uncertainty (in addition to fantastical public spending) is not the way forward. Unfortunately, for many across the country and the world at large, fantasy is fast becoming preferred to reality — and the so-called Conservatives are fast becoming the party that wants to cloak over difficult decisions with handouts.
Johnson is not a reliable politician, but an exuberantly entertaining journalist. And journalists, as Madeleine might confirm, tend ask more questions than they answer. He has only managed to attract party-wide support because he has refused to take an actual stance on Brexit, muttering the refrain “we must leave by November 1st” without ever explaining how he intends to do so. Great Britain needs a serious leader who can heal its deepening divisions — not a fickle charm artist with a distaste for detail. If it’s “time for Boris,” the clock may have already stopped working. In fact, some extra time for glory-basking may be exactly what he wants.