Boris Johnson carries a potentially fatal handicap in the Tory leadership race. Put simply, he is not trusted by Conservative MPs
Boris Johnson carries a potentially fatal handicap in the Tory leadership race. Put simply, he is not trusted by Conservative MPs.
They feel they do not really know him, and that he has not taken much trouble to get to know them.
In their view, he is unreliable and opportunistic, a flawed figure with no core beliefs whose ambition is for himself and not for the country or their party.
Many are jealous of him, for here is a man who has always been too busy – or too arrogant – to immerse himself in the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes work of Parliament, but instead waltzes in and attracts a million times more coverage than they do.
They point to a substantial number of Remain voters who are unlikely to forgive him for leading Leave to victory. And they accuse him of modelling himself on Winston Churchill, without possessing a scintilla of Churchill’s greatness. Johnson is fascinated by Churchill. In his biography of the wartime Prime Minister, he remarks, correctly, that in 1940 many Tory MPs regarded the country’s heroic new leader as ‘an unprincipled opportunist’.
Johnson’s more puritanical critics also deplore the way he left to play cricket against his friend Lord Spencer on the day after the EU Referendum result was announced, instead of concentrating on his leadership campaign.
Then there is his colourful – to put it mildly – private life.
Johnson’s more puritanical critics also deplore the way he left to play cricket against his friend Lord Spencer on the day after the EU Referendum result was announced, instead of concentrating on his leadership campaign. Pictured, Boris Johnson London Mayor wearing a turban Boris Johnson visits the Shree Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu Temple, London, in 2014
The charge sheet is heavy, but as Boris’s biographer, I believe it rests on a wilful misunderstanding of the man. He is intensely and unashamedly loyal to every institution he has ever belonged to, and he wants each to succeed.
He is by far the biggest beast in the Tory leadership race.
He led Leave to victory in the EU Referendum campaign, defeated Ken Livingstone twice in London, a Labour-leaning city, and is more popular with the Conservative membership than any of his rivals.
He possesses a remarkable ability to reach the wider public, including people who loathe conventional politicians. At the next General Election, whenever that may come, he is the candidate best placed to fight Labour.
Like Churchill, he has an instinct for thrusting himself to the centre of whatever action is going on. He will be the candidate everyone else has to beat in the leadership race.
He led Leave to victory in the EU Referendum campaign, defeated Ken Livingstone twice in London, a Labour-leaning city, and is more popular with the Conservative membership than any of his rivals. Pictured, Championships tennis tournament final at Queen’s Club, London, in 2013
He knows that now is the time he must go for it, and he has from earliest youth been filled with the ‘Homeric desire for glory’, which again he attributes to Churchill.
Although Johnson was for four years a keen member of the rugby team at Balliol College, Oxford, in which he served as a prop forward, he is not a team player who finds fulfilment in burying himself in subordinate positions.
The only team position to which he is temperamentally suited is captain. As Mayor of London, he demonstrated his ability to surround himself with gifted lieutenants and get them all pulling in the same direction. He worked them hard, but they enjoyed it because of his ability to understand within about three seconds what they were telling him, as well as his unfailing capacity to lighten any occasion with a joke.
Although Johnson was for four years a keen member of the rugby team at Balliol College, Oxford, in which he served as a prop forward, he is not a team player who finds fulfilment in burying himself in subordinate positions. Pictured, Boris Johnson made a speech at Conservative Party Annual Conference, Birmingham, in 2014
This quickness of apprehension is an important qualification for leadership. Johnson sees instantly when circumstances have changed, in a way the present Prime Minister is unable or unwilling to do.
But 10 Downing Street is a far bigger proposition than City Hall.
How can Johnson convince his fellow Conservative MPs he is the right man for the job? For it is those MPs who will whittle down the leadership candidates to the final two who go before the membership. And many MPs will be determined to stop him getting to the final stage, where his unrivalled ability to inspire ordinary Conservatives would give him a decisive advantage.
This quickness of apprehension is an important qualification for leadership. Johnson sees instantly when circumstances have changed, in a way the present Prime Minister is unable or unwilling to do. Pictured, Boris Johnson as Mayor of London on his way to a COBRA meeting at 10 Downing Street in 2011
The dreadful truth – and I write these words with extreme reluctance – is for the next few months, Johnson must try harder than he ever has before to be dull. He must demonstrate a new steadiness.
His new consort, Carrie Symonds, a former Tory spin doctor, knows this. Johnson’s severe new haircut is a start, but it must be accompanied by a complete absence of jokes.
It is often forgotten that for several months during his first London Mayoral campaign against Livingstone, Johnson did stop telling jokes. Everyone knew he could be entertaining. His task then was to show he could be serious.
The voters, after all, do not want a comedian in charge. They want someone who can be trusted in a resolute but sober way to apply himself to the next phase of the EU withdrawal negotiations.
To bring those complex negotiations to a successful conclusion, Johnson will have to assemble a team consisting of people from every wing of the party.
He should not promise a job to anyone: such bargaining smacks of desperation. But he must show he can unite the party, which means recruiting people from both sides of the Europe issue, and from every part of Britain.
That includes Scotland, which has been a particular weakness for him. The Scottish Conservatives, revived under Ruth Davidson, fear if he took charge in London, he would wreck her chances of winning Holyrood in 2021.
It is vital that he reaches out to them and shows he understands Scottish politics.
He has already shown that he is willing to unite his party in exactly the right manner.
Indeed, on Friday he posted four tweets that described why he backed Theresa May’s deal, which he had previously strongly denounced.
He did not try to wriggle out of a tight spot with a joke but instead explained the ‘painful’ decision he made, given ‘the risk of being forced to accept an even worse version of Brexit or losing Brexit altogether’.
That pragmatic message was followed on Saturday by a tweet in support of Dominic Grieve, the Remainer threatened with deselection in Beaconsfield: ‘Sad to hear about Dominic Grieve. We disagree about EU but he is a good man and a true Conservative.’
Of course, whoever leads the Tories has to keep people such as Grieve onside.
Losing Anna Soubry was bad. Losing Grieve would be worse.
The bitter sectarians who hurl abuse on Twitter at such figures will destroy the Conservative Party if they take control of it. Boris understands that. As leader, he would be robust enough to stand up to sectarianism in any form, and to uphold the party as a broad church that contains contradictory strands of thought and does not insist on some narrow purity of doctrine.
He can also draw inspiration from Tory history.
Benjamin Disraeli, the great 19th Century Conservative leader, was dismissed in his youth as a ludicrous and disreputable figure. Disraeli never lost his wonderful sense of humour, but he did in due course tone things down a bit, start to dress in a less ostentatious manner and set about reassuring people that he could be depended upon.
For as he wrote in the last of his novels, Endymion: ‘The British People being subject to fogs and possessing a powerful Middle Class require grave statesmen.’
Disraeli was 63 when he at last ‘climbed to the top of the greasy pole’, as he described becoming Prime Minister.
Johnson is only 54, but now is the moment when he has to start showing everyone he is serious, and not just an entertainer.
lAndrew Gimson is the author of Boris: The Adventures Of Boris Johnson (Simon & Schuster, £9.99).