Last week a colleague who will remain unnamed told me a story about Boris Johnson. The colleague in question was working at The Spectator during Boris’s editing days, and instructed by his blond boss to dig hard into a ‘report’ that Tony Blair had tried cannabis in his gap year before Oxford. The colleague did the requisite digging but found nothing to substantiate the claim. Blair, as biographers now more or less agree, was a squeaky-clean, rather dull undergraduate: by all accounts the future PM neither smoked, nor inhaled.
Boris, however, was desperate to run something on the story. He found another journalist to take up the brief, and the resulting piece amounted to a specious attack on the then-PM. Distant university contemporaries of Tony were found, but the comments they produced on Blair’s alleged spliffing were based on supposition, not fact.
The anecdote says more about Boris than Blair. It says that then, as now, Johnson has always had a taste for assassination; for trading on reputation – and not always merely his own.
Little wonder, then, that the Dulux dog of British politics employed the same tactics in his address to the Conservative party Conference in Manchester. Every journalist knows this is the annual highlight of a dreary week, and this was no exception. High calibre jokes yes, but also an opportunity to slay rivals – to embody the kind of “personality politics” which the Corbyn camp so passionately disparages, but which Johnson has made such political capital of in the past decade.
First came the implicit dismissal of Osbornomics, and Osborne – the Conservatives’ Mr Competence option for 2020. Johnson launched a veiled attack on credit cuts alongside a warning to protect society's hardest working but lowest paid – an implicit critique of the Chancellor’s gesture at replacing tax credits with his bogus "new living wage”.
Next, there was a challenge to the Iron Lady in Waiting, Ms May. “Politicians”, said Johnson, “have frankly abdicated things that frankly should be within their power on immigration” – a sentiment steeped in generous ambiguity but clearly aimed, somehow, at the Home Secretary.
And for his coup d’état? A plea to David Cameron himself to get “the right deal” in his EU negotiations; a message about as useful as “Don’t mess this up, Dave – I would have really nailed it”.
This was not a speech about Boris Johnson, then, but a speech about the deficiencies of Boris Johnson’s rivals, and the various pitfalls faced by all of them in the next five years – Europe, immigration, more austerity. And somehow Boris – now the retiring back-bencher, sometime author, and occasional Mayor of London – faces none of these challenges. In absentia he has found opportunism, peace, and the safe distance to critique his rivals without being called upon to offer finite, alternative solutions.
Boris may have shirked some of the hard work, but unlike his closest leadership rivals, he has not underrated the power of social skills such as bitching, and making people like him. As anyone who’s met Boris will know, all first conversations with the Mayor start with “We’ve met before haven’t we?” – never with the more anodyne, “How do you do?”, or “Pleased to meet you”. George Osborne might do economics, Teresa May might do immigration, but Boris does people – and he does them damn well.
What next for the return, the resurrection, the Borissance? A four year leadership contest is now underway which will not be good for the health of the Conservative party. For Boris there is the chance to make his name captaining the Brexit campaign, but he will probably dodge it. The Mayor, instead, will likely find safer refuge and results in his talented command of the darker arts: self-branding, sycophancy, and office bitching.