Boris Johnson's suggestion that we should do away with the presumption of innocence is comedy gold

Always the joker, Bojo's plan for British Isis fighters is grandstanding at its best


In a long and undistinguished career observing our politicians from afar (or as far as humanly possible), I do not believe I have encountered anything as jaw-droppingly, eye- scrunchingly demented as the suggestion advanced by Boris Johnson on Monday.

I may be wrong about this. It could be that in 1994, having had a few while watching a Test match at Trent Bridge, Ken Clarke proposed replacing the Treasury’s retinue of senior civil servants with a herd of wildebeest from the Serengeti. Without intensive research, it cannot categorically be ruled out that once – sun-struck on a caravan holiday in the south of France with husband Leo – Margaret Beckett issued a press release demanding that Britain trade its Trident nuclear warheads for five Sherbet Fountains and a Pez dispenser.

Ruling out both the above, however, the Mayor of London needed just a few words of a Daily Telegraph column about the threat of Isil/IS/Isis both here and abroad to hoist the preposterous bar by several notches, and educate those in need of this lesson as to why on no account must the now would-be MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip ever be entrusted with the leadership of his country.

In Boris’s defence, there is a notable difference between 1) a column of the sort he composes each weekend with such enviable fluency and elegance; and 2) the formulation of government policy. But since he is the current favourite to succeed David Cameron, and a putative prime minister, we are entitled to take his musings more seriously than those of idiots such as myself.

Contemplating the danger to domestic security posed by young British jihadis, the number of whom is guestimated at 500 to 600, returning from Syria and Iraq with murder in their hearts, Boris wrote this: “The police can and do interview the returnees, but it is hard to press charges without evidence. The law needs a swift and minor change so that there is a ‘rebuttable presumption’ that all those visiting war areas without notifying the authorities have done so for a terrorist purpose.”


On one level, it must be admitted that even Boris has never produced anything funnier than this. To describe the peremptory reversal of the presumption of innocence as “a minor change” is, in its dark way, comic genius. For centuries all over this world, people fought and died for an equitable system of justice. Underpinning every other facet of that – “the golden thread that runs through it” – is the absolute, inalienable right to be presumed innocent until proved otherwise. Remove that, and there is simply no justice at all. Remove it in the limited case of British Muslims who, for whatever reason, have visited war zones, and what you introduce – does this actually need spelling out? – is a form of apartheid.

This is not to suggest that those Boris has in mind will not be a clear and present danger, if they are not so already. His suggestion will make him more popular then ever. It will appeal to a vast chunk of the public – it may have been designed, who knows, to delight the good Tories of Uxbridge as he seeks their nomination as parliamentary candidate – because these are unusually confusing and scary times.

Boris Johnson's proposal for British fighters in Syria and Iraq is dangerous and counterproductive

It is undeniably terrifying to watch the Western powers trying to grapple with an almost limitless rat’s nest of interconnected problems in the Middle East. The situation is one of such Byzantine complexity that the challenge feels like a pan-dimensional chess board, on which every piece is wired to electrocute if the wrong move is made.

There may be no right moves at all – just a choice of slightly less wrong ones. But with people craving easy answers, as they do when a problem is horrendously difficult, it is an act of grotesque irresponsibility for Boris to grandstand like this with an idea he ought to know should not, and could not, be effected.

“We are going to have to make up our minds very quickly …” his piece began, “how we deal with these Brits who go off and fight in its [Isis’s] name.”

Quite the reverse, we – or those we elect – are going to have to make up their minds with the utmost caution. The danger of inflaming moderate Muslim opinion and creating a new wave of Luton jihadis by a hysterical overreaction is intense.

It may be that the reintroduction of Control Orders is needed, and the suspects will obviously need monitoring by the security services. But the Government must take any steps with the greatest caution, because it is traversing a minefield and the detonations if it puts a foot wrong could be horrendous.

What Boris reminds us with his faux-naif showboating is that the single most important quality in a political leader is neither talent, charm, drollery, charisma nor intellect. Always, but more than ever in such a wickedly fraught and volatile era, it is judgement. It is the ability to resist enormous pressure – the tabloid, phone-in and back-bench screeches to do something, do anything – when acting in the dark is far more perilous than doing nothing at all.

It is the maturity, perspective and calmness of temperament that provide resistance to the temptation to offer easy answers for short-term approval. It is pretty much everything that Boris Johnson, in a few lines of a newspaper column, proved beyond any lingering doubt that he lacks.


The warm-up wasn’t that funny, but wait for the main event

After the experiment of being run by an amateur comedian, will London be prepared to go the whole hog and elect a pro? Eddie Izzard, who hopes to be Labour’s mayoral candidate at the election after next in 2020 – in the meantime he means to concentrate on his acting – has shared his delectably original training regime with the Radio Times. Mr Izzard confides that being abused on the streets for his transvestism, and on occasion being drawn into scrapping, has hardened him nicely for a career in politics.

It certainly makes a refreshing change from PPE at Oxford, special adviser, etc. And where throwing bread rolls on Bullingdon nights out is one thing, a chap in a frock throwing punches is something we can all get behind.

His talk of being willing to fight for his country places him at the patriotic end of the leftish spectrum (Orwell would approve), and that is a handy place for a politician manqué to be.

He has my vote for 2020, although glancing at the stale list of Labour mayoral wannabes for 2016, he might rethink delaying his run. If it is fine for the incumbent to double up as an MP, why on earth shouldn’t Eddie Izzard be a moonlighting mayor?

London's buses might be the best in Britain, but what about the rest of the country?  

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