I think we can see what the Tories are up to with Boris Johnson. I also think we can see what Boris Johnson is up to with the Tories. And I have a sinking feeling that, somehow, by this time next year he’ll be prime minister. We need to face up to it.
After his last attention-grabbing newspaper column – and doesn’t he know how to get attention – the Tory leadership had to do something when he decided to defy his party chair and the prime minister, and refused to apologise for using the specific offensive terms “letterbox” and “bank robbers” in the context of the veil – not, note, the arguments surrounding the issue itself.
Theresa May and Brandon Lewis couldn’t denounce Labour for it failures to act on antisemitism, but stand idly by while one of their biggest names made fun of Muslim women – and did so as an elected representative of the Conservative Party. He is not a comedian; he speaks for his party. His party have a right to expect something for his privileges.
So, with Boris leaving them looking pretty feeble, they’ve launched an “investigation”. We don’t know the terms of reference or who will be conducting it, but it has a number of political advantages.
First, it gives Boris due process, so he is not to be summarily dealt with, and can’t complain about the process.
Second, it will take ages, so they hope everyone will have forgotten about it before too long, what with the summer hols and everything.
Third, Conservative politicians can avoid any awkward questions with “well, as you know Boris’s remarks are now the subject of an internal inquiry, so I can’t really comment further or add to what the prime minister has said other than that we need to be careful about our language”. At some convenient point towards the late summer the inquiry will quietly come to an end with a statement about Boris’s writings being ill-advised, tasteless and offensive, and duly censured, but that he won’t be kicked out of the party. Some nominal, token act of contrition may be required, probably delivered via his newspaper column. If not, he will play the martyr.
The crucial bit is that he will probably escape justice, and get away with it. Again. He’s been doing it all his life, after all, through Eton, Oxford, the Bullingdon Club, editor of The Spectator, cabinet minister, leadership contender, Mayor of London, man about town… The rich biography of Bozza is basically a catalogue of personal and political scrapes. Somehow he always seem to survive.
We know, too, what Boris is up to. He has changed his views on virtually everything, from migration (liberal as London Mayor, not so much now) to LGBT rights and climate change. In recent years, he has turned from amusing Eurosceptic to hard line “f**k business” Leaver. The reason for all of these manoeuvres, and more, is that the only thing Boris Johnson really believes in is Boris Johnson, and Boris Johnson’s manifest destiny to be prime minister. If it suited his purposes, and brought him a step nearer to No 10, he would propose making the burka compulsory.
This is what makes him so dangerous – the plasticity of his beliefs. He is the greatest and most politically promiscuous opportunist to strut the British political stage since David Lloyd George. Boris is an adventurist, of a type the establishment traditionally distrusts, like Lloyd George and indeed Churchill in their day. Only desperate times – war in both those cases – can propel them to the top. We are in desperate times.
We cannot know how politics will play out this autumn and winter, as the Brexit talks grind down into seemingly inevitable failure. At some point Theresa May’s fudge factory will run short of supplies, and the hard choices that have lain dormant since that morning in June 2016 will present themselves in harsh, unavoidable form.
There will then be a crisis of confidence in the Conservative Party, and no one panics better than the Tories. The moment they collectively conclude that they are doomed politically (the national interest won’t figure much as such, being identical to the interest of the Conservative Party anyway), is the moment all hell will break loose.
The “burka affair”, as we may call, it, appals many, which is why Boris went for it, because he loves winding people up, but it impresses many in the Islamophobic wing of the Conservatives. These are the types who switch between Ukip and the Tories depending on the weather, who’d like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson to merge parties and form a pact of steel, and who send offensive emails to the likes of Lord Sheikh and post deranged comments on the Mail Online.
For them, Boris is the real thing, the man who says the unsayable, the man who “believes in Britain” and the Brexit “dream”, the best thing since Maggie Thatcher.
Boris believes in Boris and believes that his increasingly uncompromising line on Brexit, as well as a few signals on multiculturalism, will give him an advantage over the rival softies who still sit complacently in the cabinet, such as his old nemesis, Michael Gove. Suddenly, after his resignation, he became a man of principle, entirely bogus of course, but there we are (he also, they say, found it difficult to get by on the foreign secretary’s salary).
Once upon a time, when the Tory leadership was a matter for those who knew the candidates best, the MPs, Boris would have been at a distinct disadvantage – because his electors knew him and the tales about him all too well. It is the main reason why Enoch Powell never managed to get to the top – the party membership would have given him a landslide. Bu they had less of a say then than they do now.
Today, of course, the MPs only have a limited role in determining the two candidates who go out to the wider membership. If he does manage to make it onto that ballot of two, and in a straight fight with, say, Sajid Javid, then there is every reason to suppose, for a variety of reasons, that Boris Johnson would prevail.
He would shortly after find himself being asked by the Queen to form a government. He’ll be able to, even though many of his colleagues will refuse to serve with him, and some MPs, such as Dominic Grieve, would quit the party.
His premiership might not be long, nor glorious, given the mess of Brexit. A clown will be managing a disaster. But he will be there, in power, the “dream” of Brexit to be restored, his many critics confounded, the first leader of Post-Brexit Global Britain. He will be peacocking around like some sort of new Elizabethan version of Walter Raleigh, buccaneering his way to conquering markets in strange continents, singeing the King of Spain’s beard over Gibraltar and pluckily “standing up” to the French, the Germans and the Russians.
Like Donald Trump, he’ll make great copy and will be a never ending source of stories – but, like Trump, he will make a once-respected nation into a pitiful laughing stock. No joke really.
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