The rebirth of Boris Johnson’s political career is astonishing. He has secured the backing of enough Conservative MPs to ensure that his name will be one of the two that go forward to party members to choose as party leader. And the party leader will, according to now well-established precedent, become the next prime minister. He is expected to win. I am only beginning to digest this.
Mr Johnson’s main personal political achievement to date (as opposed to his role in the 2016 referendum, which may have been decisive) has been securing two terms as London’s Mayor. This was hardly the triumph that his boosters claim. His principal opponent (Labour’s former Mayor Ken Livingstone, well past his sell-by date) was weak, and scrutiny from the media and elsewhere proved easy enough to evade. He had little or nothing to do with the achievements touted on his behalf (such as the 2012 Olympics, the public bike scheme, and an improvement in London’s state schools), and there were a series of ill-conceived vanity schemes (new double-decker buses, the “Garden Bridge”, water-cannon for the police). His one role in senior politics was a disastrous stint as Foreign Secretary. The spectacular implosion of his previous bid to become Conservative leader in 2016 would have finished most political careers. Most of his fellow MPs don’t like him. He is, however, one of the few modern British politicians with personal charisma, and he is as different in personality from the current leader, Theresa May, as it is possible to conceive. Given Mrs May’s failure, the demand for the next leader to be different is understandable. Mr Johnson, who has managed to accrue a significant personal income, has bought in professional advice, and it is working wonders. There are parallels here with that other reborn political power, Nigel Farage. Political advisers (or “strategists” as these tacticians like to be called) had a bad name after the failure of Mrs May’s 2017 general election campaign, but they’re back with a vengeance. In addition to good quality tactical advice, he has also had the benefit of an excellent parliamentary whipping operation – one observer detects the influence of former Chief Whip Gavin Williamson, who proved a gaffe-prone Defence Secretary and was sacked by Mrs May, but who was very effective in his former role.
Is his rise to Prime Minister inevitable? There are two obstacles. The first is the members’ ballot. Such polling evidence as there is suggests that he has a commanding lead. But as it starts his opponent is likely to have some momentum. Two of the potential candidates might give him trouble. Jeremy Hunt, his successor as Foreign Secretary, oozes a smooth competence, and could harvest a move for a safety vote if the wheels start to fall off the Johnson campaign. That is not impossible; many have noticed that his advisers are trying to keep him out of public scrutiny. This is how things went so badly wrong for Mrs May in 2017: he will have allow for a bit of rough-and-tumble.
The other candidate that could be trouble is rank outsider Rory Stewart. He is the only other candidate with a personal charisma that matches Mr Johnson’s, and he has fought a quirky but effective campaign. He is not a safety candidate, like Mr Hunt, but he might be able build the same sort of unlikely momentum that Jeremy Corbyn did when he was elected as Labour leader.
But Mr Stewart is unlikely to be given that chance by MPs. And Mr Johnson probably has the skills to keep Mr Hunt at bay. Which leaves the second obstacle to the premiership: parliament. Labour, quite rightly, plan to launch an immediate vote of no confidence when the new Conservative leader takes up the PM’s role. The government’s majority (with the DUP) is thin; a handful of Tory MPs could fail to back him, and that would be that. This would be messy, but a general election is the most likely result, which Mr Johnson might lose.
But the odds are that Mr Johnson will survive any challenges posed by party members or parliament. What then? Most predict a chaotic and short-lived premiership, but we really don’t know. His leadership campaign shows a certain steel and political competence. The parallel his backers would like to offer, no doubt, is Donald Trump. He is at least as lazy and vague on detail as Mr Johnson, but he is lasting the course and might well be re-elected.
That parallel is rather an alarming one, as Mr Johnson is clearly taking Mr Trump as a role model (as is Nigel Farage). Mr Trump has achieved much of his success by a process of steadily undermining his country’s governing institutions and conventions. And Britain’s institutions are long on convention and weak on legal enforceability. One example is now much talked about: the idea that parliament might be suspended to prevent it from blocking a no-deal Brexit. Mr Johnson has not ruled this out.
But there is an important difference between Trump and Johnson. Mr Trump was reasonably clear about what he wanted to do, and by and large he has followed the agenda set out before he was elected, love it or loathe it. Mr Johnson has said as little as possible about what he wants to do and how, allowing his supporters to project their wishes into the blank space. He wants to achieve Brexit by 31st October, but to some audiences he suggests this will be negotiated with the EU, to for others he suggests complete breakdown.
But as PM he will have to take the hard decisions that nobody else wants to take, and Brexit, whichever way it goes, will provide a steady stream of such decisions. And then there is government finances: he can’t keep everybody happy without creating a bust-up about finances. He is bound to lose people, which matters given his shaky parliamentary position.
My guess is that he will be tempted to risk an early general election, hoping that his charisma will thwart Mr Farage and crush a by now rather tired Mr Corbyn. British politics is volatile and it might well work.
It is just as likely to bring the house tumbling down on him and his party. British politics is about to get much more exciting.