Some of his friends will tell you that beneath all the bluster and fluster, beneath the posture and the persona, Boris Johnson is actually quite like the rest of us. He has doubts and fears, good days and bad days, times when he’s up and times when he’s down. ‘Boris’ in a sense, is a construct, a costume worn by a man whose given name is actually Alexander and is sometimes known as Al.
Whatever his name, Boris or Al could be forgiven for feeling a bit down these days. Not too long ago, reaching his life’s ambition of the premiership seemed a realistic possibility. In a story that still hasn’t been fully told (wait for Tim Shipman’s book in the autumn is my advice) some friends of Boris thought on election night in June that his time had come, that Theresa May’s failure gave him his chance to take the crown.
Today, anyone suggesting Boris is within touching distance of the Tory leadership would not be taken seriously at Westminster. In the leadership contender market, shares in Boris PLC are trading near an all-time low, I reckon. (But then, the same is true of most Cabinet Tories.)
This is the context for his Today Programme interview in which he has said Britain will pay its ‘bill’ to the EU on Brexit. That’s the latest sign that HMG is facing up to the reality of the exit negotiation, and not wholly inconsistent with Mr Johnson’s full comments when he said the EU could ‘whistle’ for its money. Then, he was talking about what he defined as excessive demands for money and not rejecting any payment at all.
But what counts is not what a politician says but what people remember, so such nuances will, I suspect be lost in the broader narrative of Boris Johnson 2017, which casts the Foreign Secretary as a hapless joke distrusted by his colleagues and disliked by many voters who regard him as the embodiment of a leave campaign they regard as having been fundamentally dishonest, especially on the point of Britain’s financial contributions.
For many voters that £350 million a week will be a permanent stain on his character, one that taints any subsequent statement he makes of the subject. Hence the vitriol and mockery for today’s statement that ‘we have to meet our legal obligations as we understand them and that’s what you’d expect the British government to do.’
For Boris Johnson, these are grim times, as reactions to that interview show. He may be Foreign Secretary but he is still in the wilderness. Does he ever regret his decision to side with the leave campaign, to gamble everything on a play to undo his old mate Dave? I don’t know, but I do know that some people close to him wonder whether he finds the outlook today so grim that he might even give up on that ambition to become PM. That doesn’t mean we should write him off or rule him out however. The Johnson Mojo comes and goes. He’s been in the doldrums before and come back.
Mr Johnson is an admirer of Winston Churchill, a fellow adventurer who also understood how the pendulum of personal fortune, like a man’s spirits, is always swinging. He may still have his cabinet seat, but for Boris Johnson, these are the 1930s. To rise from here to the very top would be a story worthy of Sir Winston.