I used to have a lot of time for Boris Johnson. Sometimes whole days, in fact: from 8am until 8pm, I’d ring and text and email him, politely urging him to tell me what he planned to write his exquisitely expensive Telegraph column about, and when he’d deign to send it to me. It was, as others who’ve had the joy of calling him a colleague can attest, maddening. But he always filed, in the end.
I don’t claim that working acquaintance with Boris gives me any unique insight into his soul. In fact, familiarity only makes his real character more obscure. My overall impression of a man famous for being talkative and flamboyant is that the real Boris Johnson, the man concealed beneath onionskin layers of artifice and performance, can be quite guarded and even a bit shy.
As for his political beliefs, who knows? I used to think that the real Boris was a fairly liberal and internationalist Tory, a man who spoke several languages, had lived abroad and venerated other cultures. A man who governed London as a mayor who embraced and celebrated its diversity and openness to the world – and might hope that the rest of the UK would be similarly open.
Certainly, he wasn’t one for immigrant-bashing. Quite the contrary. Not too long ago, he was the man who happily rejected Theresa May’s rhetoric and policies on immigration. Less than three years ago, he publicly rejected the ‘tens of thousands’ target and said, in terms, that people wanting big immigration cuts wouldn’t be bothered by migration if the migrants were white.
Of course, I was wrong about the real Boris and his real principles. Look at him now. Look today at Boris Johnson, who once proclaimed himself a liberal Tory, and consider how far ambition and the referendum have warped him. Having cast his lot in with the Leavers, he appears to think his only play now is to double down on the worst of Leave’s politics and question the patriotism of those who take a different view.
‘I am troubled with the thought that people are beginning to have genuinely split allegiances,’ Mr Johnson writes of ‘young people’ protesting the decision to leave the EU, adding:
‘A transnational sense of allegiance can weaken the ties between us.’
This isn’t nice. This isn’t funny. This isn’t cuddly or amusing or bumbling. This isn’t even excusable by the fact that Boris is utterly selfish and his principles fluidly subordinate to his career.
This is a man who holds one of the highest offices and greatest platforms in public life using his office and eloquence to argue that people who don’t agree with him aren’t properly British and that their views weaken the British nation. That people who live here and feel ties to more than one country undermine this one.
And he’s doing it at a time when many people already feel that Britain’s commitment to openness and tolerance is now in question. When many people – some of them British born – wonder whether they are now as welcome here as they were just a few years ago. This is unpleasant, harmful stuff.
It also implies such a complete rejection of the idea of a global Britain’s that it’s hard to disagree with those comparing this intervention to Norman Tebbit’s ‘cricket test’.
Of course, Mr Johnson’s words today are being read as bid for the Tory leadership, though I suspect many of his colleagues will see this more as a slightly desperate cry for attention from a man whose fortunes have been waning of late.
My guess, for what it’s worth, is that Boris will never get the top job, and if he doesn’t, articles like today’s help to explain why.
Partly that’s because of the effect this sort of political game has on his party. The Tories’ long-term problem is that many people under 40 now actively dislike and distrust them, and playing the politics of division like this will likely just confirm for many of them that Boris and the Tories really are the nasty party again.
And partly its because of what this article says about its author, his character and his qualities. Boris has done this because he wants people to think he can lead. In fact he has revealed that he can only pander.