If Boris Johnson is, once again, the answer it is worth asking what the question can be. The simplest response must be that he is, at least as far as some Conservative MPs are concerned, the man most likely to save their jobs at the next election. But a better question, for the country anyway, would be to ask if Boris Johnson is fit to be prime minister?
And the answer to that is obvious. We are asked to believe that, despite being a conspicuous failure at the foreign office, Johnson could be a plausible prime minister. But what, precisely, in Johnson’s history gives anyone confidence he might be a fit and proper prime minister? That the same question might be asked of Jeremy Corbyn and receive precisely the same answer in no way advances Johnson’s claims.
‘Only Boris can beat Corbyn’ his backers say as though this was enough. It might be a necessary condition for the next Tory leader but it is not a sufficient one. It’s sending for a clown to beat a fool. It might just about be enough to win but it’s not enough for the country.
As James Forsyth observes in his cover story for this week’s edition of the magazine, ‘The worse things are for the Tories, the better for Boris Johnson’. This might flatter Johnson’s view of himself as a latter-day Churchill – and one, to boot, who went to the proper school – but it’s hardly a platform for government unless, that is, government is understood to mean the greater glory of Boris Johnson. And who knows, perhaps it really is meant that way.
James reports that Boris has changed. ‘Being outside the system has made him more gung-ho’ says one of his chums because, Lord knows, the problem with Johnson previously was a lack of gunging and an absence of ho.
We are asked to believe this new, improved, Boris is also a serious Johnson though, again, the evidence for this newfound attention to detail remains mysterious. No one reading Johnson’s columns in the Daily Telegraph will be much the wiser. On the contrary, these epistles typically offer nothing more than the bluster and bull that’s become the default Brexiteer theme: Brexit is suffering from a lack of willpower. Fix that and you solve everything – for all the material and structural problems with Brexit will dissolve. It’s a kind of magic, I guess.
Equally, the idea that at least with Boris the United Kingdom would have a leader who knows what he wants Britain to look like after Brexit seems too generous by far unless, that is, we concede that the main advantage of this sort of Britain is that it’s led by Boris Johnson. The rest is mere detail and detail is for other people and especially those left cold by the grand sweep of history and – when you think about it – the great favour Boris Johnson would be doing us all by consenting to lead us into a new golden age.
Politics depends upon perspective and what looks good from one place easily seems hideous from another. The notion Johnson should be the next leader of the Conservative and Unionist party is one such illustration of this. It might make sense in Essex and Buckinghamshire, it seems absurd in Scotland and elsewhere.
Worse than absurd, actually. The other day I was talking with a Forfarshire farmer who, though a lifelong Tory voter – which is saying something in Scotland – promised he’d never again vote for the party if Johnson became leader. He is not the first person from whom I’ve heard such a vow and although Johnson attracts more opprobrium simply because everyone knows who he is, it remains striking how much Tory voters in Scotland want to tell you they’ll abandon the party if he becomes leader. No other candidate, in a weak field, produces this kind of reaction.
The weakness of the field, of course, is the point. No wonder so many ministers are jockeying for position. As one told Laura Kuenssberg earlier this month, ‘It’s going to be like the Grand National’ except that in this version of the great steeplechase none of the jockeys can ride. Johnson epitomises that weakness: if he can be a frontrunner why shouldn’t Esther McVey think she could have a crack at it too?
But Prime Minister Johnson would have, I suspect, explosive consequences. He might be a ‘One Nation’ Tory (of sorts) but there’s a hefty chance he’d find himself leading a much smaller nation. As matters stand, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have no persuasive or easy route to a second independence referendum, nor any compelling answers to the problems Brexit will cause for the practical aspects of independence. Even so, the most recent Times/YouGov poll put support for independence at 49 per cent.
You might think escaping Boris Johnson a small or thin or feeble reason for breaking up the United Kingdom and I might agree with you but the point is many others would not. Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t ask for a better recruiting officer than Johnson. There’s a reason Ruth Davidson hates him, you know, and it goes beyond Johnson’s abundant sense of entitlement and evident sense work is for other, lesser, people.
Then again, the case for independence is presently being made in London more than it is in Edinburgh. Brexit is a large part of this but not the only part, even if it should also be understood as a time bomb that has not yet gone off. Johnson would lob incendiaries onto an already burning house.
We already know that Brexiteers think Brexit more important, and when push comes to shove, more desirable than the survival of the United Kingdom itself. So be it. That’s a choice which is there to be made. Asking Boris Johnson to lead the Conservative party and, God help us, be prime minister would be one way of reinforcing that point and that order of priorities.
Equally, it is difficult to conceive a more wretched contest than Johnson vs Corbyn. The latter is rendered unfit for office by many things but among them is this: he’s not competent to do the job. That ought to be an advantage for the Conservatives but one that will be tossed aside should the party elect an incompetent leader of their own whose sole redeeming feature is an ability to make the party membership feel pleased about themselves. Johnson is the Tory version of Corbyn and Corbyn the Labour version of Johnson. In grim moments, perhaps it does seem as though this is the cripple-fight the country merits but, jeezo, to think it might come to this.
Character used to be thought tolerably important, even in the upper echelons of the Conservative party. Johnson – workshy, wholly lacking in principle, judgement, and probity as well as being a habitual breaker of promises – would make a nonsense of that.
The next prime minister will inherit a bloody mess which, ordinarily, would make it all the more necessary to choose party leaders who have, to use an old-fashioned term, some bottom. Instead we get a whiff-whaff pretender. I mean, come on. And come off it, too.