For more than forty years, I have assumed that most Tory party members were the salt of the earth. They may not have banged on about civic virtue or active citizenship, but they practised both. They may not have been interested in political philosophy, but they could tell a good ‘un from a wrong ‘un. Alas, that era is over. Tens of thousands of them have decided that Boris Johnson ought to be Prime Minister. The salt has lost its savour. Many Tories can no longer tell the difference between it and strychnine.
Why has this happened? There are two explanations: May fatigue and Brexit fatigue. Among the poisonous bequests which Theresa May has left the Tories is a discrediting of the whole notion of competence. When she took over, it was expected that she would be dull, but competent. That was half right. Yet – an absurdity as well as a paradox – a large section of her party seems to have concluded from her failure that competence does not matter, as long as the new leader is funny. Boris is funnier than Jeremy Hunt. So let us crown him. Would Tory members dream of operating on that basis in their own private lives? Imagine, O Tory member, that you are looking for a lawyer, an accountant, a doctor. You hear of a candidate, with a caveat. He is likely to prove incompetent, ‘but don’t worry: he’ll make you laugh.’ Are you reassured? If you think that competence matters in a solicitors’ firm in Dean Street, Barchester, should it not also matter in Downing Street, Westminster?
Theresa May is a klutz, or should that be klutz-ess? Whichever it is, there is no good reason to switch from a klutz to a clown. True, everyone needs cheering up. But we also need responsible government in serious hands.
This is where Brexit fatigue comes in. A lot of Tories are sick to death of the whole business and just want it resolved. Boris has turned it into an alpha-male contest, with everything hinging on October 31. In response, members cheer, while remembering that Jeremy Hunt started out as a Remainer. This overlooks Boris’s murky record. He was the man who wrote two newspaper articles. One for Brexit, the other for Remain, while trying to decide which way his ambition would lead him to jump. His mental processes have always been furtive, but there is a plausible interpretation. Expecting David Cameron to win, he planned to congratulate the PM, call for everyone to unite behind Mr Cameron, while he, Boris, became heir apparent. If that had happened, Boris would have had as little interest in pursuing Brexit as Disraeli had in bringing back the Corn Laws.
Those Tories who are applauding Boris’s breast-beatings and ululations may well prove guilty of naïveté. It would help if we left with a deal: not exactly, ‘have cake, eat cake’ but enough to minimise the disruption. It is extremely unlikely that the EU will give Boris any cake at all; they would rather that he was on bread and water. Aware of this, he is focused on no deal. But how would he carry that through the Commons? If he fails, would he dare call an election, which might leave him down there with Bonar Law and Goderich in the shortest-serving PMs’ league?
There is an alternative, which is why Boris has some surprising supporters among Remoaners in the higher echelons of the civil service. They think that he would call a second referendum. Because of demographic changes since 2016, with old and bold Brexiteers fading away while young Remainers join the register, the Leavers would lose. If that were to happen, the Tory party would be hopelessly split. Farage-ism would have become a permanent feature in British politics. It would be impossible for Boris to avoid an election for long, or to win it when it came. This scenario does not alarm closet Federasts in the higher civil service, to whom the EU is alpha and omega. Sensible Tories ought to be seriously worried.
In those circumstances, alarm and dismay would be widespread in the City. Some of the Remainers’ direst warnings would be justified, even without Brexit. So: no Brexit, an economic crisis, every likelihood of Mr Corbyn in government – plus a threat to the Union. Boris is toxic in Scotland and that will never change. Jeremy Hunt would deliver Brexit and avoid disaster. But it does not look as if he will be given the chance.
As for deluded Tories in the constituencies, there is a parallel. When George IV became King in 1820, he was already estranged from his Queen, Caroline. Each heaped accusations on the other. Everything was true. Either of them could have given Boris Johnson lessons on immorality. For some reason, the mob took Caroline’s side. Once, when the Duke of Wellington was riding back to his estate at Stratfield Saye, he was stopped by a crowd of yokels, who refused to let him pass until he had said ‘God Save Queen Caroline.’ ‘Very well, Sirs, if you will have it so, God Save Queen Caroline and may all your wives be like her.’ To paraphrase his remark for today’s degringolade, Tory Boris supporters should be told: ‘Vote for Boris if you will, and may all your sons-in-law be like him.’
With few qualities beyond animal energy and ruthless ambition, Boris Johnson has been remarkably successful. This appears to have convinced him that if he wants something badly enough, he will get it. He might now been about to discover that there are limits to the power of insensate egotism. But a necessary moral lesson for him could come at a terrible price for the country.