Boris John­son is au­di­tion­ing to lead a grim, in­su­lar Bri­tain

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Martin Ket­tle

For many years it struck me as amus­ing rather than omi­nous that the place where I first spent any time with Boris John­son was a Mu­nich beer­hall. We were jour­nal­ists cov­er­ing a de­fence sum­mit in the 1990s. We’d both filed our pieces – he to the Tele­graph, me to the Guardian – and we were bored. So, along with the man from the Times, we took a taxi into the city cen­tre and spent the rest of the af­ter­noon drink­ing beer and chat­ting. John­son made a lot of good jokes, and one or two rather loud and taste­less ones about Hitler and Mu­nich beer­halls.

I didn’t then, and still don’t, know John­son well, but I have never much al­tered the views I formed of him over those beers in Bavaria long ago. He is very en­ter­tain­ing com­pany, if you like that sort of thing. But he is nei­ther an in­tel­lec­tu­ally thought­ful nor a morally se­ri­ous per­son. He ridicules not just for­eign­ers but most peo­ple other than him­self. He is very bright but not very wise. He pos­sesses both bot­tom­less self-re­gard and in­con­ti­nent am­bi­tion. And among the many things I would never trust him with is my coun­try.

My guess is that John­son didn’t give much prior thought to the jokey re­marks he made in the Tele­graph this week about Mus­lim women’s cloth­ing. But I think he gave a lot of thought to stand­ing by them once more sen­si­ble Tories than he be­lat­edly woke up to the dam­age they were do­ing to the party’s im­age. That si­lence spoke vol­umes. And it’s that de­ci­sion – the de­ci­sion to dig in as the man who will not be gagged by po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness – that is the im­por­tant take-away from this week’s row.

That’s be­cause John­son’s de­ci­sion tells us – if we needed re­mind­ing of it af­ter his res­ig­na­tion as for­eign sec­re­tary last month – that he is posi-

tion­ing him­self for the next Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship con­test. He is do­ing so, what’s more, as the can­di­date of the pop­ulist right rather than the lib­eral cen­trist guise he adopted when run­ning to be Lon­don mayor. John­son has moved to the right since then: over Europe, over Trump and now over plu­ral­ism and tol­er­ance. He is po­si­tion­ing him­self to be the leader of a more in­su­lar, less mod­er­ate and harder-faced Con­ser­va­tive party and a more in­su­lar, less mod­er­ate and harder-faced Bri­tain.

There are many in the Tory party who still think John­son is the an­swer to the party’s prob­lems – in spite of hav­ing been a third-rate for­eign sec­re­tary (se­cond-rate is too gen­er­ous), of bot­tling out of the Heathrow vote, of dis­miss­ing Theresa May’s ne­go­ti­at­ing tac­tics by prais­ing Trump’s, and of many other of­fences. Just be­fore he re­signed, John­son trailed fourth be­hind Sa­jid Javid, Michael Gove and Ja­cob Rees-Mogg in the Con­ser­va­tiveHome web­site’s reg­u­lar “best next leader” sur­veys. Now he’s back on top of the pile for the first time since 2016.

But the old idea that John­son is the Heineken Tory who can reach the parts of the elec­torate other Tories can­not reach is dam­aged goods now. Times have changed and this is a dif­fer­ent and more sin­is­ter John­son. To­day’s ver­sion is the one who has fi­nally hitched his un­quench­able am­bi­tion to the small-state, flag-wav­ing, nos­tal­gia-driven An­glo­cen­tric white wing of the Tory party and the wider po­lit­i­cal right. That’s what the re­fusal to bow to May and his other crit­ics this week is all about. The echoes of Trump are very clear and very dis­turb­ing for the fu­ture of pol­i­tics.

The good news, up to a point, is that John­son would be a rub­bish leader. He lacks a gen­uine vi­sion. He can’t run things. He doesn’t know how to turn slo­gans into re­al­i­ties. He is lazy and vain. Some of his less pros­per­ous sup­port­ers may turn away from his project once its eco­nomic im­pact on them be­comes clearer. And for all Jeremy Cor­byn’s lim­i­ta­tions, the way that John­son would at­tack the Labour leader and the match-up be­tween the two men may favour Cor­byn too. But this view may prove all too com­pla­cent.

It nev­er­the­less raises a larger and deeper ques­tion, which lurks be­hind all at­tempts to un­der­stand the place of lead­er­ship in mod­ern pol­i­tics. No leader is ever per­fect. Yet all lead­ers in mod­ern west­ern democ­ra­cies seem to be strug­gling more than in the past to main­tain the lev­els of po­lit­i­cal sup­port, re­spect and ef­fec­tive­ness that would en­able them to carry out their projects. This is true of May and Brexit. It would prob­a­bly be true of Cor­byn and his eco­nomic re­bal­anc­ing project. And it would also ap­ply to John­son and his reawak­en­ing of lost English great­ness.

Yet these are times that cry out for very wise and very ef­fec­tive lead­er­ship. The fi­nan­cial crash, aus­ter­ity, inequal­ity, Brexit ten­sions, the rise of China and the ag­gres­sions of Trump have helped to cre­ate a world that Adam Tooze, in his new book Crashed, ar­gues may be sleep­walk­ing into a col­lapse, rather as hap­pened in 1914. Read­ing Ju­lian Jack­son’s new bi­og­ra­phy of Charles de Gaulle, how­ever, what is strik­ing is the com­par­i­son with the 1930s, when the na­ture of the eco­nomic cri­sis and the fail­ure to con­front it brought a lurch to the au­thor­i­tar­ian right and then a se­cond ex­plo­sion.

Yet the age of the dic­ta­tors also pro­duced the great­est demo­cratic re­bal­ancer of na­tional wealth and power in the 20th cen­tury. Franklin Roo­sevelt knew what to do about inequal­ity and stag­na­tion; per­suaded the vot­ers that he knew; bought po­lit­i­cal space by mak­ing clear that if one mea­sure failed he would try again an­other way; used the state to turn things round;, in large part be­cause of the war, and was elected four times. De Gaulle, in a less ex­alted way, was per­haps an­other ex­am­ple of such lead­er­ship.

John­son seems to fancy him­self as Churchill. But he is a car­toon im­i­ta­tion. He is cer­tainly not the mod­ern Roo­sevelt the coun­try needs. Nor a De Gaulle. “In the last re­sort,” De Gaulle once wrote, “a [po­lit­i­cal] de­ci­sion has a mo­ral el­e­ment.” Not in John­son’s case it doesn’t. All mod­ern lead­ers, op­er­at­ing in the so­cial me­dia swamp and with the de­cline of state in­sti­tu­tions, strug­gle to be ef­fec­tive. Even the good ones. But John­son will never, ever, be one of those.

• Martin Ket­tle is a Guardian colum­nist

Pho­to­graph: Vic­to­ria Jones/PA

‘Boris John­son’s de­ci­sion tells us that he is po­si­tion­ing him­self for the next Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship con­test.’

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