Boris Johnson is auditioning to lead a grim, insular Britain
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
‘Boris Johnson’s decision tells us that he is positioning himself for the next Conservative leadership contest.’