The Scottish Mail on Sunday
He was stung before, but waspish Boris still craves top job
BORIS JOHNSON once said: ‘All politicians are like crazed wasps in a jam jar, each individually convinced that they’re going to make it.’ And no one has been more convinced he is going to make it all the way to No10 than Johnson himself. He has long considered himself a Prime-Minister-in-waiting, but has been obliged to wait far longer than he hoped.
For 11 years, he watched as the Tory Party was led by David Cameron, whom at Eton and Oxford Boris had viewed as an obscure and junior figure. He has now had to wait another year while the party was led by Theresa May, who humiliated him during the race for the Conservative leadership by ridiculing his abilities as a negotiator: ‘The last time he did a deal with the Germans he came back with three nearly new water cannon.’
Well, the waiting may finally be over. At last the longed-for role of leader lies within his grasp. May is fatally wounded. After her wooden performance throughout the Election campaign, the Tories will never again consent to fight an election under her leadership. And the parliamentary arithmetic now makes a return to the polls within the next year more or less certain. As today’s poll for this paper shows, a majority of the public want May to go now, and Johnson is their preferred choice to succeed her.
This, then, should be Johnson’s moment. But, as he well knows, the assassin in these cases seldom goes on to wear the crown. Michael Heseltine brought down Margaret Thatcher, but in the subsequent leadership contest was trounced by the less glamorous John Major. For all his undoubted charisma and popularity, there is a danger Johnson could be thwarted once again, just as he was in the race to succeed Cameron.
Johnson’s worst weakness is that many Tory MPs do not trust him. The shambles of his last leadership campaign, when he was knifed by Michael Gove, did not inspire confidence. On that occasion, he was quick-witted enough to throw in the towel rather than fight on to inevitable defeat. May duly rewarded him for his surrender by putting him in the Foreign Office.
Here he has had mixed success – on the one hand taking a strong moral stance over Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s gassing of his people, on the other being humiliated when he was prevented from travelling to meet G7 leaders with a plan to impose greater sanctions on Assad’s Russian ally. Johnson was reportedly so fearful of being ‘toast’ that he went to No10 to beg for his job.
The Election campaign brought him little succour. It contained no role for Johnson. It was all about Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable leadership’, a concept he will have regarded with inward derision, and which
many voters found unconvincing and dreary. Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn had a good campaign, and gained 32 seats by appearing relatively relaxed, humane and genuine. How Johnson will have longed to take on the man he branded a ‘mutton-headed old mugwump’.
Thursday’s result has now opened up that opportunity. Could Johnson be the man to save the Tories in their hour of desperation? Certainly, he remains one of the few front-rank politicians who can change the atmosphere just by turning up to the local shopping centre. Corbyn, we must concede, appears to be another.
But, his critics point out, there is far more to being leader than electioneering. There is Europe, the issue on which so many Tory leaders have impaled themselves. May made it her practice to decide her policy on everything, including Europe, with a tiny group of trusted advisers. The next Tory leader, whoever he or she may be, will have to do things differently. On Brexit, there will have to be both consultation and listening, as well as, ultimately, leadership. There would be a kind of poetic justice in putting this most difficult of tasks in the hands of Boris, the man who did more than anyone else to swing the Leave vote.
It would be more poetic still if, for this momentous task, he was able to secure the assistance of Michael Gove, whose appearances on the airwaves throughout the election reminded people just how brilliantly he can make the Tory case.
Such a pact would be an astonshing act of forgiveness after Gove’s betrayal last year.
Not the least of Johnson’s qualifications is his proven ability to take wider views about Brexit, rather than get imprisoned in some self-inflicted orthodoxy.
Can he pull it off? The days ahead will prove whether his wait is finally at an end.