Boris is Ready for his Finest Hour. Is his Party?

The Mayor of London may see himself as the coming man of destiny, but there are plenty of rivals to thwart his path to 10 Downing Street

Features UK Politics
Boris Johnson: His self-alignment with Churchill is shameless and blatant (Illustration by Michael Daley)

When contemplating the contrasting approaches of the Labour and Conservative parties to the hiring and firing of their leaders, it helps to think in terms of the differences between the public and private sectors. For most of its history, Labour has tended to adopt a public sector approach borrowed from trade unions who would rather see an enterprise fail than allow any employee involved to be sacked. Even if the leader is struggling very badly and everyone knows it, especially the voters, the talk in public by those representing the party will be of “scope for improvement” and of the impossibility of removal because the procedures do not allow it. This can go on for years. At the time of writing Ed Miliband was still in post as Labour leader on that basis. 
  

In contrast, the attitude of the Tory tribe to these matters is much more ruthless and less sentimental. The rules of the private sector apply. Once confidence in the chief executive is gone there is usually no point hanging about. The incumbent gets the equivalent of a visit from the HR manager in a City or industrial firm and before he or she knows it they find themselves outside on the pavement metaphorically clutching a box containing their work-related belongings, having had their security pass removed on the way out the door.

David Cameron will seek to avoid such a humiliating fate when the time comes, but when it is time to go it will be time to go. Of course, his supporters continue to insist that this will not happen any time soon as there will not be a vacancy for several years. But talk to Tory MPs and they are limbering up for a leadership contest. It could happen next summer if the craziest general election since the 1970s produces a chaotic outcome in which the Tories are the second largest party in the Commons.

Even if Cameron wins the election and remains as Prime Minister, his MPs know that he is not temperamentally inclined to go on and on and on. A wealthy and comfortable existence after Number 10 beckons. And unlike Tony Blair, who is condemned to traverse the globe forever, becoming richer and looking more haunted by the month, Cameron’s lot will be contentment. After he leaves office expect him to retreat into England to a very nice house with plenty of scope for “chillaxing” and sitting under a tree in the garden reading the novels of Ian Fleming, a favourite pursuit. Anyway, by the summer of 2015 he will have been leader of his party for almost a decade and Prime Minister for five, with anything beyond that a bonus. For someone who sees the job of Prime Minister in terms of steering the ship of state it will be job done.

As Cameron is not a power-hungry paranoiac, the Tories are not fizzing with thoughts of immediate regicide. They are merely behaving in accordance with the reality that he is probably at least three-quarters of the way, and perhaps nine-tenths, through his leadership. Who, they whisper, will succeed him and what might be the winning message?

Boris Johnson thinks he knows the answer. Here is someone so convinced that he is a man of destiny that he has spent his spare time writing a new biography of Winston Churchill. The implication is that in his party and country’s hour of need, with British politics in crisis and the old party system in meltdown, Boris will be ready. Cometh the hour, cometh the great man, or at least that is the theory.

On one level, attempting to ally himself with Churchill is shameless, blatant stuff. But just as when Boris was caught and filmed on a zip-wire in the Olympic Park in 2012, swinging in mid-air waving two small Union flags, he somehow gets away with behaviour which would prove fatal to the prospects of other politicians if they dared try it. This apparent invincibility of brand Boris amuses and infuriates his critics and some of those who have worked with him down the years. Several of them emerged from the experience convinced that Boris would sell his grandmother if he suspected there might be a column or amusing speech in it. The charge is that for all his erudition he lacks seriousness to a dangerous extent. Could he be trusted, they ask, with the nuclear deterrent, or the fragile Union, or negotiations with the President of the United States? And does he have the patience to apply himself to the serious business of government?

The lesson from his time as Mayor of London is that he tends to surround himself with capable people while he gets on with composing optimistic mood music, being Boris and wooing — very successfully — non-Tories. This is a mode of operation reminiscent of Ronald Reagan, although Reagan had an ideological core of steel. Boris in contrast takes an à la carte view of Conservatism. He loves the Heseltine-style grand project as much as the Thatcherite thought of unleashing animal spirits. 

Yet, for all that he is the man to beat, when Boris makes his run doubts about his reliability remain the territory on which the frontrunner could come unstuck in leadership debates or media appearances. If a rival scores a direct hit in a public forum, and the voters and media grow bored with the favourite, as can happen, he could be defeated.

Officially, all this is said to be the last thing on Boris’s mind. The mantra from friends is that he is concentrating on becoming an MP by winning the Uxbridge seat in 2015, oh and on being Mayor of London until 2016. This is absolute nonsense, of course. The small team of supporters and advisers gathered around him are not spending their time dreaming of Uxbridge. They are plotting, trying to persuade MPs of his merits and watching for signs of strength or weakness on the part of his likely opponents.

In this regard, Boris has been extremely lucky recently, what with Theresa May’s bandwagon coming off the rails. The Home Secretary’s leadership prospects went through one of their periodic revivals after she won her war with Michael Gove, then the Education Secretary and now the Chief Whip. That steeliness she displayed in confronting Gove, a friend of the Prime Minister, endears her to many Conservative activists who have been looking for the next Margaret Thatcher for more than 20 years. Efforts have been made by her advisers to soften May’s image. She is notoriously uncomfortable with small talk although she is surprisingly good at delivering jokes in after-dinner speeches. It is unclear whether she writes the jokes; it is suspected not. A recent appearance on Desert Island Discs was also meant to help bolster her credentials.

And then, disaster struck in November in the shape of the European Arrest Warrant. The ensuing farce when the government attempted to reintroduce the EAW was not entirely her fault and the whips’ office — now run by her old enemy Gove — was blamed for devising a transparently daft procedure that sought to avoid a vote on the warrant itself. Amid chaotic scenes, with furious Tory backbenchers accusing ministers of duplicity, May was at the despatch box. Odds on her being the next Tory leader lengthened that night.

But there are others who hope to stop Boris, of course. George Osborne has built a formidable operation with an impressive team of advisers ready to help him launch a bid if the conditions seem favourable when Cameron does leave. This most political of Chancellors relishes “the game” and he has a deep knowledge of Westminster and Washington history. But although he enjoys a good plot, the Chancellor’s friends says he is realistic about his prospects and public unpopularity. Unlike a figure such as Gordon Brown, who became consumed by the idea that he somehow had a divine right to be leader of his party and Prime Minister, Osborne is more pragmatic. If the cards fall in such a way as to make a bid feasible, he and his team will be ready. If not, he can position himself as the kingmaker and deploy his team in support of the likely winner, thus earning their gratitude and patronage.

So flexible is the Osborne agenda that he and Boris have let it be known that over the summer their families socialised quite happily. The pair are friends, it was reported. Yet these are the same friends who were at odds when it emerged that Osborne, with the support of Michael Gove, had sworn to stop him ever becoming Tory leader. Gove himself continues to insist that he himself would never stand.

If Osborne himself is not in a position to beat Boris to the leadership, he will need a candidate who might be “the one” capable of doing it for him. Sajid Javid, the Culture Secretary, could be that man. The son of immigrants, he became a senior banker and is used to working hard and winning. However, the extent to which he is Osborne’s creation, as is often claimed, is overstated. Javid is not in politics to be anyone’s puppet. He is determined to become Tory leader and point his party back towards social mobility, a message that could appeal to new voters if it comes from a source with personal experience of such subjects. Against that, he is largely unknown and he suffers a charisma deficit compared to Boris.

Both David Davis and Liam Fox, as representatives of the Tory Right, may run again, particularly if experience is at a premium in the aftermath of a Tory defeat and hung parliament. And the much younger Elizabeth Truss, the Environment Secretary, is pondering standing. Although her speech at the party’s conference was not a success, with the section on cheese production (really) singled out for criticism, she is talented and has time to improve her presentational skills in the next few years. Before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister she too was mocked for a certain stiffness of manner.

The reader will notice that so far I have made only passing mention of ideas or policies when assessing the candidates. This is not accidental. While Javid and Truss are both believers in the need for an overhaul of British Conservatism to appeal to aspirational voters, and Davis and Fox have track records that suggest they believe in something similar, the battle for the leadership is not being conducted on the field of ideas. Neither of the interesting and emerging Conservatives who are most unashamedly intellectual — the Burkean philosopher Jesse Norman and the historian Kwasi Kwarteng — are yet quoted by their colleagues as contenders.

Instead, the race is about old-fashioned notions of raw power and the Tory tribe’s search for a winning proposition in difficult circumstances. The potential appeal of Boris, according to supporters, is that he can transcend doctrinal debates and appeal to non-Tories tired of indistinguishable modern leaders. The case for Boris thus rests on his lively personality and restless good humour.

On policy, there is major potential difficulty, however. The EU is a particularly tricky area for Boris because the Mayor’s attempts to present himself as a tough Eurosceptic are somewhat undermined by reality. In essence he is for reform and staying in, every bit as much as David Cameron, which may well end up being the position of many British voters if there is a referendum and they do not want to be on the same side as Nigel Farage. But before he runs for leader — next year or in several years’ time — Boris will come under intense pressure from Eurosceptic Tory MPs and activists battered by UKIP to explain himself.

The inheritance is not straightforward in other respects either. The main mistake made by the Tory modernisers once Cameron became leader in 2005 was their attempt to define themselves and the party they led by distancing themselves from a large part of their core vote, in an effort to prove to supposedly centrist moderates that the Tories had changed. The arrogant assumption throughout was that these disowned voters had nowhere else to go, when Nigel Farage and UKIP were on hand. The result today is a badly divided Right.

Not all of this is the Cameroons’ fault and the British Conservative experience is not unique. Elsewhere in Europe populist parties are on the rise, capitalising on fears about globalisation and identity, concerns about the impact of immigration and a generalised distaste for established authority. UKIP and the Scottish National Party are manifestions of a malaise that goes well beyond Clacton and Cowdenbeath.

This means that the next leader of the Conservative party will be confronted with an epic task. Already the two main parties are struggling in the low 30s in the polls; the Liberal Democrats are on death row; the Greens are nudging upwards; the separatists in Scotland are surging past Labour ahead of next year’s Westminster election; and UKIP is still polling upwards of 15 per cent. If the decay seemed like a temporary mid-term phenomenon it might be easy for a new leader to deal with. But it does not. The longer it carries on the more likely it is that this is a serious electoral shift, with the gravitational pull of devolution in Scotland and voters’ widespread resentment of elites combining to produce a scenario in which it will be perpetually difficult for anyone to win outright.

Only an optimistic leader with extraordinary charisma and unifying appeal could do it and bring a divided country together. Only Boris, say his supporters, stands a hope in hell of producing that piece of magic. Even former President George W. Bush is impressed by him: “He sounds kind of like Churchill, doesn’t he? Very strong use of words.” It is an entertaining illusion, say the sceptics who warn that it would be madness for an adventurer to be let loose in the highest office. And as with almost every set of circumstances in Tory affairs, there is a Churchill story to fit.

On the evening of Friday May 10, 1940, as the Germans rolled into Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, the King sent for Churchill. As he was driven to the Palace to become Prime Minister, the civil servant John Colville walked from Number 10 to the Foreign Office to see Rab Butler, then a junior minister, and Chips Channon MP, Butler’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. Butler, a supporter of appeasement, was appalled at the prospect of a Churchill premiership. Colville, who would become a devoted servant of Churchill, wrote in his diary: “Rab said that he thought the good clean tradition of English politics, that of Pitt as opposed to Fox, had been sold to the greatest adventurer of modern political history . . .  they had weakly surrendered to a half-breed American whose main support was that of inefficient but talkative people of a similar type.”

Churchill’s moment of destiny had come. The “half-breed American” became Prime Minister. Rab Butler never did. And Boris Johnson was born in America.