Brace Yourself For A Stint Of Bad Government
If Boris Johnson is the answer, what was the question? To the 92153 party members think the new Conservative leader offers a remedy to two ailments: persistent membership of the EU and shrunken Tory popularity.
About a third of Conservative members were unconvinced by this plan and with good reason. Johnson’s promise to “deliver” Brexit by 31 October cannot be kept. The UK might cancel its European treaty obligations on that date, but there is no closure while the future relationship is unsettled. The less amicable the separation, the harder the negotiations that follow. There are people who believe that Johnson is the best person for that job and there are people who have worked with him and understand what is involved. There is no overlap between the two groups.
Ministers who witnessed the new Tory leader in action as foreign secretary testify to laziness, inattention to detail, contempt for relationships, congenital unseriousness and dangerous indiscretion. Johnson could not be trusted to stay focused in national security briefings, nor to keep their contents secret. A vote last week to obstruct dissolution of parliament in the run-up to the Brexit deadline revealed the low esteem in which he is held, even on his own side.
But Johnson has an irrepressible knack for failing upwards. A shrewd Westminster veteran once warned me against underestimating the phenomenon, observing that “the pattern of Boris’s career has been people predicting that he can’t possibly do something, followed by him doing it.”
The charge that Johnson is a flagrant charlatan and has given licence to racists can be true without those traits inhibiting electoral success. His target audience is a coalition of voters who don’t believe it or don’t care. The accusation that he defies diplomatic norms is even less effective. In historical terms, now might be a uniquely bad moment to experiment with maverick leadership. Britain is adrift between an aggressively protectionist US and a European project destabilised by nationalism. Economic storm clouds are gathering on the horizon. We are only beginning to grasp the extent to which digital revolution is reordering societies and in denial about the consequences for democracy if that transformation is shaped by China. There is a climate emergency. Under the circumstances, it would be handy to have a prime minister with perspective and humility regarding the UK’s capacity for unilateral action.
Instead we have a man whose strategic horizon goes no further than his own ego; who does not distinguish between personal gratification and fulfilment of national destiny. From that perspective, success does not flow from plans, alliances and evidence, but from an optimistic spirit, for which the effervescing source is Boris himself.