Few prime ministers, at least in recent decades, have come to power with opinion so sharply divided on their suitability to do the job as it is with Boris Johnson. Few have come to it facing problems as daunting. And few have arrived with such poor political cards in their hand. So should we view the prospect of the Johnson premiership with alarm or with hope? And what should he do to give himself the best chance of success in the role he has craved all his life?
The case for Boris Johnson can be simply made. That’s to say, it is simply made by Mr Johnson himself. Britain’s problem is that it has lost its self-confidence, its belief that it can succeed. In the words he used on the steps of Number Ten after his appointment, he spoke of ‘the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters’ who are doing Britain down. What’s needed is a leader with the imagination and boldness to shake us out of our pessimism, to paint a picture of the sunny uplands and to lead us there undaunted by the little local difficulties that presume to stand in our way.
The great Johnson contribution is to instil in us, through his gung-ho rhetoric, the anti-defeatist, can-do attitudes that his hero, Winston Churchill, invoked in the British people through his own rhetoric in the dark days of 1940. Boris Johnson is the man to cheer us all up and get us all going.
His supporters in the Conservative Party – and he won the leadership election by a comfortable two-to-one margin among party members against Jeremy Hunt – claim that the case for him, and for his ability to rally people to his optimistic-sounding cause, is proven by his record. Twice, they point out, he persuaded a predominantly Labour-voting London to elect him as its Tory mayor. And polls suggest that his appeal in the country at large stretches way beyond the traditional Conservative vote and takes in many young people who would never consider themselves Tory.
Nor, they argue, is Mr Johnson merely a proven election winner (inestimable an asset as that is to a party that was annihilated in the recent European elections). He has a record of achievement to his name. London’s image was burnished during his time as mayor and his practical achievements were many including, to give one example, building more social housing than his Labour predecessor.
‘Boris’, they say, is that unorthodox sort of politician who can ‘change the weather’, just as Donald Trump has in America. It may not always be pretty and it may sometimes seem chaotic, but politicians of this type can shake things up so that how politics is done and what it can achieve change forever. After three dull years under Theresa May, that’s what Britain now needs. Unsurprisingly, President Trump was among the first to hail Mr Johnson’s election as Tory leader, saying: ‘We have a really good man who’s going to be the prime minister of the UK now. Boris Johnson. Good man, he’s tough, he’s smart. They’re saying Britain Trump. They call him Britain Trump… He’s going to do a good job.’
If that, then, is a broad summary of why those who admire Boris Johnson do so, what is the case of those who take a diametrically opposite view? It is, in short, that the man is an unprincipled scoundrel, and an incompetent and ineffectual one to boot.
This issue of his moral probity has always dogged Mr Johnson’s career. It’s partly to do with his colourful private life, his many affairs and children born to him outside his marriage. It’s partly a reflection of his conduct as a journalist, when he was caught making up quotations and inventing stories (especially about Brussels and the EU) later shown to be wholly untrue. And it’s partly about his conduct as a politician. He lied to his former leader, Michael Howard; he has made up claims that were untrue and promises that were undeliverable. And he is accused of lacking any convictions whatsoever.
He was once asked what his convictions were and he joked he thought he’d got one for speeding many years ago. Famously, scratching his head about which side to back in the EU referendum in 2016, he wrote two articles making the case for each side. He was then accused of plumping for ‘Leave’ (and successfully leading its campaign) simply because he calculated that this suited his personal political ambitions better. Many have said of him that Boris Johnson is primarily in politics for Boris Johnson.
There have, of course, been plenty of morally dodgy characters who have made it to No 10 – Disraeli and Lloyd George come to mind. But they were also political geniuses who left their country a much better place than they found it. Mr Johnson’s critics, however, say that far from being a genius he is useless, citing his time as foreign secretary as evidence (few come to his defence) and even his period as Mayor of London which ,they say, was more show than substance. In the view of observers as diverse as Jo Swinson, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, and Sir Max Hastings, his former boss as editor of the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph, Mr Johnson is quite simply ‘unfit’ for the office.
In short, then, opinion could hardly be more divided about whether or not Boris Johnson should be welcomed as Britain’s new prime minister. No new incumbent has been regarded with such utter contempt by a large part of the public; but equally, many see him as a saviour in our new ‘darkest hour’.
That it is a ‘dark hour’ can hardly be disputed. After three years of negotiation that have failed to settle the matter, Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on 31 October without a deal and in a way that almost all commentators conclude would have consequences ranging from the damaging to the catastrophic.
After returning from the Palace as Prime Minister, Mr Johnson reiterated the claim he made throughout the leadership campaign that Britain would leave on that date, ‘no ifs, no buts’. He also said repeatedly over the past few weeks that the chances of our leaving without a deal were ‘a million to one’. When challenged about how this seemingly impossible circle could be squared, he has resorted to his trademark booster rhetoric, hence his talk on the steps of Downing Street about doubters, doomsters and the like. But no one seems to know what, if anything, he has in mind to solve the problem.
The difficulty can be easily summarised. If he is relying on new negotiations producing a new agreement with the EU, then he faces several seemingly insurmountable hurdles. In the first place, the EU has said repeatedly that it will not reopen the main agreement already made with Theresa May’s government (though not, of course, endorsed by parliament). But even if it changed its mind, there is not time enough to negotiate anything more than cosmetic changes before the end of October. And even if cosmetic changes were rushed through, they’d be unlikely to get past the Commons because those hard-line Brexiteers cheering on Mr Johnson now, would cry foul and refuse to back him just as they did with Theresa May.
On the other hand, if Mr Johnson has already decided that renegotiation is a dead end , that he doesn’t expect a new deal, and is, despite what he has said, intent on taking Britain out of the EU on 31 October without a deal, then he will come up against the determined opposition of the House of Commons. MPs have repeatedly voted against such an outcome and the numbers of those who would oppose the new prime minister have been bolstered by his former colleagues, led by Theresa May’s chancellor, Philip Hammond, who returned to the backbenches expressly in order prevent such an outcome.
It is Mr Johnson’s good fortune that Parliament is set to rise for the summer the very week he has become prime minister. But it will be back and many are predicting that sooner or later he will lose a vote of confidence in the Commons and that his premiership may turn out to be one of the shortest on record.
There is, however, one risky strategy being touted as a way for him to break free. It is not to wait to be defeated in the Commons but to acknowledge that his tiny majority there is his fundamental problem, to which the obvious solution is to call an election himself.
The case in favour is that he would be seen to take the initiative. He could turn the legitimacy argument against him (that he came to power only through the votes of 140,000 party members) on its head by arguing that the public should be able to decide its new prime minister. He could claim too that he needed the public’s backing for a ‘No Deal’ Brexit and that an election was the best way to secure it. And he could exploit Labour’s current weakness and the fact that Jeremy Corbyn is an increasing electoral liability to his party.
Against this is the argument that he has repeatedly said he didn’t want to call an election until after Brexit had happened. He would risk boosting the appeal of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party who would argue that calling an election proved that the Tories couldn’t be trusted to deliver Brexit. And he might well find thousands of Remain Tories abandoning their old allegiance in favour of Jo Swinson’s LibDems, with their slogan ‘Stop Brexit’.
So it would be a gamble, but then Mr Johnson is temperamentally a gambler.
How, then, should we regard our new prime minister? Is he the incorrigible optimistic whose character, style and brio are exactly what Britain needs at this difficult time? Or is he an unprincipled opportunist whose record suggests that it is all bound to end in tears? Or is neither of these accounts the right one? And, given the tight fix he’s found himself inheriting, with a looming deadline over Brexit and virtually no majority in the House of Commons, should Mr Johnson take the risk and call an election?
What’s your view? Let us know.