Well, will it? Boris Johnson was a populist Mayor of London when, arguably, populism meant making people feel good about their city, and part of it. It was, on occasions, a joy to hear him beating the drum for our capital city. His genial presence oversaw the phenomenally successful 2012 London Olympics: hell, he even made a PR success out of getting very publicly stuck on a zip-wire. He seemed to charm everyone: a group of students from Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School on an art trip bumped into Boris on the South Bank, and he wowed them with his larger-than-life personality. He could play the buffoon, too, and still run a colossal city.
Or so it appeared. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, of course: but many commentators (better informed than I) would say that most of the significant reforms in London (including the Olympics and, crucially, improvements in housing provision) had started under his controversial predecessor, Labour’s Ken Livingstone. Then there were his significant wastes of money – on water cannon he wasn’t allowed to use, the Garden Bridge that never got off the ground but still cost tax-payers in excess of £50million – not to mention barmy ideas like the plan for a Boris Island airport.
Visionary or loony? Sometimes it’s hard to tell with charismatic figures (and he’s undoubtedly that): but there’s a steely, calculating side, which became evident in the run up to the Brexit referendum. He sat on the fence for as long as he could, and then joined the “winning” side, coming out for Brexit. And then there came the Boris exaggerations, not least the £350m a week (posted on the side of his campaign bus) which would come back from the EU as soon as we leave. (It won’t, by the way).
There was the “colourful” use of language when commenting on race, culture and Europeans (letter-boxes, burglars, punishment beatings), all unacceptable from a public figure. There’s powerful evidence that he was an embarrassingly hopeless Home Secretary, mainly because he refused to do his homework and learn his brief: he insisted on firing from the hip. Then there are the lies and betrayals in his past career and in his personal life.
OK otherwise? In a sane world, that dodgy past would rule someone out from being a credible candidate to run the country, even if he could cling by his fingertips to Cabinet post. But these aren’t sane times. Parliament has proved itself incapable of resolving the Brexit conundrum, and the Tory party is in complete meltdown, wilfully tearing itself apart with a kind of manic glee. So the charismatic Boris, written off only a couple of years ago (mostly because he was widely deemed untrustworthy), is now presented as the party’s saviour.
According to the Sunday Times, a Boris-led Tory party would bounce back to a vote-share of 21%, not a brilliant score, but only 3% behind Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, and a much better showing than even a week ago. Notwithstanding his gaffe-strewn record, he’s being touted as “the man to see off Farage”. The right-wing press is pushing hard the notion of the party abandoning further votes, and giving its 160,000 members a choice of one to be, not just party leader, but PM.
Politics is now beyond satire. So, when Hugo Rifkind writes, in his spoof Boris diary in Saturday’s Times, “Lynton [Crosby, his campaign manager] calls… and says I should safeguard my support by staying completely quiet in public until I’ve won. And ideally afterwards, too,” it reads almost as truth.
The political and journalistic classes almost unanimously repeat the mantra that “the people voted for Brexit”, on the basis of a 52/48% split that wouldn’t even allow you to change the constitution of your local golf-club. Politicians and members of the public claim that “we” (not me) just “want them to get on with it”, and that we’ll cope with the probably disastrous economic consequences of a no-deal Brexit “like we did before” [i.e. as if it were a re-run of the Second World War].
The lunatics have taken over the Tory asylum, so the insane choice of leader appears inevitable. And, if there were a General Election, Boris just might get Britain’s backing, despite the fact that he shouldn’t be trusted to run a whelk-stall, let alone a country. The alternatives are a Corbyn-led opposition that, almost as divided as the Tories, still won’t come clean on Brexit (except to claim still that it would “negotiate a better Brexit”) or, heaven forfend, a bigoted Farage-led administration – unless the electorate decides to embrace the only centrist party left standing, the LibDems, at a time when centrism and moderation appear out of fashion. Under such circumstances, it is indeed possible that bluff Boris will bounce into leading Britain, buffoonery and all, stay there for the foreseeable future and preside over the inevitable decline, all the while mouthing empty platitudes about freedom from vassalage.