The first time I can remember hysterically shouting at a Tory in a restaurant – I’m not going to insult anyone by pretending it was the last – was the night they counted the vote in the 2008 London mayoral election. For eight years the capital had been run by Ken Livingstone, who’d done all sorts of great things – introducing the congestion charge, sorting out the buses, bidding for the Olympics – while also being a firmly independent voice for the capital. OK, he could be a bit weird sometimes, and there were dark mutterings about his views about the Jewish community (although at least at that stage he could still be trusted to get through an interview without bringing up Hitler), but he’d done a good job.
At that point, all the polls said, the capital was going to throw him out in favour of this clown off the telly. And this was the 2000s: the Tories didn’t win anything in the 2000s.
So after we’d learnt that Johnson had indeed beaten Livingstone by 53 to 47 per cent in the run-off, and after I’d been in the pub for some time, I found myself growing increasingly infuriated with a friend of a friend for no greater crime than being pleased by the result and not rising to my bullshit. It’s tempting, looking back, to see this as an early insight into the derangement effect Boris Johnson would spend the next 15 years or so having on some of us. Then again, perhaps I was just being a dick.
In 2008 it was still easy to dismiss this as, if not a fluke, then at least an outlier, an intrusion of showbiz into politics. Livingstone may have been a name in a way few politicians could claim, but Johnson wasn’t just that – he was a gameshow host, who’d first hit the public consciousness presenting Have I Got News For You and been so good at it he’d been nominated for a Bafta for best entertainment performance. He lost to Jonathan Ross. (It is strangely bleak to look at the nominees, every one of whom is still on our screens, and realise how little our culture has moved on in the past two decades. The only differences are that Stephen Fry quit QI, while Boris Johnson has quit Downing Street.)
Johnson wasn’t a great mayor. He banned drinking on the tube, cancelled a bunch of proposed capital schemes, but didn’t do much else. If he still won easily in 2012, well, Labour’s candidate was Livingstone again, so it was easy to dismiss that, too.
It was only really with the 2016 Brexit referendum, when Johnson famously picked a side by writing opposing columns and seeing which he found more convincing, that two things really sank in. One was that, maybe, he really did have a connection to the electorate that some of us who found him ridiculous had underestimated. The other was that we had, if anything, overestimated his moral fibre and commitment to principle.
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Both those characteristics – his unique political talents and his fundamental cowardice – have been much in evidence in his six years at the top of politics. On the one hand, he broke the Brexit deadlock, taking his party from fifth in the 2019 European parliamentary elections to winning an 80-seat Westminster majority in less than seven months, and he expelled 21 moderate Tory MPs to do it.
On the other, though, he dropped out of the 2016 Tory leadership race in a panic at no longer having the support of Michael Gove; he resigned as foreign secretary in 2018, ostensibly because David Davis had resigned first and he didn’t want to be left behind; and the day before the 2019 election, to get away from a TV camera, he literally hid in a fridge.
He amassed all that political capital, all that power, only for it to become clear he didn’t have the first idea what to do with it, other than to keep threatening an election, because campaigning was much more fun than governing. Even this week as he refused to accept that it was over, it was never clear why he was digging his heels in, beyond a toddler-like need to get his own way. At his most terrifying, it sometimes felt like Johnson could be a true demagogue, bypassing party and parliament to enforce his agenda by appealing directly to the people. The thing that saved us, it turned out, was that he didn’t have an agenda to enforce. Perhaps this was his secret: a demagogue whose only goal is to cosplay as Prime Minister just wasn’t threatening enough to put enough swing voters off.
It’s still not really over, of course: he’s still in office, and even once he goes I’m not convinced he’ll stay gone. Both Churchill and Cicero, favourites of Johnson’s, had years in the wilderness when everyone assumed that they were finished, so it would be in keeping with Johnson’s self-image for him to keep writing columns with the subtext that surely one day his country will call him back in the hour of its greatest need. That doesn’t seem likely to me but, well, I’ve spent 15 years being wrong about this man, so who knows.
In some ways Johnson’s downfall fixes nothing. Britain will still be governed by Tories; quite possibly, indeed, by worse Tories. But few of his party have single-handedly left quite so many scars on the body politic in the service of no greater cause than their own desire for advancement. I’ve been waiting to see this man humbled, ever since it started to seem seriously possible that he might actually get the keys to my city. There are very few things in life I have done for that long. So please forgive me if I enjoy it.
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