Although appearances often suggest otherwise, nothing that Boris Johnson says or does is without deep political calculation. His declaration that “I’m not particularly interested in this civil liberties stuff” was a classic of the genre. The remark, made during an interview with Sky News at yesterday’s Trafalgar Square rally, positioned him firmly at the authoritarian end of the Conservative spectrum.
“You have got to have a very tough security solution, to be absolutely determined to monitor these people, know where they are, know who they’re talking to,” he said. “I’m not particularly interested in this civil liberties stuff when it comes to these people’s emails and mobile phone conversations. If they are a threat to our society then I want them properly listened to.” In another interview, he remarked: “There are a lot of civil liberties nuts these days who say that we should hang back. I’m personally in favour of surveying these people and knowing who they are and what they’re doing.”
The Mayor of London did not always talk such a tough game on security. In 2005, he denounced Tony Blair for planning to remove “our 800-year-old freedoms” by detaining terrorist suspects without trial. But more recently, he demanded an end to the presumption of innocence for those visiting Iraq and Syria (so that they are presumed jihadists). This volte-face cannot be separated from Johnson’s unofficial struggle with Theresa May for the title of Conservative leader-in-waiting. The Mayor recognises that the Home Secretary, the longest-serving occupant of that office since Rab Butler, represents the greatest threat to his planned seizure of the Tory crown in the event of election defeat. Even after recent stumbles over the child abuse inquiry and the European Arrest Warrant vote, May led Johnson by 11 points in the most recent ConservativeHome leadership poll.
By presenting himself as a man prepared to do “whatever it takes” to defeat terrorism, untroubled by liberal appeasers, he aims to check one of May’s greatest strengths: her reputation as a resolute defender of law and order. There is little appetite among Tory MPs and even less among the grassroots for the libertarianism still espoused by former leadership candidate David Davis. In a close contest, the Mayor, whose chief weakness remains his perceived lack of seriousness, cannot be afford to be outflanked by May on a matter as grave as national security. With his populist jibe at “this civil liberties stuff”, Johnson has served notice that he will not be.