Some people feel that Boris Johnson can do no wrong. They are often those who live vicariously through the celebrities seen on television and followed on the internet, and for whom entertainment is an important distraction. Most entertainment is harmless – no wars have been started or economies wrecked by I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! or Strictly Come Dancing. However, our education in citizenship should extend to understanding that when a politician becomes entertainment first and foremost there is a danger that he, or she, may lack the requisites of statesmanship.
I first met Johnson in the late 1980s, when the Daily Telegraph rescued him after the Times sacked him. He had invented a quotation from an eminent historian who was also his godfather. The quotation made the historian seem foolish because it was factually wrong. This is the kind of anecdote that causes the fan club to coo about the legend of “Boris”. Unfortunately, it also shows that he will manipulate and use anybody, even those to whom he is closely beholden, if it helps him. It suggests that he is lazy and dishonest, traits that few former colleagues in journalism or politics would dispute.
In that every vote matters, it is little wonder that the campaign to leave the European Union was so thrilled to receive Johnson’s belated – and confused – endorsement last month. However, he did what the campaign views as the right thing for the wrong reason. When Johnson worked with me in the mid-1990s an Oxford contemporary warned me about him, saying that he was the most rampantly ambitious person he had ever met and that he believed in nothing apart from himself. His behaviour over the referendum is, at least, consistent.
He seems, however, to be coming unstuck. His hesitation about whether to back the Leave campaign did him a grave disservice, in contrast to Michael Gove’s magnificently principled and articulate commitment the previous day. The confected press conference that Johnson gave to announce his decision was vulgar and it represented him as lacking sincerity. I have no idea whether, at the time of writing, Johnson genuinely believes (for the good of the nation) in leaving the EU. If he does, he has an odd way of demonstrating his conviction.
Then there was the “two referendums” question: the argument that we should vote to leave, in order to be offered better terms than the pitiful ones that David Cameron has secured, and then vote again. The Prime Minister trashed this, providing a rare moment when most of the Leave campaign would have agreed with him. Johnson tried to explain himself, including in a frivolous Times interview. A man so apparently clever as he is should have recalled the maxim that if you are in a hole, you stop digging.
Johnson has not made a stunning impact on his colleagues since returning to the Commons last May. Three or four mediocrities on the back benches have been busily spinning for him since his botched declaration as an Outer: these are people whose only hope of office is if Johnson ever leads their party, and their peers discount them accordingly. Other MPs feel that his understanding of how poorly he has performed since his return, and the likelihood that the next Tory leader will be an Outer, drove him to take the course he did.
One MP told me that he expects Johnson to change his mind and declare he is voting In before the campaign ends, if victory for Cameron looks certain. I suspect even Johnson would avoid that, having an eye on the medium and not the short term, and recognising he would have trouble salvaging his credibility after such a U-turn. But it speaks volumes for the disdain with which some of his colleagues view him, a feeling deepened in the past fortnight, even among those who share what he claims is his view on Europe.
To reach the point where a plebiscite of the Conservative membership can elect Johnson as leader, he must be one of the last two names in a ballot of MPs. Given how negatively many colleagues regard him, that may not be so easy as it once seemed. There are MPs, beyond his prominent “stooges” (to use a Johnsonian term), who have reservations about him but intend to support him because their activists find him entertaining. They acknowledge his ability to lead what Arnold Bennett called “the great cause of cheering us all up”. But being prime minister is about a little bit more than that.
There seems little evidence, if we are to judge his potential as a national leader by his record as Mayor of London, that it would be a rule of transparency, achievement and progress. Johnson has relied on a string of deputy mayors to do his job for him. His vanity projects – such as the “Boris bikes” – have come at a disproportionate cost to taxpayers. He has the brains to embrace detail but has displayed no temperament to do so. His wife, Marina Wheeler QC, has made a far more eloquent case against the EU, in a recent essay about European law, than Boris has ever done, or appears capable of doing.
Most in doubt, though, is his judgement: and this is because he is so self-serving that he cannot be relied on to put any other consideration first. One is more likely to see a fish taking a walk than Johnson taking a correct but unpopular decision. A growing number of his parliamentary colleagues know this and it is an especially keen realisation among those who have felt the realities of holding high office. They are convinced he is not up to it, and that he is not straight or reliable, and dread Tory activists handing him the keys of Downing Street.
None of this is to say that Johnson won’t make it. If he does, however, everything in his political and moral history suggests that it would be a spectacular episode: and not in an entertaining way.
Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs
This article appears in the 02 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis