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22 January 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 4:19pm

Nobody’s laughing anymore: why Boris Johnson should come clean

Johnson is a chancer and a charlatan. If he wants to be leader, he should own up to his ambitions. 

By Sebastian Whale

Boris Johnson’s faux self-deprecation at the beginning of his speech to Tory party conference last year irritates me to this day.

“I want to congratulate my friend Philip Hammond for predicting that I will never become Prime Minister,” he began after descending on the annual event in a bid to gain maximum attention. “It was the first Treasury forecast for some time to have a distinct ring of truth.”

Johnson’s aspirations to become prime minister are Westminster’s worst kept secret. He was transparent about them during a 2013 BBC documentary about, unsurprisingly, himself: “If the ball came loose from the back of the scrum, which it won’t of course, it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at,” he said. He gave the game further away when running to become Conservative leader (and by association, prime minister) two years ago.

It is more than ten years since Johnson became mayor of London. That means talk of his would-be leadership of the Tories has been with us for more than a decade. Even before he entered City Hall, punters were speculating about whether Johnson had what it takes to get to the top (his self-belief was never doubted). It is stunning that somebody has sustained talk of their own aspirations in public discourse for this long; a psychodrama that, like many others before it, has survived too many seasons.

Even the EU referendum became The Boris Show. So wedded to his belief in Leave was Johnson that he wrote an unpublished Telegraph article in favour of Remain, days before backing leaving in a published version. The Conservative Party is the conduit by which he can achieve his aim. Brexit is merely the means.

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His tenuous relationship with truth is never far away. In yet another wide-ranging speech that was absolutely not a leadership pitch, the former Vote Leave man on Friday denied talking about Turkish accession to the EU during the referendum campaign. A cursory glance at his musings during this period suggests otherwise. Notwithstanding a joint letter on the matter with Michael Gove to David Cameron, Johnson warned in April 2016: “I am very pro-Turkish but what I certainly can’t imagine is a situation in which 77 million of my fellow Turks and those of Turkish origin can come here without any checks at all. That is mad – that won’t work.”

Conventions like telling the truth seem negligible to Johnson. He will emerge from this latest prevarication unscathed, such is the disjointed nature of political discourse that he has played a leading role in creating. His disregard for the impact of such proclamations knows no bounds.

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Johnson’s approach is also beset by cowardice. He quit the government in a mad hurry after David Davis beat him to the punch, yet still managed to ensure a photographer was on hand to “witness” the occasion. He pulled out at the first sign of resistance during the 2016 contest. At the time, Westminster was caught up with the Machiavellian behaviour of Michael Gove. But the truth is, Johnson’s fellow Brexiteer gave him the perfect out. Rather than have his ideas and person put to the test, Johnson could exit the scene, apparently knifed in the back, and swallow his deep-rooted ambitions – for the time being, at least.

In doing so, Johnson prolonged an intransigent wart – the Brexit debate, which today helps to sustain his relevance.

If he no longer harbours pretensions of leadership, Johnson should say so. Yet his ambivalent indulgence of this end ensures that every word he writes in his weekly Telegraph column is chewed over as if it were a personal manifesto. Every act is viewed through the prism of his coveting of Theresa May’s job.

He could bring an end to this if he so pleased. But I suspect it is neither his desire nor his interest to do so.

Johnson’s appeal with members of the Conservative Party is undisputed. But there is little evidence he could attract support from beyond the Tories’ right flank.

The time is coming for Johnson to be transparent about his ambitions – or put them to rest once and for all. His country and his party deserve for this self-indulgence to come to a much overdue close. Johnson: it is time to piss, or get off the pot.

Sebastian Whale is politics editor of The House magazine.