Imagine the scene. Standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street in the late summer downpour is the new prime minister, fresh from his triumphant seizure of the Conservative leadership. Thrusting his head forward in the bull-like stance once favoured by his hero Winston Churchill, Boris Johnson lifts his arm to wave to the news cameras. “Where’s Carrie?” a journalist shouts out, referring to the surprising absence of Johnson’s glossy young partner. It is not the only question that goes unanswered that day, or the weeks that follow. After the razzmatazz of the Johnson leadership campaign, little in the way of plans, let alone policies, have emerged from the uber-secretive new regime, even though the deadline to leave the EU on 31 October is now just three months away.
After a fortnight of promising to work “flat out” on finding a solution to the Brexit impasse, Johnson disappears on holiday abroad leaving chaos behind him. His premiership has already triggered a rash of official resignations and sackings, leading to the departure of most of those who dared speak truth unto power as well as virtually anyone senior who knew how the EU works and how to negotiate with it. Some of his cabinet places also remain unfilled after scandals involving a number of his more hardline appointments. Relations with Ireland dip even further after an imperialist “joke” falls flat, and the EU is hardening its position, spurred on by several European leaders’ visceral dislike of the new British PM. Johnson’s promised tax cuts for the well-off have yet to be funded, the economy is contracting and the markets are jittery with the pound in freefall.
Johnson’s exhortations to “just believe in Britain” — and a base-pleasing edict that fruit and veg are now only to be sold in pounds and ounces — are no longer having the desired effect, even with the reheating of some of his oldest and favourite jokes. His critics are dubbing him the “do-nothing” PM and even the Brexiteers are getting twitchy. And now there are rumours that, when parliament returns, Prime Minister’s Questions may be curtailed and press conferences cancelled. Could all this be possible?
Yes, even probable. At the time of writing, Johnson remains the favourite for the job. What possible revelation could derail his march to Downing Street, given that he has already been found repeatedly guilty of lying, cheating, disloyalty, laziness, indiscretion, incompetence and callous disregard for others, without any apparent ill-effect? MPs, who once spat blood at his very name, now line up to endorse his candidature. Perhaps they believe that only Johnson can magically save them from death by Brexit Party, but there have also been serious suggestions, albeit denied, of Team Johnson playing dirty, using private information against normally sensible moderates to extract their support.
If a Johnson premiership is almost inevitable after his near-twenty year leadership bid at least we have plenty of evidence to suggest what it will be like. Indeed, the scene portrayed above is in large part based on events following Johnson’s coronation as mayor of London in 2008. Take his record on respecting civil servants or making sensible appointments — surely key requisites in a prime minister overseeing Whitehall and appointing a cabinet. On his arrival at City Hall, Johnson referred to a ruthless round of sackings as “euthanising dogs in the manger” — a reference that civil servants at the Treasury, which Johnson has ominously started calling the “heart of Remain”, might like to ponder.
This was followed by an unedifying drama over his chosen replacements involving several high-profile resignations, accusations of racism and lying and at least one criminal conviction. Some of the positions remained unfilled for months. Eventually, one experienced civil servant resorted to taking him out to dinner and forcefully instructing him to get a grip and start acting like a mayor with a city of eight million people to run, rather than a personal fiefdom.
Even then, Johnson was often distracted, obviously bored by important briefings such as on policing or transport, and absent from his desk (including on a family holiday shortly after taking office and at the height of the staffing crisis). Fortunately, others eventually rode in to pick up the reins but the result of his disengagement was that many of London’s most persistent problems — pollution, homelessness, congestion — were left largely untended. Attempts to press him on his “do-nothing” regime were met by stonewalling or absences, media access was limited to reliably friendly reporters and virtually all press conferences (seen as difficult to control) were, indeed, abolished. Real accountability was almost impossible.
Any new prime minister will, of course, immediately have to face up to Britain’s gravest crisis since the Second World War, requiring exceptional personal qualities. But looking back at his record shows us that Johnson was woefully absent during the greatest challenge during his London mayoralty.
He refused to return from another holiday when intense rioting broke out in London in the summer of 2011, and when he finally did — hearing tales of appalling violence and destruction, he appeared out of his depth — he was caught on camera smirking inappropriately at the words of a hairdresser who had a brick thrown through her salon window by an angry mob and could not get in contact with the police. He had no comfort or answer to offer her and the mood began to turn against him — but exercising his genius for populist PR he swiftly brandished a clean-up broom in front of the cameras so that his failings were quickly forgotten in the cheers. When the cameras went, so did he. Similarly, today he has apparently little idea on how to repair the social wreckage caused by 12 years of austerity, other than perversely offering the top 10 per cent of earners an unfunded £9bn tax cut.
And when the prime minister rises to address the House of Commons, or the nation, we are surely entitled to expect to count on his or her probity (at least in large part). Yet how can we do so with Johnson — who was sacked from the Times for lying, from Michael Howard’s shadow ministerial team for lying, was reprimanded by the UK Statistics Authority and the Commons home affairs committee for lying when he was mayor, and who even lied about voting in the recent local elections (tweeting that he had voted in London where no contests were held). All that without even mentioning the untruth about £350m for the NHS on the side of the Brexit bus. When brave souls have tried to pin Johnson down about his dishonesty he has retaliated with a volley of abuse, calling his opponents stupid, frigid, Labour stooges or in need of “care in the community”. Mayoral Question Times were marked by his gurning lack of time or respect for the London Assembly, whose constitutional job was to hold him to account.
Whether the UK leaves the EU or not, we will need to spend the next decades repairing the bridges we have burned with our friends and neighbours. Outside the EU, we will be desperate for allies in an increasingly cold and hostile world. And yet the BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary Inside the Foreign Office — which Johnson understandably hates — shows us the bewildered faces of diplomats struggling to limit the damage he caused to his country abroad while foreign secretary. Lazy, undisciplined, inclined to make gratuitous offence through references to a colonial past here, or comparisons with Hitler’s Germany there, or suggesting that Libya could be the next Dubai once they “clear the dead bodies away”, he seemed determined to alienate as many foreigners as possible. Now we know that counterparts in Europe believe him to be so duplicitous and arrogant that they refuse even to be in the same room as him. Their dislike will hardly be tempered by his excitement at the idea of adopting a Trump-inspired approach to the EU, involving going in “bloody hard” and causing “all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos” to achieve his aims.
We normally elect prime ministers to avoid chaos, of course, yet on his track record Johnson seems to actively pursue it, including in his private life. In London’s City Hall and in today’s slimmed-down Foreign Office, it was just possible to contain the damage. In Downing Street we may not be so lucky — particularly if he sacks anyone who dares try.
Sonia Purnell is the author of Just Boris: a Tale of Blond Ambition
This piece is taken from the Johnson audit series