Boris Johnson’s political voyage has entered troubled waters. The Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new darling of the members, is now the bookies’ favourite to be the next Tory leader at 5/1, while Johnson is back in the field at 7/1.
One might expect the Brexiteer-in-chief to get a regular mauling from the left, including this magazine, which has accused him of being “disloyal, lazy and lightweight”. But Johnson has also had to put up with a cacophony of attacks and hostile briefings from Tory MPs, and even his former colleagues at the Spectator and Daily Telegraph.
Perhaps the most hurtful came from his old Telegraph editor, Max Hastings, who called his former star Brussels correspondent “a gold medal egomaniac”, a man guilty of “manic sexual adventuring” and no more than a “brilliant maître d’” as mayor of London. Even the Spectator editor, Fraser Nelson, a Johnson fan, suggested that he’d “blown it” as a potential prime minister.
I disagree with this verdict. I believe that, in the event of any new vacancy at No 10 before the next election, the time is not far away when Tory MPs will realise they must start getting behind Boris if they are to defeat Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. In many ways, Johnson regards voters as an editor regards floating readers: they are there to be drawn in, persuaded, teased, entertained and signed up as subscribers to his non-puritan view of the world.
This appeal is welcome outside the Westminster bubble where politics is not taken as seriously. The more it looks possible that Corbyn (a populist) will win the next election, the more likely the Tories are (through gritted teeth) to put their own populist in the Circus Maximus against him.
Part of the opprobrium that comes Johnson’s way – certainly from the left – is that many cannot quite forgive him for having such liberal, cultural and cosmopolitan credentials, including a half-Indian wife and Turkish ancestry, while also emerging as the chief cabinet Brexiteer. As Rees-Mogg, his close ally, told me: “Much of the criticism is unfair as Boris has become the lightning conductor for all those that don’t like Brexit… People feel rightly, that without his charisma, it would have been much harder to win the referendum. His charisma is the Conservative Party’s greatest electoral asset.”
Even better news for Johnson, ironically, has been the Westminster sexual harassment scandal. Many thought that skeletons might come tumbling out of his closet. The opposite has been the case: his name was hardly mentioned (although alluded to in the dossier that circulated among journalists), which suggests that a line in both media and parliamentary circles has been drawn under his colourful personal life.
This is crucial: his philandering past was always thought to be an obstacle to his Downing Street ambitions. While Johnson has been criticised for the way he has treated women over the years, the truth is that even those he has let down, or betrayed – including his ex-wife and present wife – and who you think might wish him ill, have remained supportive.
I know this because I was embroiled in what one tabloid called Johnson’s “Amazing Love Pentagon”, after I went out with the dynamo art dealer Helen Macintyre, mother of the MP’s love-child daughter. Say what you like about his morals, but Johnson has impeccable taste in beautiful, intelligent and sparky women. My relationship with Macintyre ended rather abruptly in July 2010 after Johnson’s affair with her was exposed on the front page of the Sunday Mirror. All I can say is that Johnson has an extraordinary ability to command both loyalty and love from the complicated web of relationships in his life, despite his erring ways.
Although Nick Clegg tried to insult Johnson by calling him “Donald Trump with a thesaurus”, the former deputy prime minister made the wrong presidential comparison. Ronald Reagan used the governorship of California as a platform for political education and a road to the highest office; Johnson did something similar with the London mayoralty.
Like Reagan, Johnson is a showman, political actor, entertainer and delegator. Johnson’s call to “unleash” the British lion’s spirit is similar to Reagan’s mantra of unleashing the American entrepreneurial dream within every household.
The left fears Johnson because it knows he is the one Tory politician who operates culturally, rather than merely politically. Indeed, he is the one true celebrity politician in the cabinet. Such fame comes with a price to pay: vilification. Much of the hostility towards Johnson, says Rees-Mogg, is a strange mixture of jealousy and attempted political assassination. He infuriates his civil service and Foreign Office enemies by being such a charismatic (if flawed) player on the world stage. To win, the Conservatives need to elect a leader who can wage war culturally as well as politically. Only Johnson fits the bill.
William Cash is editor-in-chief of Spear’s magazine
This article appears in the 29 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world