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The Boris backlash

David Cameron’s mission to destroy Boris Johnson as a serious political force.

Boris Johnson must be destroyed. Or rather, Boris Johnson must be given the opportunity to destroy himself. David Cameron has a gift amounting to genius for disposing of rivals by placing them in a position where they have no good course of action. In a friendly and reasonable tone, he tempts them to take a step that may seem to promise great things, but turns out to be fatal. Anyone who doubts this should think of what happened to Nick Clegg, who had 57 MPs when he accepted Cameron’s “big, open and
comprehensive offer” to join the government in 2010, and came out with eight.

A similar ruthlessness is evident in his handling of the Mayor of London. Johnson was faced with an unbearable choice. He could, if he wished, become a cog in the Cameron-Osborne machine. In return for backing the Remain side in the EU referendum campaign, he would be made into a very grand cog with a magnificent office, because, it was intimated to him, he could expect to become foreign secretary in the “unity reshuffle” that will follow the vote. But as everyone knows, foreign policy is decided in Downing Street, and Johnson’s freedom of action would extend to making unnecessarily amusing speeches, and arranging conferences with Angelina Jolie.

In other words, Johnson would become Cameron’s loyal little helper, the role Clegg used to play. That would be a death-in-life, from which it would be impossible to find a satisfactory issue on which to resign. For, as the Lib Dems discovered in the five years of their gilded captivity, Cameron is so tactful and alert that he never allows a difference of opinion to degenerate into open war.

How much better to resign now, on the great issue of Europe. But this, too, is a not entirely alluring prospect. The problem is that, as everyone knows who has spent five minutes studying his record, Johnson is not by conviction an Outer. His view of Europe is, in fact, very similar to Cameron’s. He believes that if he were prime minister, he would have obtained, thanks to his superior gifts, a better deal than has been struck. But he doesn’t want to leave Brussels. As he says, he loves the place. Before announcing which way he was going to jump, he conceded – a fine example of his technique of pre-emptive self-criticism – that on the issue of Europe he had been “veering all over the place like a shopping trolley”.

So the column he published in the Telegraph on 22 February, in which he explained his reasoning, had to be written with exceptional care. He told his readers: “There is only one way to get the change we need, and that is to vote to go.” In other words, vote Leave to negotiate better terms on which to stay. For a few hours, that may have seemed to him and others to finesse the problem. But that afternoon in the Commons, Cameron remarked, “I do not know any who’ve begun divorce proceedings in order to renew their marriage vows.” This was a brutal remark because it was true. To use a Leave vote in order to remain in the EU was exposed as an unprincipled gamble at best: the sort of bluff a risk-taking leader might be tempted by, but not a gambit to announce in advance to voters wondering how the outcome of the referendum will affect their jobs and their pensions. Others, ­including writers on the left, weighed in to condemn Johnson. Cameron didn’t need to do any more. Indeed, possibly he had already done too much. So, on Tuesday in Slough, he added insult to injury by insisting that he has “huge respect” for Johnson, who has “a very strong future in British politics”. While it is distressing to be attacked by Cameron, it is perhaps even more irritating to be addressed in such patronising tones.

But hasn’t Johnson put himself in a strong position to win the leadership election when Cameron eventually steps down? By having the courage to defy the Cameron-Osborne machine, and by articulating an attractively moderate Euroscepticism with such brio, won’t he appeal to Tory activists in a way no other candidate will be able to do?

This is possible. Conservative leadership elections are notoriously unpredictable ­affairs. Not since 1955, when Sir Anthony Eden succeeded Churchill, has the front-runner come home and won. Cameron started the 2005 contest as an outsider, and even in the last round of voting by MPs, before the top two candidates were put to the party membership, obtained only a minority of his colleagues’ support: 90 votes, compared to a combined total of 108 for David Davis (57) and Liam Fox (51).

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So, from the first, Cameron had to worry about keeping the party together. Davis and Fox were given shadow cabinet positions. Johnson was not: he was kept at a distance as spokesman for higher education. Hence the great outflanking manoeuvre that he conducted by standing against, and twice defeating, Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral elections of 2008 and 2012. Here was the kind of election in which Johnson shone: one in which he had to persuade Liberal Democrat and Labour voters to feel good about voting for a Conservative.

But he achieved this by acting out of character. For several months at the start of 2008 he told no jokes at all. Even to journalists who had known him for quite some time (I first met him in 1987), he would not venture so much as a single witticism. Johnson had consented to place himself under the tutelage of Lynton Crosby, and had further accepted that he needed above all to reassure Londoners that he was a serious person. The most damaging accusation against him was that he was a mere clown, who would bring disgrace on London if, by some accident, he were to be elected.

Who now will inflict that kind of discipline on Johnson?

The crying need of the Eurosceptics is to show that they are serious people, who have worked out a serious plan for leaving the EU, should that be what people vote for on 23 June. Undecided voters, who know their own finances to be precarious, will not entrust their future to a band of buccaneers led by Nigel Farage and George Galloway.

The other notable Conservative recruit to the Leave campaign is Michael Gove. Oddly enough, while verifying a reference for this piece, I came upon some rules that he and the pollster Andrew Cooper wrote as young Conservative modernisers in 2003, for the benefit of any party members who would listen. Their list ended with two injunctions: “Focus on the voters we have to win, don’t preach to the converted” and “Be disciplined and consistent”.

Cameron lives by those rules. He will run a campaign that is merciless in its discipline and consistency. The commentariat will get bored, just as it was bored before the last election by the Prime Minister’s continual references to Our Long-Term Economic Plan (or Oltep, as some of us abbreviated it: in idle moments, I liked to think of Oltep as a European intellectual, fizzing with insights). But, to the commentariat’s surprise, Cameron won that election. He had managed to persuade enough voters he was a safer bet than his opponents. To win this referendum, that is all he needs to do.

As Walter Bagehot once wrote, “The faculty of disheartening adversaries by diffusing on occasion an oppressive atmosphere of business-like dullness is invaluable to a parliamentary statesman.” But what does any person of spirit do when confronted by such dullness? One’s inclination is to ridicule it. At the very least, one wishes to show, if one is a commentator, that one can write far more interesting stuff than this dreary politician is saying.

Johnson and Gove both started out in life as debaters – indeed, both were president of the Oxford Union – and as journalists. Their natural game is to be amusing: only by an effort of will can they be dull. When I was writing Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson, Gove told me how he first met Johnson: “The first time I saw him was at the Union bar. He was a striking figure with sheepdog hair and penny loafers, standing in a distinctive pose with his hands in his trouser pockets and his head bent forward. He seemed like a kindly, Oxford character, but he was really there like a great basking shark waiting for freshers to swim towards him.”

As Gove cheerfully admitted: “I was Boris’s stooge. I became a votary of the Boris cult.” Johnson for his part wrote a candid essay, about how he became president of the union, in which he said: “The terrible art of the candidate is to coddle the self-deception of the stooge.”

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Many Eurosceptics want to believe in Johnson. They know he has the gift of putting things in language that does not sound cranky or obsessive. But once the referendum is over, they will also reach a view about how well he has performed. Between now and June, will he play his natural game and try to place himself at the head of a popular uprising against the establishment? He has such a natural talent for provoking and orchestrating a media scrum, is so fertile in providing good copy for reporters, and has such a relish for the whole absurd business of being at the centre of attention, that he must be tempted to do a bit of this, just as he did when announcing outside his house in Islington that he had plumped for Leave.

This kind of anarchic street theatre is a wonderful way of mobbing up the powers that be, who like to control everything and if possible to speak to very small audiences of reliable people. Cameron, despite various attempts to conceal this, is quite clearly the voice of the establishment, and will always try to do what the establishment considers to be prudent: in this case, to stay inside the EU. Can Gove and Johnson hope to defeat him by being even more prudent? Nigel Lawson – another journalist-turned-politician, and a distinguished figure in the Leave campaign – has argued rather brilliantly, and convincingly, that to stay inside the EU is riskier than to come out. But to persuade the wider public of this case is a tall order.

 Will the Tory party split over Europe? I doubt it, but the issue will certainly go on wrecking Tory and other careers. Cameron has so far stopped it from wrecking his own career by the clever expedient of telling his Eurosceptic backbenchers, in his Bloom­berg speech of January 2013: all right, you can have this referendum you’re so keen on, but I intend to win it.

The expedient of promising a referendum blunted Ukip’s appeal and averted the risk of a Tory civil war, or at least of internal strife that would have rendered victory in last year’s general election impossible. Rebel backbenchers are much less powerful than they were, because the final decision is going to be taken by the people. Cameron has kept the party together. That is a much more considerable achievement than most pundits realise. If he had taken a purist attitude to Europe – either for or against – the party would have split by now. The need to avert that disaster explains and even justifies his cautious, undogmatic European policy better than any study of the matter on its merits. To accuse Cameron of sometimes changing his mind about things is completely to miss the point of him. He is not an ideologist, but a practical politician.

It so happens that I am reading The Unknown Prime Minister, Robert Blake’s fascinating account of Andrew Bonar Law, prime minister from 1922 to 1923. In 1911, when he became Tory leader, the party was split from top to bottom over the now forgotten but at the time tremendously emotive question of tariff reform, which, if introduced, would have led to taxes on food. Rather than break up the party, the leader decided to change his own position. Blake asks:

 

Did Bonar Law act rightly in thus reversing his own declared policy for the sake of Party unity? To answer this is to answer a problem in political ethics which has never yet been satisfactorily solved. But in acting as he did there is no doubt that Bonar Law was following the established tradition of previous Conservative leaders. Ever since the days when Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws had broken the Party and driven it into the wilderness for twenty years, successive . . . leaders had felt it their duty, at all costs and at almost any sacrifice, to avoid repeating Peel’s action. Disraeli, Salisbury, Balfour, had all regarded party unity as of paramount importance – and Bonar Law both on this occasion, and at several other critical moments in his life, took the same view. It is of course easy to attack such conduct on high moral grounds, but those who declare that principles should always remain uncompromised and that no one should ever change his course on account of pressure from others are living in a cloud cuckoo-land far from the realities of politics.

 

Before he became prime minister, Cameron was identified, by Martin Kettle in the Guardian, as the “rising hope of the soft, pragmatic Tories”. This is true, and yet, in order to be pragmatic, Cameron has also had to be steely. On the emotive question of Europe, he has decided to stay in, but, like John Major before him, has offered some sops to the Eurosceptics.

What room and what role does that leave for Boris Johnson? Unless he makes a surprising success of the reckless venture on which he has just embarked, I am not sure it leaves any room for him at all.

Andrew Gimson is a journalist and a biographer of Boris Johnson

This article appears in the 25 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash