Why the Conservatives deserve to face extinction if they make Boris Johnson prime minister

By installing such a charlatan in No 10, the Tories will forfeit any right to be taken seriously. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

It will be the ultimate betrayal of their country. Having gravely weakened and diminished Britain through their blind pursuit of Brexit, Conservative MPs and party members now look likely to make Boris Johnson, a leading architect of our nation’s present misery, prime minister.

They will do so not because they believe that Johnson can heal the country, or has an outstanding record of public service, or embodies the qualities of duty, honesty and integrity expected of a national leader. They will do so because they believe that he alone can neuter the rival Brexit Party by out-Faraging Nigel Farage.

Johnson certainly brings a dash of colour to the unappealing roster of candidates (Rory Stewart excepted) who are hoping to succeed Theresa May. But he is manifestly unfit for a post once occupied by such giants as Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, Clement Atlee and Margaret Thatcher. If the prime minister was being chosen not by a tiny, secretive Tory cabal, but in an open, democratic process involving hustings and public appearances, he would be torn apart by any halfway competent opponent. Indeed, his handlers are striving to avoid scrutiny by even this miniscule franchise, and with reason.

Johnson’s ministerial record consists of two excruciating years as foreign secretary during which he regularly embarrassed Britain with gaffes, gratuitous insults and carelessness of the sort that ensured Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains incarcerated in Tehran. He has long been a part-time backbencher with no interest in legislative detail. Olympic cheerleading apart, his London mayoralty was mixed at best. Remember all those costly vanity projects and unused water cannon?

He is at heart a newspaper columnist paid to garner attention regardless of the consequences. He blusters and wings it instead of mastering briefs. He lacks discipline and application, as Michael Gove realised after leading the 2016 Leave campaign with him. He is so disorganised he forgot to pack trousers for his first wedding and lost his ring within hours.

He has no original ideas, no signal achievements. Never in his privileged adult life has he taken a really brave decision, made a sacrifice, put in the hard slog, gone out of his way to help others or shown high moral purpose. Indeed he appears to lack any moral compass at all.

He is congenitally dishonest — he was fired by the Times for fabricating quotes, and as shadow arts minister for lying about an extra-marital affair. He is a serial philanderer with two broken marriages and a love child. He is profoundly untrustworthy and disloyal, as his wives and a succession of Tory leaders can testify. He thinks it’s acceptable to talk of “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and compare niqabs to letter boxes.

He has no core convictions that cannot be sacrificed to expediency. As London’s mayor he led the world’s most cosmopolitan city — one that depended on immigration and international finance — but subsequently led a Leave campaign marked by xenophobia and isolationism. He vowed to lie down before the bulldozers if Heathrow was expanded, then flew to Afghanistan to avoid voting on the issue. He professes to be a “One Nation Conservative”, but champions an ugly nationalism and tax cuts for the rich. He once accused Donald Trump of “stupefying ignorance” and called him unfit for office, but is now the US president’s buddy and admirer.

Johnson is motivated not by a desire to serve, but by money and insatiable ambition. Max Hastings, his former editor at the Daily Telegraph, once described him as a “gold medal egomaniac” who “yearns with a mad hunger to become prime minister”.

And then there is his record on Europe. As the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent in the early 1990s he ignited the Conservative party’s simmering euroscepticism with a five-year barrage of fictitious stories about EU conspiracies to introduce one-size-fits-all condoms and ban British pink sausages. He set the tone for decades of relentlessly negative media coverage as much of Fleet Street bought into his caricature of Brussels as a den of scheming continentals bent on destroying our way of life. That Britain was a big, powerful member state with many allies somehow got overlooked.

His mendacity peaked during the EU referendum. The £350m-a-week Brexit bonanza for the NHS, the 80 million Turks heading our way, the quick and easy divorce because Germany was desperate to sell us cars — all lies. “My policy on cake is pro-having it and pro-eating it,” he has declared with breathtaking irresponsibility.

The Leave campaign would not have won without Johnson. Britain would still be a sane, stable country, and the Conservatives would not be haemorrhaging support for failing to deliver his fantastical promises. But, hooked like a junkie on his bombast, they are nonetheless turning to him for salvation.

That is a catastrophic miscalculation. Johnson offers fantasy. He insists he can force the EU to offer a better withdrawal deal by threatening to withhold our £39bn divorce payment and leave regardless on 31 October. But European leaders will not negotiate with a man they detest, and parliament would block a no-deal Brexit that would wreck the economy, Britain’s global reputation, the Union, Northern Ireland’s fragile peace and much else besides.

In the ensuing general election the Tories would be crushed. That once-great party would deservedly face extinction. By installing such a charlatan as prime minister it would forfeit the reputation for competence and pragmatism that has served it so well, and any right to be taken seriously.

This piece is taken from the Johnson audit series. 

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer and a former foreign editor of the Times