“There seems no pressing need to embark on the second volume, provisionally entitled The Statesmanship of Boris Johnson, which I hope one day to offer the world.”
So I wrote in 2007, for the paperback edition of my account of his early life, published in hardback the previous year.
Distinguished commentators of the Right and Left, including Alexander Chancellor, Stephen Glover and Paul Routledge, were among those who had greeted with incredulity my suggestion that Johnson might yet become Prime Minister.
David Cameron was firmly in the driving seat as Conservative leader, and in the reshuffle of the Shadow Cabinet which he conducted in the summer of 2007 – necessitated by Gordon Brown’s Cabinet reshuffle on becoming Prime Minister a few days earlier – had kept Johnson at arm’s length, as Shadow Spokesman on Higher Education.
Both men had been to Eton and Oxford, but as I attempted in a subsequent update of the book to explain, their temperaments were incompatible:
“There is something about Boris which is an affront to serious-minded people’s idea of how politics should be conducted. By refusing to adopt their solemn tone, he implies that they are ridiculous, and the dreadful thing, from their point of view, is that a large part of the British public agrees with Boris. So it is not just lefties, but people from every part of the political class, who cannot bear his unwillingness to take them as seriously as they take themselves. It was after all a Tory leader, Michael Howard, who had sacked Boris [in 2004], and Howard’s chosen successor, Cameron, has similar instincts about what does and does not constitute reliable behaviour…
“For while Cameron is a favoured son of the Establishment, and takes the Establishment’s view that there are certain things which are just not done, Boris is an outsider, a loner, a man who likes to be on genial terms with everyone but who has no circle of political intimates. Cameron is a man of astonishing gifts, including cool judgement under pressure, but his instinct is to work within the existing framework of rules. Boris frets under such restraint and is always ready to drive a coach and horses through it. Cameron believes in order: Boris believes in being free. Cameron is bound to regard Boris as a bit disreputable, while Boris is bound to regard Cameron as a bit limited.”
This divide had a decisive influence in 2016, when Brexit was the issue. Cameron sought to uphold the status quo, but Johnson drove a coach and horses through it.
So now we have an outsider as Prime Minister, a situation less unusual or paradoxical than one might suppose, for an essential features of our tradition, and a reason why it has survived, is that the Conservative Party has often been led by outsiders.
Margaret Thatcher, Harold Macmillan, Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli are four obvious examples: all on occasion could not, as a matter of temperament more than ideology, stomach the Establishment line taken by the then party leader.
All at one time or another – though not of course in perpetuity – were able as a result to appeal to parts of the nation which were far removed from the Establishment, and which regarded the Establishment’s moralising with disgust.
This is the line in which Johnson belongs. He has a particular affinity with Disraeli, a scandalously disreputable figure in his youth, this early history obscured by his ability to charm Queen Victoria, and by posthumous adulation.
Like Disraeli, Johnson has dismayed his liberal opponents by winning support from patriotic working-class voters who believe in the greatness of Britain, symbolised today by Queen Elizabeth II and our armed forces.
The present Queen would never dream of being partisan in the manner of her great great grandmother, but Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of enthusiasm for her or the armed forces, and sympathy with various terrorist movements, cost Labour dear in December 2019 among its traditional supporters.
Matthew Goodwin suggested, in a piece yesterday for Unherd entitled “Why Boris Johnson keeps on winning”, that the Prime Minister has so far retained the support of these patriotic working-class voters because like them, he rejects the view of many on the Left that Britain is in decline:
“Ever since the vote for Brexit, Left-wing and liberal writers have been consumed by ‘declinism’: the belief that Britain’s best days are in the past. Declinists are united by the assumption that, because of decisions that went against their own politics, Britain has become a diminished world power, is falling behind other states and is led by incompetent, amateurish elites who either lack the required expertise or ‘correct’ ideology to reverse this decline or, worse, are actively perpetuating it…
“One reason why declinists are so vicious is that they have found themselves written out of the national story — election defeats or referendum outcomes have left them on the sidelines, with little power or influence. One reason why Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings and Munira Mirza have been so strongly attacked is not only because they committed the double sin of being Conservatives and Brexiteers, but because they are essentially the first group to have gone up against the ‘liberal establishment’ and won.”
Johnson benefits from the disdain of his critics, for it shows his supporters that he is still, in some respects, an outsider, one who is despised rather in the way they were despised when they voted for Brexit. Here is dear old Matthew Parris in a recent column for The Times:
“his colleagues always knew his shamelessness from his personal history. That he isn’t even clever, however, they are only now discovering. If competence shone through then I think the shamelessness would remain an embarrassment that his colleagues would be prepared to suppress. But he’s losing, and the combination of incapacity and shamelessness is beginning to curdle.”
A dozen other commentators might be quoted, all as determined as Parris to take the lowest possible view of the Prime Minister.
One day they will almost certainly be right. Johnson will fall: he will take the blame for something he has done, or even, it may be, for something he has not done, or something many of us thought at the time was a good idea. The role of Prime Minister is essentially sacrificial: ask Lord North, Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Eden or Tony Blair.
But until the culminating debacle, whatever it turns out to be, Parris and the rest render Johnson incomprehensible. How can a man who “isn’t even clever” have won two London mayoral elections, the EU referendum, the leadership of the Conservative Party and a general election?
A second volume is required to plumb this mystery. Is Parris clever enough to see through Johnson, or Johnson clever enough to incur the enmity of Parris? I shall endeavour, while writing it, to provide evidence for both schools of thought.