Features Australia

Boris or oblivion

15 June 2019

9:00 AM

15 June 2019

9:00 AM

They recently released a poll over here in Britain. Only women were polled and they were asked ‘Would you sleep with Boris Johnson?’.  Ninety-three per cent of respondents ticked ‘never again’.

And the thing is, this type of joke is not hurting Johnson. It’s helping him. It makes him seem something other than today’s predominant sort of politician – one of the cookie-cutter variety who has started in a ministerial office or think tank or faux union job, maybe with some university politics thrown in, and who comes across to voters (almost always for good reason) as a person of no real principles at all, to say nothing of the lack of real-life work experience. The punter perceives that there are absolutely no political causes for which these careerist politicians would die in the ditch. Instead they look to be poll-driven and appear to aim for nothing more than the perks of office and maybe the fame of one day being Prime Minister. (And when you read that sort of broad brush description try to tell me with a straight face that you don’t recognise at least two-thirds of our elected MPs in Australia. Heck, if you can keep a straight face and say that most of Australia’s MPs are driven by principle and would willingly sacrifice their careers for a principle – any principle – then I suggest that with that sort of facial control you really must move to LA and look for acting work.)

But back to Boris Johnson. You see, he’s now the massive favourite to win the leadership of Britain’s Conservative party and so to succeed the woeful Theresa May as Prime Minister. Over here in the UK the Tories have adopted a system whereby the MPs in the partyroom alone do not choose their leader. What happens is that after a series of votes by MPs, with the lowest-scoring names dropping off step-by-step, the leadership contestants are narrowed down to a final two names.  Both these candidates’ names are then put to the paid-up Conservative party members (those of, I think, at least one year’s standing). The party’s paid-up members, or the base if you will, then selects the leader. And on every single internal poll of party members Boris beats any other candidate in a head-to-head match up, and he does so handily. If Boris gets through the first stage of MPs winnowing it down to two, Boris will win.  He knows it. The party base knows it.  Voters at large know it. And Conservative MPs know it.

Now this fact has been true for some time. Yet until recently most Tory party insiders gave Boris next to no chance of becoming the next Tory leader and so the new PM. In fact, back in March of this year at a dinner in London, under the Chatham House rule, a former long-time Tory MP told me he thought Johnson had no chance.  Why?’, I asked. ‘Because 80 per cent of the Tory MPs are Remainers and they loathe Johnson. They really, really dislike him.’

And why is that?, you might ask. Well, for all his frivolity and extra-parliamentary ‘activities’, Johnson surprised near on everyone back in 2016 by coming out for ‘Leave’. At the time this looked like career suicide. Nearly everyone back then thought ‘Remain’ would win the referendum and would win quite easily.  So all the supposed experts in the press and elsewhere, and certainly the preponderance of politicians like then Prime Minister David Cameron (who would never have called the referendum had he guessed ‘Leave’ would prevail), were confident of victory for the ‘stay in the EU’ forces.

They’d trot out a Project Fear campaign, convince voters that the world’s fifth largest economy somehow had no way of standing on its own without the hyper-regulation and democracy-crushing EU, and they’d win. Full stop.

Boris Johnson was thought to be a more or less natural Remainer. He speaks multiple languages. He looked to be a natural Davos Man-type supranationalist. He is socially very liberal. And yet at great political risk Johnson came out hard for ‘Leave’. Sure, Nigel Farage may have done more than anyone to get the UK as close as it is now to leaving the EU, but trust me, the Leavers could not have won the referendum without Boris. He provided the intellectual grunt and great debate performances. (You see Boris plays the clown but in fact this highly-paid journalist and for six years editor of this very Spectator magazine – need one say more? – is a very smart guy. He was a scholarship student at Eton and then attended Balliol College, Oxford, during which time he was elected President of the Oxford Union. When anti-Boris types tell you they don’t think he’s smart, it’s in the context of him being self-evidently in the top one per cent of brains in the country – meaning it’s garbage and politically motivated in the way the attacks on Tony Abbott were, as though a Rhodes Scholar somehow lacked brain power just because he had views they didn’t share.)

At any rate, it might be simplest to generalise and say that many Tory MPs see Johnson as a sort of class traitor. They loathe him. And nothing in the rules for selecting the next leader stops the MPs from gaming the system. Since some three-quarters of them voted Remain they have the numbers, if they vote tactically and with the sole aim of keeping Boris out of the final two names, to stop him from becoming party leader. And that is precisely what my former UK Tory MP friend back in March told me would happen.

Now he’s changed his mind. Now he and most others think Boris will win. What’s happened in the intervening time?  Theresa May and Nigel Farage have happened. May was such a disaster and so obviously prepared to do anything to stop a Brexit in anything other than name only, and Farage’s two-month old Brexit party is doing so well (as in leading the national polls), that many Tory MPs have come to realise it’s Boris or oblivion and the end of the party.

Of course there is at least a 50-50 chance that things have gotten so bad for the Tories that nothing can save them; not Boris, not anyone. And part of me wants to see the party absolutely destroyed for its treachery as regards the referendum result. But if anyone can salvage the situation it’s this untrustworthy former mayor of London who is well-known enough to go by a single name, Boris. His party would only ever call on him when it absolutely had no other choice. What other Tory PM does that remind you of?

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