I stopped counting at 15 – though the calls continued. As the accompanying texts revealed, Boris Johnson was furious with me for writing about his contact with Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, now a ferociously right-wing roving guru of the populist Right. My phone buzzed away, fizzing with digitalised outrage.
I was confident that my article (last September) was correct, that the sourcing was impeccable, and that Bannon had indeed been seeking to put nationalist lead in Johnson’s pencil over the summer.
I also knew – how to put this delicately? – that the former Foreign Secretary’s history of denials was not exactly unblemished. He was not above describing an entirely accurate report as “an inverted pyramid of piffle”.
And I noted that – characteristically – his initial outright rebuttal quickly softened to a claim that he had not spoken to Bannon in 2018 “as far as I can remember” – and then to a recollection that the American had indeed “texted me asking me to appear on his show and I said I couldn’t”. So which was it? To those journalists familiar with dealing with Johnson, this slalom was a familiar ride.
As incandescent as he was with me, I saw no point in an extended exchange of views. Indeed, it was more interesting to me that he had been so obviously unsettled by my report: namely, that there was a strategic connection between Bannon’s advice to him last July that he get off his knees and cause some mayhem; and Johnson’s extraordinary column in The Daily Telegraph shortly thereafter, in which he wrote that a Muslim woman wearing the niqab resembled “a bank robber” and that it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes”. The two were linked, and this disclosure was not to Johnson’s liking.
Why begin an exploration of his leadership prospects in such a personal way? Because Johnson’s shift from popularity (the chatshow favourite who appealed to non-Tories) to populism (unashamedly divisive Brexiteer and demagogue) is the heart of the matter. And – frankly – because it is also the only honest way to do so.
Like so many political journalists and editors, I have known him for many years. Though we have never socialised, we were friendly acquaintances for two decades. When I succeeded him as Editor of The Spectator (the UK’s leading centre-Right magazine) in 2006, he was unfailingly courteous and helpful. Did this skew my judgment? That’s for others to decide. Suffice it to say that – long after he entered electoral politics as Tory parliamentary candidate for Clwyd South in 1997 – he remained part of the journalistic milieu, deeply embedded in the media-industrial complex that has played such a part in his rollercoaster political career. The complicity and indulgence of journalists – often subconscious – has only been one element in Johnson’s survival, stardom and enduring leadership prospects. But it cannot be dismissed. And I must own my part in that. To borrow the words of Martin Sheen’s Willard in Apocalypse Now, as he recounts his journey through the hell of the Vietnam War to confront the renegade Colonel Kurtz: “There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story really is a confession, then so is mine.”
Let us first examine the essentials. Johnson is unquestionably a serious contender to succeed Theresa May. The European Research Group of hardline Brexiteer Tory MPs is expected to hold a hustings to agree upon a single candidate, in which it is still assumed by most I have spoken to that he will prevail. This view is in spite of his last-minute U-turn to support the Prime Minister’s deal, which has angered a core of Brexiteer irreconcilables – the self-styled “Spartans” – not to be confused with the senior rightwingers who, after meeting the PM at Chequers, named themselves the “Grand Wizards”, without acknowledgement of the obvious Ku Klux Klan overtones.
Yes, there are those who believe that Dominic Raab, the former Brexit Secretary, is the face of the Eurosceptic future, and that Johnson is too contaminated by his extensive political charge sheet. But even Raab’s lieutenants admit that he would struggle against Johnson in head-to-head debate. “You just fear that Boris would sort of swat him aside,” says one.
And there will be those who say that Jeremy Hunt, Johnson’s successor as Foreign Secretary, or Sajid Javid, the ambitious Home Secretary, would be steadier leaders: born-again Brexiteers who voted Remain in 2016, better-placed to unite the party than the flamboyant front-runner. There will almost certainly be a next-generation candidate, too, such as Matt Hancock, the tech-literate Health Secretary, or Penny Mordaunt, the International Development Secretary, described by one member at a Tortoise ThinkIn in March as a “woke Brexiteer”.
Yet Johnson is said by those who have seen him lately to be “perky” about his chances. Campaign money will certainly not be a problem: he received donations of £31,000 between mid-February and mid-March alone, well before the PM fired the starter’s pistol in the leadership race by announcing on 27 March that she would leave Number Ten once a Brexit deal was agreed.
He has a structure of advisors in place, some drawn from the stable of his most loyal strategist, Lynton Crosby, who helped him win two mayoral races in London.
Jacob Rees-Mogg and Andrew Bridgen are prominent among a small but busy cohort of MPs who press Johnson’s case to colleagues. Priti Patel, the former International Development Secretary, has been sympathetic to his cause. And he is winning friends in unexpected quarters.
Amber Rudd, still considered by some moderate Tories as the best candidate to succeed May, admitted recently to a friend that – for all their ideological differences – she found Johnson very appealing. “I really like him,” she said. “He’s such fun.”
This represents a significant shift. During the referendum campaign, the then Home Secretary was scathingly dismissive of him as “not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening” – a metaphor for his unsuitability for high office, as well as a more literal (and barbed) reference to his reputation as a Lothario. Evidently, however, she has warmed to him in the past three years. The idea of a Johnson-Rudd dream ticket in the forthcoming race, though far from certain, is no longer as outlandish as it once seemed.
Meanwhile, the shape of his campaign offer is already emerging: it will be a cunning mixture of bombastic optimism and strategically deployed nationalism. He cannot present himself as new – as, say, Hancock might – or as dynamically fresh – as Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Tories could have, had she not already ruled herself out as a contender.
But Johnson can offer himself to his fellow Tories as a change of pace, incarnating a quite different set of priorities to May’s. He can marry media-friendly energy to unabashed populism: what one Tory adviser archly described as “Newkip”.
Intimately linked to this direct appeal to his party is the assumption that whoever succeeds May will be fighting a general election – and soon. Johnson is a seasoned campaigner, and (in London and the referendum) a proven winner.
There is some clue to how he might take on Labour in the contempt he exuded for David Cameron’s 2010 election campaign. Frustrated in his office in City Hall, he would bellow at the screen: “They’re not giving people a reason to vote Tory!” Confronted with Jeremy Corbyn, you can bet that he would dial up his trademark optimism to 11 – laced with some old-fashioned red-baiting and references to socialist Venezuela.
In preparation for the initial task of the leadership contest, Johnson has lost weight, tidied himself up and shorn his trademark shaggy haircut to something more stern and statesmanlike.
He is also extremely happy with his new partner, Carrie Symonds, a former Conservative director of communications. “Boris reminds me of Rupert Murdoch just after he married Jerry Hall,” says one long-time friend. “Rejuvenated. It makes a difference, you know.”
Most important of all: he consistently tops the influential Conservativehome.com leadership survey – a useful guide to Tory grassroots opinion – comfortably ahead, yet again, of Raab, Michael Gove and Javid in the site’s March poll.
This matters, because, under the leadership contest rules introduced by William Hague, it is the party members who have the final say. According to the House of Commons Library, there were 124,000 of them in March 2018 (though internal party sources say this figure is “optimistically high to the point of delusion”). In the race to succeed May, they will be presented with the last two candidates standing after Tory MPs have had their say in the knock-out rounds. As a rule, Conservative members are more right-wing, more Eurosceptic and more viscerally opposed to immigration than the parliamentary party (in 2001, they chose the anti-EU backbencher, Iain Duncan Smith over Kenneth Clarke – a former Chancellor and Home Secretary, but also a proud Europhile). If Johnson makes it to the final two, he will be hard to beat.
The question, then, is: will he make the cut? In the search for an answer, what must first be acknowledged and investigated is Johnson’s sheer durability.
It is a frequent, frustrated refrain of his opponents, as they prepare for the contest, that he is essentially unkillable; that, as one think-tank supporter of Hancock’s potential candidacy puts it: “Boris cannot be stopped by conventional weapons.”
This matters because the Johnson path to power has been anything but linear. He has often been thwarted: most obviously by Cameron, the fellow Etonian he regarded as a plodder, who ended up leapfrogging him to the leadership in 2005.
As Chancellor, George Osborne frequently bested him in their many tussles over money and strategy. And Gove, his chief lieutenant in the Vote Leave campaign, betrayed him hours before his leadership campaign announcement in June 2016 – announcing that, on the basis of his experience in the preceding weeks, he simply could not back Johnson as the next PM; and declaring his own candidacy.
This dramatised, in the most brutal fashion, a longstanding conviction that Johnson could not be trusted; that he would promise one thing and do another; that the words “he meant it when he said it” applied with terrible accuracy to the Don Juan of politics.
After he backed out of the post-referendum leadership race – to the audible horror of his supporters and the unconcealed jubilation of Cameron and Osborne, who were together when they learned the news – it was confidently asserted by many that his moment had passed. All political careers wax and wane, and it did indeed seem, on 30 June 2016, that Johnson might have squandered his best shot at the top job, unable to respond with sufficient agility to Gove’s completely unexpected treachery.
This orthodoxy was apparently bolstered by Johnson’s underwhelming performance as Foreign Secretary. In October 2017, he declared that Sirte in Libya could be the “new Dubai” if they “clear the dead bodies away”. In Myanmar, he recited a colonial-era Kipling poem in a Buddhist temple – to the visible alarm of the UK ambassador.
Worst of all, his woefully incompetent handling of the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian convicted for spying in Iran, dramatised with painful clarity what his opponents had always insisted upon: that wayward buffoonery is not always funny, and that those who hold the highest offices of state have a civic responsibility that requires much more than tousle-haired charm, studied eccentricity and the reduction of government policy to bouts of head-scratching.
This dual impression of obsolescence (he’s past it) and incompetence (he’s not up to the job) has been steadily compounded by something new: ideological toxicity and political divisiveness.
It has long been a cliché that Johnson always wants to have his cake and eat it. He sees doublethink as a political strength rather than an infuriating contradiction.
So it was no surprise to learn, when he decided to back Brexit in February 2016, that he had written two articles: one pro-Leave, one pro-Remain. As one Cabinet minister remarks: “It agonised him to have to come down on one side or the other. If he’d have been allowed to campaign for both arguments, he would have. So it was a defining moment.”
For years, Johnson had been characterised as the “Heineken Conservative”: the man who could reach voters other Tories could not reach. To his chat-show persona was allied a sense of geniality and social liberalism that transcended party politics.
When she was running to be Labour’s candidate for London’s mayoralty in 2015, the late Tessa Jowell – a politician justly remembered for her profound decency – told friends that, for all his flaws, she would have found it hard to stand against Johnson.
As the Cabinet minister who secured London’s bid for the 2012 Olympics, she – and the rest of the world – had watched Mayor Johnson lead the revelries of the Games as a sort of global lord of the dance. “I’m hoovering up the credit!” he declared joyously.
Yet – inescapably – the 2016 referendum made it impossible to present Johnson any longer as a unifying force. Indeed, his political identity morphed with spectacular speed during those ugly months.
The jolly host of Have I Got News for You? – the Wodehouse-quoting fun-lover on a bike – was suddenly the front-man for the official Leave campaign, with its lies, battle-buses and (as it transpired) breaches of electoral law. In a matter of weeks, his numinous capacity to unite was replaced by a no-less-powerful ability to sow discord.
This is why Bannon’s advice to him is so important to any understanding of his political positioning today. After he resigned as Foreign Secretary last July in protest at the Cabinet “Chequers deal” on Brexit, he was said by friends to be “lost and isolated” – his second marriage, to Marina Wheeler, coming to an end, his political future uncertain.
The answer, Bannon suggested, was not to mourn his past, but to embrace and lean into his newfound divisiveness. It was hardly necessary for the American strategist to point out the obvious, and recent, precedent. Donald Trump had won the presidency not by presenting the voters with a record of competence, or a high-minded claim that he could unite a fractured nation.
He had taken sides, encouraged discontent, indulged his undoubted talent for anger, impatience and the attribution of blame.
None of which was to say that Johnson should simply mimic Trump (they have little in common, other than unusual hair and a shared birthplace: New York).
The point, instead, was that the new politics – the populism of social media, anti-elitism, identity politics and culture wars – required Johnson to take strong and controversial positions. Purpose mattered more than unity. Look what had happened to May – a leader who had tried to balance all the factions in her party and ended up pleasing none of them.
Crucially, the hostility of sections of the media and Westminster class was not to be feared. It was to be positively welcomed. Bannon praised the former Foreign Secretary publicly by declaring that he was “giving the people what they want – authenticity” – by which he clearly meant not “honesty” or “sincerity”, but (by implication) “granting the voters permission to feel guiltless about their most irrational prejudices and least honourable emotions”.
Just as I had probably pulled one or two punches in my past writings about Johnson, I now inadvertently helped him again, this time by doing precisely the opposite – and exactly as the Bannon play-book required.
But that could not be helped. I believed – and still believe – that his use of demeaning and dehumanising language to describe Muslim women in religious clothing crossed a line. “This confrontation poses greater long-term dangers than [Enoch] Powell’s [Rivers of Blood] speech in 1968,” I wrote. “It is a founding principle of any pluralist society that in our permanent negotiation with one another we strive to be decent and dignified.”
Inside the Tory party, there was no shortage of outrage. Andrew Cooper, a Conservative peer and former Number Ten director of strategy, tweeted that “the rottenness of Boris Johnson goes deeper even than his casual racism & his equally casual courting of fascism”. Ruth Davidson demanded an apology for his “gratuitously offensive” intervention.
Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General, announced that he would leave the Tory party if Johnson became its leader (since then, Grieve has lost a confidence vote in his own constituency association). The Conservative MPs Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston said the same – and then pre-empted this potential dilemma by quitting to form the Independent Group.
But liberal outrage was matched by the purring of the populist Right. Bridgen, Iain Duncan Smith and other MPs raced to Johnson’s defence. The red-top press approved of his reinvention as an unapologetic tribune of White Van Man. Previously an (often courageous) defender of immigration, Johnson was now blowing the nativist dog whistle for all it was worth.
And, as much as many of them would never admit it on the record, Tory MPs know that, in 2019, this style of politics delivers votes – more so than ever.
“Look,” says one Cabinet member who is also a likely leadership candidate. “There are plenty of MPs who will try to keep him out of the final two. It could be a very nasty contest. But lots of them also think that his name recognition and his shameless populism is exactly the edge they need to save their seats.”
Concerning the contest to succeed May, this minister adds: “We’ll probably all be talking about our departmental records, and how qualified we are to follow Theresa. Boris will be talking about voters’ feelings. And feelings win these days.”
This final observation – almost a throwaway remark – gets us to the nub. In the weeks and months ahead, learned commentators and pollsters will comb through Johnson’s past failures and present contradictions in forensic detail, and conclude – like those of us who predicted that Remain and Hillary Clinton would prevail in 2016 – that, logically, he cannot win.
They will not only be wrong. They will be using the wrong tools of analysis. If Trump’s victory has a single, unavoidable lesson, it is that, to an increasing extent, politics is best understood as a branch of the entertainment industry, in which the populist tormentor of elites is king, and sentiment is more important than rationality.
In this respect, modern “affect theory” – the study of behaviour and power with reference to emotional conduct – is much more useful in explaining the recent disruptions in the political sphere than old-fashioned institutional, socio-economic or polling analysis.
As Lauren Berlant writes of George W Bush in her masterly book, Cruel Optimism: “He wants the public to feel the funk, the live intensities and desires that make messages affectively immediate, seductive, and binding. In his head a public’s binding to the political is best achieved neither by policy nor ideology but the affect of feeling political together.”
Remind you of anyone? There is any number of reasons for MPs to exclude Johnson from the final pair that will go to the Tory membership. But, at a level most of them do not care to explore too deeply, a great many of them sense that – in this extraordinary new era – he may be the candidate that serves their self-interest best. He is more than capable of pivoting back from tough nativism to cuddly One Nation rhetoric if electoral calculation so requires.
If Johnson does indeed become Tory leader and Prime Minister this year, there will be many headline puns about “blond ambition” and assertions about his unique will to power. But the truth is that we get the Boris we deserve.
As much as anything, he has always been the product of the Tory tribe’s narrow self-interest and of much broader collective indulgence. The very fact that he is still in the game, and now so close to power, reflects a grand failure of political imagination, strategic forethought and robust scrutiny.
And, for my part in that, however modest: sorry.
Best of Boris … in his own words
‘Go back home and prepare for breakfast.’
‘There are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.’
‘I was never one of those acnoid Tory boys who had semi-erotic dreams about Margaret Thatcher.’
‘I think it’s a very tough job being prime minister. Obviously, if the ball came loose from the back of a scrum – which it won’t – it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at.’
‘There was a young fellow from Ankara,
Who was a terrific wankerer,
Till he sowed his wild oats,
With the help of a goat,
But he didn’t even stop to thankera.’
Worst of Boris… in the words of others
‘People always ask me the same question, they say, ‘Is Boris a very clever man pretending to be an idiot?’ And I always say, “No”.’
‘He is fumbling all over the place!’
‘Incompetence is not funny. Policy vacuum is not funny. A careless disregard for the truth is not funny. Advising old mates planning to beat someone up is not funny. Abortions and gagging orders are not funny. Creeping ambition in a jester’s cap is not funny. Vacuity posing as merriment, cynicism posing as savviness, a wink and a smile covering for betrayal … these things are not funny.’
‘If the day ever comes that Boris Johnson becomes tenant of Downing Street, I shall be among those packing my bags for a new life in Buenos Aires or suchlike, because it means that Britain has abandoned its last pretension to being a serious country.’
‘I used to really dislike him. But you know what? Now I just despise him.’
- Johnson’s best-selling The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History (2014) is better understood as a work of covert autobiography than a work of history. The author’s arguments about destiny, the needs of the hour and the role of heroic mavericks are not all that hard to decode.
- For an understanding of the Tory party: Tim Bale, The Conservatives since 1945: The Drivers of Political Change (2016) and The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron (2016).
- On the colonisation of politics by show-business: Kurt Anderson: Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: a 500-Year History (2017).
- On “affect theory”: Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (2011) and Melissa Gregg and Gregory J Seigworth (eds), The Affect Theory Reader (2010).
All photography Getty Images