10 September 2018

If Boris wants to be PM, he needs to hit the Rubber Chicken Circuit


Boris Johnson has plenty of critics, but I would hope even they would acknowledge his resilience. Imagine being denounced by your eldest daughter, quoted in the country’s best selling newspaper as “a selfish bastard” – as part of a wider account of how your marriage has collapsed. That was the comment, overheard at a party by Boris’s daughter, Lara, which was printed in The Sun.

That must have hurt – although he then took her to the Gielgud Theatre the next night to see Imperium, the play based on the bestselling Cicero novels by Robert Harris. On Saturday, he took his son Milo to the England v India Test match at the Oval in south London.

What treats are planned for Theodore and Cassia, the other two offspring of Boris and his wife Marina? Divorce is tricky enough without proceeding through a media firestorm.

Yesterday, the Sunday Times splashed on a story that Boris’s own Conservative colleagues had compiled a dossier of negative tittle-tattle about him. It may well be true that it is a freelance (or semi-freelance) effort, rather than one by operatives employed by Downing Street or Conservative HQ. Yet it is clear that some of Boris’s fellow Conservatives are out to get him – a fact far more painful to him than being denounced by Corbynistas.

Yet is there not something rather indefatigable about this figure remaining bloodied but unbowed? The former Foreign Secretary and Mayor of London has also found the time to write a biography of Churchill – surely the quality of indefatigability is shared between these two politicians.

He came in for stern criticism after ridiculing the burka in a column for the Daily Telegraph. Rather than being cowed, he has written for the Mail on Sunday offering some more vivid imagery – this time with regard to the Brexit negotiations and the “backstop” arrangements for the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

This might come across as a subject bewildering in its technical complexity. But the robust analogy Boris provides is commendable for providing us with some clarity.

We have opened ourselves to perpetual political blackmail. We have wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution – and handed the detonator to Michel Barnier. We have given him a jemmy with which Brussels can choose – at any time – to crack apart the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have been so mad as to agree, last December, that if we can’t find ways of producing frictionless trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, then Northern Ireland must remain in the customs union and the Single Market: in other words, part of the EU. And that would mean a border down the Irish Sea.

He adds that the latest “solution is if anything even more pathetic. We are now proposing our own version of the backstop: that if we can’t find ways of solving the Irish border problem, then the whole of the UK must remain in the customs union and Single Market.”

Sure you can disagree with his analysis. But spare us the pious, synthetic outrage about the use of language. After all, Brexiteers have been on the receiving end of some extravagant abuse.

I strongly suspect the talk of customs posts along the Irish border is fantasy and that trade will prove pretty smooth – even in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. But the idea that the EU should be allowed to reach the verdict and pass a sentence on how it is working out does indeed seem to be handing them the power to harm us.

The response of Tory MP Sir Alan Duncan was pretty unhinged. He tweeted: “For Boris to say that the PM’s view is like that of a suicide bomber is too much. This marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics. I’m sorry, but this is the political end of Boris Johnson. If it isn’t now, I will make sure it is later.”

That was a caricature of what Boris had said. It was also delusional of Sir Alan, in assigning to himself a veto on a future Tory leadership contest.

That is not to say that Boris’s plucky spirit will be enough to make him Prime Minister. Sir Alan may be an outrider. But there are plenty of other Tory MPs with milder reservations. That is where the problem comes. The rules are that before he can seek election from the Conservative Party membership, he must reach the final top two slots chosen by Conservative MPs.

The membership would probably be fine – certainly if ConservativeHome polling is any guide. Misinformed journalists have an idea of the Conservative Party membership being prudish, old fashioned Anglicans taking an unforgiving view of divorce. That is a parody – of both Conservatives and members of the Church of England.

It is quite possible to value the institutions of marriage and the traditional family unit – while being forgiving and sympathetic to the many cases where such arrangements break down.

So far as Brexit is concerned, in many ways we will be judged by events. I expect the next leadership contest will take place after we have left. I also believe our departure will be on schedule on March 29th next year, that it will be a ‘no deal’ and will go pretty smoothly nonetheless.

If I’m right, then Boris will be a strong position. Of course, if the planes fall out of the sky and there is not food in the shops, it will be more awkward, even for someone of his cheery disposition.

Even if all goes well, that still leave the problem of his 314 fellow Tory MPs. Jealousy is a terrible thing. My advice for Boris is not only to fit in outings for Theodore and Cassia, but also make more effort with his colleagues. They will have spotted the fame Boris attracts – and human nature being what it is feel the occasional twinge of envy.

This does not mean spending all his time working the bars and tea rooms of Westminster – though a bit more of that would probably help. Instead, Boris should tour the country. He should follow the example of Michael Heseltine – who was his predecessor as MP for Henley and undertake plenty of engagements at Conservative constituency associations. This used to rather unkindly called the “rubber chicken circuit”, though often the cuisine at such events is actually rather good.

Let Boris take his message to Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, Cornwall and Cumbria. Work the rooms and eat for victory.

All those Tory MPs who have “secured” his attendance will be grateful. They will come to think of him as a friend – to whom they owe a favour – rather than some aloof media figure. For variety, Boris could go to some universities – if he gets a few eggs thrown at him by opponents of free speech, that would be all to the good as indication of his commitment to the cause.

The spirit is willing, but is the flesh weak? Boris Johnson has the courage and the flair to be our next Prime Minister – what he needs to do over the next few months is a bit of solid networking. Then he can win.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist and blogger