26 March 2016

In defence of Boris Johnson: the Cameroons are losing the plot


This is not – I repeat not – an endorsement of Boris Johnson ahead of a Conservative leadership contest. There is no vacancy at the top of the Tory party, and there won’t be for weeks. Joking, joking, I’m joking. The leadership contest is years away if Cameron wins the referendum and I suspect that most Tory voters and many of the party’s MPs would like Cameron to continue as Prime Minister no matter what the result is on June 23rd. He has years left in office in the right circumstances.

But the Prime Minister’s cheerleaders sense danger. It’s five to midnight. It’s October 1990, just a month from the unspeakable act. Meanwhile, their man looks worried and he is right to. While a Remain victory is still the most likely outcome, the referendum campaign so far is not following the script. The warnings about security sound ridiculous, especially when set against the EU’s dismal record on borders and terrorism. As well as that, the Tory leader is in the extraordinary position of finding that his inner circle is split. This has happened gradually, so that it tends to be taken for granted when it should not be.

Cameron has always placed an extremely high value on loyalty and commanded it. For more than a decade he has benefitted from the devotion of a group of people dedicated to his interests. Now, what with those people having free will, their own views and lives afterwards to lead, the Cameroons are split on the EU. Michael Gove is with Vote Leave. Lord Howard, the Tory leader who raised Cameron and has always defended him, is also for Out. I don’t know what Steve Hilton’s view is, although the Tory leader’s friend has been pretty robust on the EU in the past, once calling it a crony corporatist “cess-pit” I recall. Let’s put Steve down as a don’t know. Cameron also has never managed to replace communications chief Andy Coulson properly. Cameron’s operation is depleted and his closest ally – the Chancellor – is in the soup.

It is in that context that Matthew Parris has unleashed a fusillade against Boris Johnson in the Times today. Everyone on Twitter who dislikes Boris (and thought he would never become London Mayor) has decided that this is THE END for Boris. I’m not so convinced.  I don’t think Donald Trump and Boris are remotely similar (other than the hair) but there is one media parallel here, in the way in which the commentariat thought that when they really got going on the golf-obsessed poltroon, and delivered their finest put-downs, then the voters would see sense and Trump could go back to licensing his name to property developers and being rude about Alex Salmond. Don’t worry about the rise of Trump, the US commentariat assured us as recently as January, we’ve got our best columnists on it.

In that vein, the Parris piece is as beautifully crafted a hit job as you would expect from a prince among columnists. But it is deeply weird in certain respects, however, particularly in the way in which it makes such a big play of Boris Johnson’s private life. With that in mind, here are a few points in his defence:

1. It has taken Britain a long time to get over its censorious fixation with the bogus idea that the state of someone’s private life is always a guide to their suitability for office. Do we really want to go back to all that? To 1995? Some of the cleanest-living leaders made terrible Prime Ministers and Presidents. Personally speaking, beyond not seeing where people get the time or the energy, the older I get the less stoked I can get about what other people choose to get up to outside work. I was never particularly bothered to begin with, but now when I see others cackling about a prominent figure’s alleged misbehaviour I can barely be bothered listening. Of course, if a potential leader behaved like the recently departed Rob Ford, and snorted coke off the fronts steps of Number 10 then they, and the country, would have a problem. Short of that, if they can more than hold it together and do the job well then that is what matters.

2. The other charge against Boris is that he cannot possibly do the job and he believes in nothing other than getting to the top. Parris presents this case, conveniently ignoring that all manner of pillocks said the same about David Cameron and were proved wrong. But let’s accept for a second that just because they were wrong about Cameron’s abilities that does not make them wrong about Boris. The evidence is pretty clear. He is a two-term Mayor of London and even if his record is not sparkling it is perfectly solid in many respects. He appointed some good people and he has been a rather brilliant promoter of the place.

3. His instincts on taxation, infrastructure, defence, education and so on are perfectly reasonable. He’s not an extremist, if anything he’s perhaps a little too much like Michael Heseltine in his policy outlook, which may explain why some Thatcherites dislike the Mayor of London so much.

4. Boris  is right about London’s airports, and the need to push further East. For the UK it is an extraordinary investment opportunity – like Docklands in the 1980s times ten. Yes, of course there are problems (polluted land, transport etc) but every one of those problems was cited as a reason in the mid-1980s why Docklands was doomed. As late as 1987 it was common to see it written that Docklands was a white elephant and Canary Wharf would never happen. Look at it now. Britain needs a bit of that ambition, rather than getting a Howard Davies worthy to write yet another report that delays the decision, again.

5. Boris has no reach whatsoever outside London, it is said by Parris (who gets to Derbyshire) and many others who themselves rarely venture north of Upper Street (Islington). But Boris has no reach outside London compared to who? George Osborne? Jeremy Corbyn? Sajid Javid? Nicky Morgan?

6. Britain is going to need cheering up. This is Boris’s speciality and should not be dismissed as a quality. With the UK facing a potential second Scottish referendum, and Europe in flux, and ISIS lashing out, we could do with a bit of that Team GB London 2012 spirit. Who else could get stuck on a zip-wire, wearing a crash helmet and waving two Union flags? What an antidote to all that highly spun broken down politics by numbers.

7. Once the leadership campaign is over, in 2018, and all the mud-slinging is done, Boris as leader will have Michael Gove and many talented people around him. The sun will still rise. The Cameroons will find this hard to believe, but life will go on after Cameron eventually goes off into much-deserved semi-retirement for a pint in an Oxfordshire pub and a spot of hunting.

And then the Tory party will pull together. Ok, the last sentence was a joke.

Iain Martin is the Editor of CapX