25 January 2018

The tragic tale of Boris Johnson


In politics, it is not enough to be right. You have to be right for the right reasons. And, I would add, at the right time. Consider Boris Johnson’s behaviour this week. The Foreign Secretary let it be known he intended to demand extra money for the NHS. He did so, naturally, in the press and in advance of the most recent cabinet meeting.

By any reasonable standard this is the sort of behaviour that, as young fogeys may still say, is not on. It scarcely matters that Johnson is correct about the extra funds the health service needs. He may be correct but his motives are hardly pure and, in any case, now is not the time for this kind of grandstanding.

The cabinet, of course, is leakier than a colander these days and so it was no kind of surprise to discover that other senior ministers pointedly suggested demands for more money for this or that department should really, all things considered, be made privately rather than publicly and in advance. That is how the intra-departmental game is supposed to be played and, even in this government, some standards are still supposed to be maintained.

If Remain voters who blame Johnson — perhaps with some justification — for a Brexit vote that might not have happened but for his decision to come out for Leave were feeling charitable, they might appreciate the appalling situation in which Boris finds himself. He has been exiled to the foreign office but stripped of all responsibility for negotiating the biggest diplomatic challenge the British state has faced in decades. The Foreign Office is diminished but it is, as far as the Prime Minister is concerned, an ideal gilded cage in which to imprison her troublesome rival.

All of which leaves Johnson struggling for relevance. He cannot be exiled to the backbenches but nor can he be trusted. It is not, to put it mildly, an ideal situation for him, for his party leader or, even, for the country. In other circumstances, he might be a sympathetic figure; even one deserving some measure of pity.

Here, after all, is a man who just two years ago seemed on the brink of achieving his life’s ambition and becoming prime minister, only to have it snatched away from him. Coming so close only emphasised how far away it remained. What’s more, it was lost in an ecstasy of his own fumbling and dithering that was enough to prompt Michael Gove to unsheath his dagger and, for the good of the country, end both Johnson’s leadership ambitions and his own.

And so Boris finds himself in a kind of internal exile. Mistrusted by his colleagues, unforgiven by the 48 per cent of voters who backed Remain, and holding court to an ever-smaller band of Boris-believers, he is a general without an army who still believes there’s a chance of one final shot at glory. When all other options are exhausted, the Conservative Party may still call for Johnson to ride gallantly to its rescue; when everything else and every other possible leader is deemed impossible, Boris will be the only trick-winning card left on the table.

It is a theory but not, I think, a credible one. However much the Foreign Secretary enjoys the idea of himself as a Cincinnatus or Churchill waiting to answer the calls of history and destiny, it is not obvious the country shares Johnson’s epic view of himself. There is a considerable gap between his ambition and the reality of the situation in which he finds himself.

And yet, despite that, Johnson was not altogether wrong to ask for more money for the NHS even if the manner in which that demand was made was neither helpful to the government nor even useful in terms of furthering his own ambitions. Then again, it was hardly novel. Everyone accepts that the NHS both needs more money and new ways of working if it is to retain even current levels of efficiency and service delivery.

Even so, it is telling that Johnson’s interventions are distrusted even when he is, substantively speaking, correct. He is always on manoeuvres, or so his cabinet colleagues plainly feel. That being the case, thwarting those manoeuvres then becomes a valuable prize in itself. Perhaps politics should not be a zero sum game but, however regrettably, it often is. A “win” for Johnson is a loss for his future rivals.

History is filled with nearly men and, for the moment anyway, that seems likely to be Johnson’s fate too. Though neither man might enjoy the comparison, he increasingly feels like the Michael Heseltine of our time. Like Heseltine, Boris’s ambition exceeds his reach. There is a tragic quality to this even if Johnson’s drama is often billed as a kind of comedy. The trouble, of course, is that few people are laughing now. A sad business, then, recalling George W. Bush’s withering — if also unkind — verdict on Bill Clinton’s presidency: “So much promise, to no great purpose”.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.