The hour of Boris is at hand. He has been in backbench exile since last July, when he resigned as Foreign Secretary. He could not take Theresa May’s preposterous Chequers Agreement, and gave up the glories of Chevening. (How many of us could bear to part with a fine country house, said to be designed by Inigo Jones, with an ornamental lake, pleasure ground and park?) Since then he has had to await the defenestration of May, widely seen as the worst Prime Minister in history, and his second coming is weeks away. My website appraisal of Boris Johnson came out some months ago, and I now bring it up to date.
The present crisis in British politics stems from the European Union elections on May 23. These should never have included the UK. Britain was due to leave the EU on March 29th, and Theresa May had said many times that this would happen. A few days before that fatal date, the Government announced that it would apply for an extension to UK departure, and this was at once granted by the EU. As Britain had not left the EU it had to take part in elections it never wanted and never thought possible. This was an abject failure of policy, and May, with her Conservative Government, is held responsible.
The immediate consequences are that Prime Minister and Party are held in contempt, and this contempt will be publicly displayed in the EU elections. Voters can register their fury through a party that did not exist 6 weeks ago, the Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage. All the polls predict a massive victory for the Brexit Party, just as the EU elections in 2014 saw a huge victory by UKIP. The results—we shall know on Sunday—amount to a national plebiscite on the the Prime Minister’s handling of withdrawal from the EU. Forecasts for the Conservatives range from bad to catastrophic (some say, ‘biblical’). It is now clear that May has to go, and she, after disputing every yard of her long retreat, has agreed to talk with the leading Tories in June. All eyes are on the leadership contest, now well under way if not officially announced.
And Boris Johnson is the clear leader. All polls show him far ahead of his rivals. His nationwide popularity is important, but what really matters is that the leadership will be put to a vote of the Conservative Party members, who adore Boris. The rules say that the members will choose between the last two candidates after all the others have been eliminated; the anti-Boris faction will therefore have to prevent his name surviving to the play-off. This faction is strong in Westminster. At present they have a job, guaranteed for three years by the Constitution. A change of government imperils their livelihoods and prospects of advancement.
I don’t think they can stop Boris. The country warms to his genial optimism, and people are well informed these days. Many Conservative members joined specifically because they wanted a voice in the leadership contest whenever it might come. (You have to be a member for three months before acquiring voting rights. None of your Labour mushroom members.) To Boris’s charms I add my own favourite: he is a master of the English language, and he quotes. No other politician does. In a recent article for the Daily Telegraph, he referred to Tony Blair and his flashing eyes, his floating hair. He wrote this without inverted commas or naming Kubla Khan. He just expected readers to pick up the reference, and if they did not, so what? Other politicians are terrified of seeming elitist or divisive, because of the public’s limited education. Boris, an Etonian, could not care less. And he will continue to bring new phrases into the language. The EU negotiators aim at a “punishment beating” of the UK, he says. May’s Withdrawal Agreement “would wrap a suicide belt around the country and reduce it to vassal status.” Burka wearers “look like letter boxes or bank robbers.” That one caused outrage from the usual suspects. Will a reformed Boris, like Prince Hal in Henry IV, say “So shall the world perceive/That I have turned away my former self”? We shall know soon enough. The bookmakers, with whom no one lightly disputes, say that Boris Johnson will be the next Prime Minister of Britain.
Ralph Berry writes from England.