Boris Johnson Reached for the Throne but Got Stabbed in the Back Instead
He thought he could use Brexit to achieve his ambitions. It turns out the Euroskeptics were just using him.
“Beneath the carefully constructed veneer of a blithering buffoon” Boris Johnson once said of himself, “there lurks a blithering buffoon.” This was a very Johnsonian piece of self-analysis. It might be accurate, but how could you tell? It might also, after all, be part of the game — part of Johnson’s attempt to charm and quip his way to the pinnacle of British politics. Another careful piece of misdirection designed to draw attention from the only thing that everyone really knows is true about Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson: that his ambition knows no bounds.
Or knew none, anyway. Up until Thursday morning, all of Boris’s life had been building to one final crowning glory: the moment when this mop-haired eccentric, who seemed to be living under the impression that P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels were gritty tales of social realism, would become prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Yesterday, it looked as though that ambition, the single constant in Johnson’s ever-changing, chaotic universe, would at last be realized. He had, finally, seen off David Cameron, his old rival from Eton and Oxford, and was ready to bashfully accept the crown in a spirit of faux if-you-insist-old-bean modesty. It shimmered before him, as tantalizing and tempting as Macbeth’s dagger.
And then Boris discovered that the dagger he thought he saw before him had in fact been plunged into his own back. If it weren’t so damn, well, funny, one might pause briefly to appreciate the pathos of the moment. A life’s ambition is ruined and Boris will henceforth be recalled as a great entertainer who promised more, much more, than he could deliver. When the crunch came, when the choosing time was upon him, he lost his nerve. Some poor sap would have to lead Britain through the next phase of this constitutional crisis, he conceded, standing before a lectern. But, he said, he’d “concluded that person cannot be me.”
Yet again, the rules that govern the behavior of other, lesser, sounder people did not apply. Other people, having led a campaign to heave Britain out of the EU, might feel some duty of care when it came to the messy business of dealing with the consequences of the actions they had urged people to take. Not Boris. By declining to run for the Tory leadership Boris made clear he rejected Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn principle: “You break it, you own it.” “I broke it,” Boris effectively said, “now you own it.”
How could a man who has spent years straining with ever fiber of his being for something simply conclude that it cannot be him? The most plausible theory is also startlingly simple: Having come so close, Boris found that the prize remained just out of reach. Winning the Tory leadership is a two-stage process. A ballot of MPs knocks all but the top two contenders out of the running, and those two candidates are then put to the party membership, who will elect one of them leader. The majority of Tory members are fiercely Euroskeptic. Indeed, just a few months ago, Boris calculated that they would need a Euroskeptic candidate for whom to vote – and hitched his star to the Leave campaign. That was when it looked as though Boris might face George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, a close Cameron ally and prominent Remainer, in the final vote.
Being for Leave, however, didn’t necessarily mean Boris actually wanted Britain to leave the EU. Nothing in his long and very public career supports the contention that Boris was a passionate Euroskeptic. On the contrary, as recently as this spring he was still warning that leaving the EU would be a fiercely complicated and expensive business. Only one thing could make him change his mind: ambition.
The referendum was, for Boris, an opportunity and a ploy. Like most people, he never actually thought Leave would win. He never reckoned he would have to honor the checks written in the campaign. It was a risk-free enterprise. Heck, he might as well have been playing with house money. What a spiffing entertainment! What larks!
But when push comes to shove, no political party has cornered the market in ruthlessness as the Tories have done for the last 150 years. The party exists to be in power and will sacrifice any individual in pursuit of that greater cause. The contrast between efficient Tory ruthlessness and the tragicomic farce being played out in the Labour Party, as senior figures plot a coup against Jeremy Corbyn armed with nothing more than rubber spoons, is as complete as it is instructive. Boris might be a swell entertainer, but he couldn’t be trusted to ensure that leaving the EU actually meant leaving the EU. He might settle for something less, some deal that allowed Britain to maintain a workable trading relationship with the continent. So he had to go. (Paradoxically, some Remain voters felt Boris might be the best candidate to replace Cameron on the grounds that only he had the brass neck to water down the Leave vote and strike a deal with the EU that offered Britain the best possible trading terms. It takes a real charlatan to achieve that.)
Lest one feel too much sympathy, it should be remembered that Boris, before this moment, played the Game of Tories as savagely as the rest. Cameron had hoped to keep Boris in the Remain camp, knowing that his defection to the Leave camp would instantly give it a measure of credibility. But Boris was on maneuvers, calculating that his own leadership aspirations were best served by desertion: He assumed he’d be well-placed to succeed Cameron whichever way the campaign went. Heads he won; tails his rivals lost. Or so he thought.
“I’ve never seen anything like it” said Michael Heseltine, a man who knows a thing or two about coups. It was Heseltine’s rebellion against Margaret Thatcher that led to the Iron Lady’s defenestration in 1990. Boris, Heseltine said, “has ripped the Tory Party apart” and “created the greatest constitutional crisis in peacetime in my life…. He’s like a general who marches his army to the sound of the guns and the moment he sees the battleground he abandons it.” But as Heseltine himself has said — drawing from his own experience — “he who wields the knife never wears the crown.”
Instead, Boris was stabbed by his own friends. As recently as Thursday morning, as he tucked into his breakfast eggs and bacon, Boris had every reason to be confident he’d achieve his lifetime’s ambition. Already the darling of the party faithful, he’d locked up the support of 100 of his parliamentary colleagues. Then, at 9:02 a.m., journalists received an email from Michael Gove, the other leading Tory light in the Leave campaign, announcing his intention to leave Boris’s camp and stand for the leadership himself. Boris was blindsided; no warning was given. No text message, no phone call, no email, no nothing. As Gove put it, “I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.” Unlike Boris, Gove is a true believer in Leave. Unlike Boris, he is staggeringly unpopular in the country at large. If Boris is at heart a One Nation Tory, Gove is a romantic but radical Whig.
At a stroke, nearly half of Boris’s pledge MPs abandoned him. Dominic Raab, a thirsty up-and-coming right-winger, had written a piece for Friday’s edition of the Sun explaining why Boris was the best man to lead Britain out of its present, largely Boris-induced crisis. By 11 a.m. he had defected to Gove’s campaign. It was almost as though this sandbagging had been a deliberate plan all along; that Boris had not hitched his star to the Leave campaign, but rather the Leave campaign had hitched itself to him – then disposed of him once he could no longer be of use. A “House of Cards” maneuver of which Francis Urquhart (as Frank Underwood is known in the British original version of the series) would have been mightily proud.
You might think that this kind of carry-on is the type of behavior that would embarrass a posse of squabbling teenage girls and you would be correct. But this has become routine — our new normal — in the upper echelons of the Conservative Party. Then again, since Johnson and Gove are each, by temperament and training, journalists, we should not perhaps be surprised by their low cunning, high venality, and their ability, above all, to generate good copy.
But what a mess it all is. Last week I wrote that Cameron’s career had ended in humiliation. The outgoing British prime minister would, I suggested, be remembered as a disastrous failure whose sole legacy would be presiding over an ill-judged and star-crossed referendum that set in train the process of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. That remains the case this week. But, gosh, Cameron suddenly looks like a beacon of stability and copper-bottomed sound judgment compared with what’s following in his wake.
Where does this leave Britain? Well, in truth, nobody knows. But when you play the Game of Tories, you win or you die.
Photo credit: BEN PRUCHNIE/Getty Images