Dispatch

Will Boris Be Britain’s ‘Last Conservative Prime Minister’?

Many Tories fear a Johnson premiership will tear the party apart for good.

Boris Johnson arrives for the Conservative Leadership televised debate in London on June 18.
Boris Johnson arrives for the Conservative Leadership televised debate in London on June 18. Luke Dray/Getty Images

LONDON—Perhaps the oddest thing about Boris Johnson’s ascension in the Conservative Party—and the overwhelming Tory support for his bid to become Britain’s next prime minister—is that the prospect of a Johnson premiership horrifies many members of the very party he aspires to lead.

In less than a month, the mop-haired former journalist and foreign secretary who has become Britain’s most recognizable and controversial politician is highly likely to replace the beleaguered Theresa May at No. 10 Downing St. Johnson is the firm favorite of the two tiny selectorates that will make that decision: the ruling Conservative Party’s 313 members of Parliament and the 160,000-strong party membership.

By one crucial measure, Johnson is the obvious choice to lead the Conservatives: Opinion polls regularly show that he is likely to gain more votes than any other leadership hopeful in a future general election. His surprise victory in the 2008 election for mayor of London— traditionally a Labour-leaning city—earned him the reputation of a Conservative who could appeal to voters usually loyal to other parties. Johnson “is the only British political who makes the voters smile,” said one close friend of his. “He has a real connection to ordinary people. He’s properly amazing with a crowd.”

Johnson’s political charisma rests largely on his larger-than-life personality, his undoubted wit, and a willingness to mock himself. Instead of playing down his privileged education at Eton College (Britain’s most exclusive private school) and the University of Oxford, Boris—as he is habitually known to British voters—plays up the role of a lovable, Latin-quoting, Bertie Wooster-ish buffoon.

But the prospect of Johnson actually running the country is a nightmarish one to many of his elite colleagues. Few figures in British public life “are so deeply hated” at the top, admitted Johnson’s friend. A chaotic personal life, at least one child born out of wedlock, and a decades-old reputation for dishonesty have led to charges that Johnson is morally unfit to head the party of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher—in some ways echoing similar claims that critics have made about his friend across the Atlantic, U.S. President Donald Trump, and the party of Abraham Lincoln.

Beyond that, with opinion polls consistently showing nationwide support for Brexit steadily eroding to around 45 percent, many Tories fear that the ferociously pro-Brexit Johnson will seek to take the party—and the country—in exactly the wrong direction.

As a journalist for the Times of London, Johnson was fired for making up quotes; as Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph he regularly filed stories ridiculing the absurdities of European Union regulations that were later exposed as being largely fabricated. In a 2002 Telegraph column, Johnson referred to black people as “picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles.” The same year he said of Africa that “the continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience,” adding its problem was “that we are not in charge any more.” By November 2004, Johnson was both a shadow arts minister and editor of the right-wing Spectator magazine—but he was fired from his shadow cabinet job by then-party leader Michael Howard for lying about an affair with a Spectator columnist. Johnson had called the allegations an “inverted pyramid of piffle”—before the woman publicly confirmed the story, adding that she had an abortion at Johnson’s insistence.

“I would not take Boris’s word about whether it is Monday or Tuesday,” Max Hastings, Johnson’s longtime editor at the Daily Telegraph, wrote in a scathing takedown in the Guardian in 2012. “Boris is a gold medal egomaniac. … He is also a far more ruthless, and frankly nastier, figure than the public appreciates.” Johnson “is not a man to believe in, to trust or respect, save as a superlative exhibitionist. He is bereft of judgment, loyalty and discretion,” Hastings added. “Only in the star-crazed, frivolous Britain of the 21st century could such a man have risen so high, and he is utterly unfit to go higher still.”

As Hastings suggested, in normal times a figure as controversial as Johnson would have little chance of leading the Conservatives, usually known for stolid traditionalism and a skepticism of flashy political adventurers. But the political maelstrom of Brexit seems to have shaken not only the Conservatives’ reputation for competence but also their traditional caution. In the three years since Britons voted 52 to 48 percent in favor of leaving the EU, the Conservatives have been racked with internal strife over what kind of Brexit they wanted—and that was before May even began serious negotiations with Brussels. As it turned out, the deal that May struck with the EU was rejected by historic majorities in the House of Commons—including a substantial number of hard-liners in her own party who believed that the deal left Britain tied too closely to Europe.

May’s failure to deliver Brexit as promised on March 29—coupled with the humiliation of having to beg the EU for a six-month extension of the deadline—ended her career as prime minister and set the stage for the current leadership race. But it also triggered a major upheaval in British politics as millions of angry pro-Brexit voters deserted the Conservatives for the single-issue Brexit Party. In elections for the European Parliament in May, the Brexit Party came first with 30.5 percent of the vote—leaving the Conservatives in an unprecedented fifth place with just 8.8 percent (anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats came second, and anti-Brexit parties were collectively in a majority).

“The Euro elections meant that [the Conservatives] have become focused on one thing: avoiding being annihilated” by the Brexit Party, said a former close aide to Johnson. That focus on confronting the threat from the hard Brexiteers has changed the tenor of this summer’s Conservative leadership contest. During the 2016 referendum, the party officially campaigned to remain in the EU. Now, nearly all contenders for the leadership have been vying to show off their radical anti-European credentials. One front-runner, former Brexit minister Dominic Raab, even threatened to suspend Parliament if the Commons attempted to block the U.K. from crashing out of the EU with no deal on the new deadline of Oct. 31. Johnson himself told a conference in Switzerland that the U.K. “will leave on Oct. 31, deal or no deal.”

Talk of a no-deal Brexit, which would see the U.K. abandon its status as a member of the European single market and instead trade with the EU on outsiders’ terms set by the World Trade Organization, horrifies many British business organizations as well as the Bank of England and swaths of leading economists. But it is music to the ears of the only voters Johnson really needs: the grassroots of the Conservative Party. According to a recent study by Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London and Paul Webb of the University of Sussex, the Tory Party’s 160,000 members are 97 percent white, 71 percent male, and overwhelmingly wealthy. Among this already unrepresentative sample of the population, it’s the hardest Brexiteers who tend to support Johnson—85 percent of Johnson voters prefer a no-deal Brexit, compared with 66 percent of Conservative Party members and 25 percent of the population.

Johnson’s strategy in his leadership race has so far to lie uncharacteristically low, avoiding television debates and producing only a single, slick campaign video dwelling on his successes as two-term mayor of London. “His handlers are shit scared that he’ll go off and do a Boris if they let him out of the box,” joked his former aide, referring to Johnson’s tendency to make unscripted gaffes. So far, the best indication of his strategy for Brexit has been reported remarks from a private dinner where Johnson enthused about how Trump would have handled negotiations with Brussels. Trump would “go in bloody hard. … There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos,” Johnson reportedly said. (He has not denied the remarks.) “Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere.”

In a recent interview with the BBC, Johnson said he had a plan in which flows of goods, services, and people to and from the EU would be allowed in but policed “at the point of sale”—an idea that doubtless puzzled the EU’s negotiators, who have made it abundantly clear that Britain will not be able to enjoy the benefits of open borders if they leave with no deal.

Only one leadership rival, International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, was honest enough to point out that Johnson’s “going in bloody hard” strategy has no chance of working. Brussels has repeatedly ruled out any renegotiation of the deal they offered May—more, a new European Commission will not be selected until September, leaving just weeks to accomplish what May failed to do in three years.

Some thoughtful Conservatives worry that Johnson’s reckless advocacy of a no-deal Brexit will lead to a showdown with Parliament (which has emphatically rejected no-deal) that will lead to a general election that the party would lose disastrously. A recent YouGov poll for the Sunday Times on national voting intentions put the Brexit Party at 24 percent, with the Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party at 21 percent each and the Liberal Democrats close behind at 19 percent.

Johnson “talks about not delivering Brexit being an ‘extinction event’ for the Conservatives,” said the former aide. “But the real extinction event is the party being torn apart” after the Brexiteers defect to Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage and “the Remainers go Lib Dem.” Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system—where the winner in every district is elected and all other candidates get nothing—may prove fatal to a flagging Tory party if it falls into second place in enough constituencies. With a national vote now divided four ways, the Conservatives may face the same kind of electoral Armageddon as the Canadian Conservatives, which were wiped out in 1993 after nearly a century in the political mainstream.

One of Johnson’s erstwhile rivals, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, admitted shortly after pulling out of the leadership race that the Conservative Party was not looking for the “candidate of the future” but “a candidate for the unique circumstances we face right now.” In those terms, Johnson is certainly the man to provide a fleeting boost to frustrated Brexit-leaning members smarting from the humiliation of failing to leave in March. Johnson’s legendary charm may even sway more of the British electorate in the aftermath of a fresh Brexit setback in Brussels and the House of Commons than any of his rivals can.

But with Brexit losing popularity, Johnson’s appeal to the hardest of Brexit no-deal hard-liners is unlikely to be a nationally winning strategy. “The Conservative leadership race has been a cross between a farce and a pander-fest,” the usually sober magazine the Economist furiously editorialized on June 8. “Candidates have fixated on the unrealistic Brexit deadline of October 31st, claimed magical negotiating powers for themselves and flirted with a kamikaze policy of leaving the EU without a deal … Banging on about ‘clean Brexits’ to fellow fanatics might be emotionally satisfying. But it is also a sure way of ending up in the boneyard.”

Conservative MPs may be ready to swallow their distaste for Johnson and vote for him as their party’s last-ditch, least-bad choice as the country slides toward a general election. But, said Johnson’s former aide with a shake of the head, “there’s a decent chance that Boris will be the last Conservative prime minister.”

Owen Matthews, the author of Stalin's Children, is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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