How I would love to be able to work out what goes on inside Tory MPs’ brains. (Don’t be rude: of course they have brains. Well, most of them …)
And if any Tory MP should happen to read these words, please feel free to get in touch. Because for the life of me, I cannot begin to fathom what on earth was going on inside the noddles of the 114 men and women who on Thursday voted for Boris Johnson to be the next prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
After all, they know him. (I do, too, a bit, since the days long ago when he was just a gob-for-hire, a journalist with opinions and a knack for making waves.) They know him to be, in the words of former Tory MP Matthew Parris, now a Times columnist: ‘a habitual liar, a cheat, a conspirator with a criminal pal to have an offending journalist’s ribs broken, a cruel betrayer of the women he seduces, a politician who connived in a bid for a court order to suppress mention of a daughter he fathered, a do-nothing mayor of London, and the worst foreign secretary in living memory.’
This is the man – incredibly – who they apparently think is best qualified to lead the nation. Except, of course, that’s not what they really think at all, nor is it why they voted for him. What they really think is – and Tory MPs, please do correct me if I’m wrong – that he’s the man most likely to enable them to hang on to their jobs at the next election.
So what if he’s an unprincipled liar? People will still vote for him, won’t they? Who cares if his insouciant, shoulder-shrugging acceptance of a ‘no deal Brexit’ would spell disaster for the UK, its economy and the jobs of thousands of British citizens? If he has a better chance than anyone else of seeing off Nigel Farage, what else could possibly matter?
It plainly doesn’t bother them a bit that a UK led by Boris Johnson would be a pitiable laughing stock among its erstwhile friends and allies. ‘Oh, the poor old UK,’ they will whisper in conference corridors. ‘They used to count for something. Remember? But look at them now. I mean … Boris Johnson?’
(And if you think I’m being unfair, I would urge you to read this eye-popping piece in the New Yorker. You will be astonished at my capacity for restraint.)
Once upon a time, we used to laugh at Boris The Clown. With his tousled hair, his little-boy-lost grin and his jolly japes public school vocabulary, he added to the gaiety of the nation. He had no power, so he could do no harm.
Then we mocked him. Having been elected mayor of London, he looked an utter prat as he waved an outsize Union flag at the close of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 with his jacket flapping open. Four years later, he somehow contrived to get himself stuck on a zip wire while ostensibly celebrating a Team GB Olympic gold medal.
But none of it seemed to matter much, because no one really took him seriously. We all understood that nothing that Johnson has done, either as a journalist or as a politician, has been about anything other than Johnson. He evidently sees himself as a modern incarnation of Winston Churchill: the reality, as the French newspaper Le Monde pointed out in a brutally cutting editorial this week, is that Johnson as the UK’s prime minister would be a ‘mini-Trump across the Channel dedicated to the destruction of the European Union.’
But now the time for mockery is over. Just as American voters discovered in 2016, when they woke up one November morning to discover that they had elected Donald Trump as their president, just because something makes no sense doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
Until quite recently, the conventional wisdom at Westminster was that Johnson was loathed as a lazy charlatan by his fellow MPs but loved by Conservative party activists because he’s a cheeky chappie who makes them laugh. What I never imagined was that more than a hundred of those same MPs, in the first round of an election to choose a new party leader, would vote for a man they loathe. Don’t anyone dare tell me that cynicism has no place in politics.
True, there are now reports of a Stop Boris coalition being discussed by some of his leadership rivals – but the likelihood is that whoever survives to face him in the final run-off vote will have to make do with the title of the Man (yes, they are all men) Who Couldn’t Beat Boris. A truly glorious political epitaph.
Nevertheless, Johnson could still stumble. His handlers’ attempts to keep him as far away as possible from opportunities to put his foot in it will not be sustainable as the campaign progresses – although they know full well that one ill-timed off-colour joke or ill-considered witticism could sink him. This, after all, is a man who still thinks there is nothing wrong with describing Muslim women who wear a full face veil, or niqab, as looking like letter boxes or bank robbers.
It is easy – and not inaccurate – to look at Johnson and see exactly what Le Monde sees: a mini-Trump. At his campaign launch press conference, a journalist who asked a tough question was jeered by his supporters – and a columnist in the Daily Telegraph, the newspaper that pays him handsomely to write a weekly column, warned the BBC that if it ‘continues to distort and withhold information from viewers there will be trouble.’
Let’s hope Johnson isn’t soon tempted to go one step further and label his former journalist colleagues ‘enemies of the people.’ Let’s also hope, for all our sakes, that Tory MPs – and party activists -- come to their senses before it is too late.