The unsinkable Boris Johnson: if not him, then who?

UK's chameleon prime minister is master of his fate despite a tumultuous two years in power

For years the time slot allocated to Boris Johnson at the annual Conservative Party’s annual conference was one of the better standing jokes.

Usually, it was at 9am. That may not sound too bad, but this was traditionally a gathering that liked to stay up late and the slot was something of a graveyard option. Few delegates were awake and functioning at what for them was an early hour.

It did not matter, of course, because the media always made sure they attended en masse, even if the hierarchy wished they would not. Mr Johnson was always good for a laugh and a picture, bound to say something out of school that would make the leadership tremble. He did not disappoint, shouting, waving his hands about, ruffling his hair, delivering stretched metaphors and occasionally making a serious point or two.

Remarkably, here he is, today, on the second anniversary of being elected leader. He is the ruler now, the head teacher. Or as he would put it in his Eton slang, top beak.

An insider on the outside

Yet, and there is inevitably a “yet” where Mr Johnson is concerned, the Tories are not as one with him. The truth is that he has never fitted in, he is not, as Mrs Thatcher liked to proclaim, “one of us”. On paper, he does. Eton and Oxford tick the boxes. As do stints on The Times and Telegraph.

But he is not part of any clique, social or ideological. He led the country though Brexit but the Brexiteers do not trust him – after all, in the run-up to the referendum he prepared two newspaper columns, one in favour of leaving, the other for remaining, so uncertain was he of his own conviction.

He is a man of shallow roots; as a child his family moved 32 times in 14 years. He conforms to the norm of a scruffy, landed toff but he is neither shooter nor angler. He professes to like football but appeared during the Euro 202 finals, looking uncomfortable, with a replica England shirt pulled over a tie and shirt.

He prefers the company of women, usually a deux, in private. A traditional Tory mother would be taken by her daughter’s choice of a young Boris as a boyfriend, but would then worry as to when, not if, the relationship would end. He has at least six children by three different women, and his personal finances are fragile.

Conservative foot soldiers are scared, too, of his intellect and vocabulary. Mr Johnson’s tendency to draw from Ancient Greece and his choice of words that would win hands down at Scrabble leave them feeling, well, a little bit ignorant.

They do not like that. Nor are they too sure about his depth of commitment. Is he blue, really? He has shown contempt for big business and is dismissive of bankers. He is married to Carrie, eco-mad, who shares platforms with, and counts among her friends, folk that hail from the political left.

Talk to Tory MPs and party workers and much of this will bubble up, usually accompanied by an anecdote about something Mr Johnson has said or done. It is incredible how often they will shake their heads. He is a person of amusement and bafflement and wonder. “That’s Boris.”

They can forgive him all this and more, much more, however, because he has succeeded. He won a general election by a landslide majority of 80 seats, securing 43.6 per cent of the popular vote, the highest of any party since 1979.

The Boris effect

Much of the country adores him. He is one of the few to break through, to be known everywhere, in the UK and abroad, by their first name – he’s simply Boris, a position that others crave but never come close to achieving.

He is comedic Boris, a rumbustious, apologetic, eccentric true Brit, and many love him for it. He is lucky as well, but people would rather have a lucky general than the reverse.

Even the pandemic worked to his favour. It masked failings that were becoming apparent elsewhere, in the execution of Brexit and renewed calls, in the light of the EU vote, from Scotland to break away.

Britain’s initial response to the virus was appalling. There again, he could maintain that the lack of preparedness was inherited – although that did not account for the terrible number of care home deaths.

He was unfortunate to be struck down himself, but then his own near brush with mortality served to highlight to a sceptical nation the seriousness of Covid and reinforce the need for lockdown.

Scientists at the University of Oxford came up with the golden ticket that saved the UK, and with it Mr Johnson, in discovering the vaccine. And officials, for once inspired, cut through red tape and ordered it in sufficient volumes to achieve a rapid roll-out.

The US, so often in the lead, came off second best and the EU was so slow that Remainers still grumbling about Brexit were silenced.

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Johnson’s good fortune has served him well, in overcoming tribulations that would down previous incumbents

Not that the problems have receded. In some respects, Covid has exacerbated them, highlighting health inequality, a declining high street, an overdependence on outmoded industries rather than digital ones and the sciences. Scotland, where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon took delight in steering her own course through the outbreak, has not gone away.

Mr Johnson’s good fortune has served him well in overcoming tribulations that would down previous incumbents: his mistress at the time was publicly funded when he was mayor of London; his chief adviser’s trip to Durham in contravention of the Covid rules; not sacking the home secretary when she was found to have bullied staff; failing to immediately fire health secretary Matt Hancock for flouting the same regulations; questions about his own financial arrangements; trying to avoid having to self-isolate after the new health secretary tested positive and he received a “pinged” warning.

He has come close, the last episode being closest of all – after much public anger the U-turn came in only two and a half hours.

He is blessed to have a grey leader of an unsure opposition. And Tory MPs ask: “If not Boris, who?”

It is a question posed in relation to their own organisation and to the nation. That is the crucial link that sustains him: it is impossible to conceive of anyone else leading the party at present; his nearest challenger would be Rishi Sunak, and he is too unknown.

The Johnsonian gilded path was displayed when the Tories won the Hartlepool by-election. A Labour stronghold and it went Conservative despite numerous scandals and issues besetting the Johnson administration.

That was followed by defeat in Chesham and Amersham and the failure to overhaul Labour in Batley and Spen. Herein lies the warning for Mr Johnson that may yet prove his undoing. Two years ago, he triumphed in the leadership election by introducing “levelling up”. He drew on the analogy of an internal combustion engine: “We are somehow achieving grand prix speeds, but without firing on all cylinders.”

He followed that with victory in the general election, persuading Labour towns in the North of England that their standard of living could be brought up to that of the South thanks to heavy public investment.

Levelling up is easily understood as levelling down somewhere else, which is why, along with the relaxation of the planning laws, the Tories were humiliated in the Home Counties constituency of Chesham and Amersham. Then, the momentum from the general election did not carry through to Batley and Spen in the North.

Tories' North-South divide

This has made Tory MPs, who under the rules of their party elect the leader, somewhat jittery. Those with seats in the South are questioning the wisdom, despite Mr Johnson’s denials, of being seen to prefer the North; while those in the North, who rode to Westminster on the back of the pledge to level up, are asking if change is proving too slow.

Their nervousness is compounded by the lamentable speech from Mr Johnson last week that was supposed to explain levelling up but which completely failed to get even close. The phrase has socialist connotations which, perhaps worryingly for Mr Johnson, are starting to be mentioned more frequently in Tory watering holes.

This, together with continued shilly-shallying over Covid, lifting restrictions too soon, test-and-trace meltdown, requiring nightclubbers to double vaccinate, which looks like compulsory vaccination by another name, the possibility of yet another lockdown, chaos over foreign travel arrangements and the treatment of school children, wage demands from health workers, unrest among students, the devastation of the key retail and hospitality sectors and the absence of a feted Brexit bounce, could fatally fuel the discontent.

For now, however, Mr Johnson is fairly secure as Conservative leader. As he self-isolates at the prime minister’s country residence of Chequers this weekend, he is entitled to follow his hero, Winston Churchill, and raise a celebratory glass of champagne.

A tumultuous two years - in pictures

Published: July 24th 2021, 8:14 AM
Updated: November 1st 2021, 1:33 PM
Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, based in London