Boris Johnson wants to retake No 10, but Sunak outclasses him

Facing the parliamentary Privileges Committee this month doesn't bode well for the former British prime minister

Former British prime minister Boris Johnson will have to answer questions about allegedly lying to parliament. PA Wire
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I don’t understand Boris Johnson, the former British prime minister. I’ve met and enjoyed the company of members of his extended family. They are clever and charming. I’ve read a few of his (often silly and sometimes offensive) newspaper columns. And I’ve watched his bizarre political career with a mixture of amazement and sorrow, but I still don’t really know what makes Mr Johnson tick.

As a journalist I’ve met many impressive political leaders including – name drop alert – Margaret Thatcher, Jacques Chirac, Angela Merkel, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and many others. Every one of them had a vision. They all wanted to do something for their country and the world as well as to be something important for their own egos. Mr Johnson is not like that. He’s all ego and no vision. He talks in headlines – “Global Britain”, “Levelling Up” – but there is no story. He has ambition but no ideology nor a coherent plan for governing. And now he is reported to be still trying to make a comeback as prime minister and allegedly plotting against his successor Rishi Sunak.

Mr Johnson certainly has experience in plotting. He helped bring down two predecessors, David Cameron and Theresa May. But now many MPs in his own Conservative party have tired of his disloyalty. An important parliamentary disciplinary committee, the Privileges Committee (where Conservative MPs are in the majority) says the evidence “strongly suggests” that as prime minister Mr Johnson knew that parties he held in Downing Street breached coronavirus lockdown rules in ways that were “obvious”.

Mr Johnson will face the committee in public soon though inexplicably he has responded already by claiming that he has been cleared or vindicated. He hasn’t.

Coincidentally, last week I needed to check a Shakespeare quote from Macbeth, for use in a new book project. And while the portly and shambolic Mr Johnson is nothing like Macbeth, the historic Scottish military commander and coup leader, they do both share the same fatal flaw. They are both consumed by ambition without any obvious wider purpose than personal aggrandisement.

Sunak has created a positive mood while Johnson looks like yesterday’s man rather than tomorrow’s comeback kid

Macbeth listens to siren voices from witches and his “vaulting ambition” is to be something – King of Scotland – rather than to do something. Mr Johnson, too, simply wanted the top job without any clear idea of what he wanted to do with it.

Famously, he was even in two minds about supporting or opposing Brexit. As a result of their dangerous ambitions, both Macbeth and Mr Johnson became political assassins, in Macbeth’s case with a knife; in Mr Johnson’s case with backstairs intrigues and plots against his predecessors.

At Westminster there are suggestions that even now Mr Johnson thinks he can succeed Rishi Sunak and return to Downing Street. But to do what? The former head of Britain’s diplomatic service, Simon McDonald, says Mr Johnson was undoubtedly the worst of seven prime ministers, both Conservative and Labour, that he served under. Mr McDonald describes Mr Johnson as both “charismatic” and also “chaotic” while Mrs Thatcher was “the best and Johnson was the worst” prime minister of the past 40 or so years.

The good news is that no one would accuse Rishi Sunak of being either “chaotic” or “charismatic”. Britain is better with Mr Sunak’s low key hard work. He is a details person. He has grasped the complex post-Brexit problems created by Mr Johnson in Northern Ireland. Mr Sunak boldly says his own new Brexit deal gives Northern Ireland the best of trading conditions within the UK and also the best with the EU. He speaks of a historic opportunity to boost the Northern Ireland economy, although in ways that immensely cheer up British pro-European activists.

At a meeting I attended last week, all the pro-EU talk centred on how Mr Sunak, by admitting that a trade deal with the EU is excellent for Northern Ireland, has opened the door to something similar in future for the whole of the UK.

The Brexit mess may at last be unravelling when faced with basic economic realities. We shall see. But Mr Sunak has definitely created a new more positive mood between Westminster and Brussels while Mr Johnson looks like yesterday’s man rather than tomorrow’s comeback kid. His serial disloyalty to his own party leaders plays badly with many Conservatives who see – correctly – party loyalty as a vital political weapon. And there’s worse to come.

Later this month the parliamentary Privileges Committee will ask Mr Johnson formally about allegedly lying to parliament. We could end up with a forced by-election in Mr Johnson’s constituency on the outskirts of London, a constituency where locals rarely even see their illustrious but generally invisible Member of Parliament. He’s too busy with other things, including vacations. He could lose his seat.

The full Shakespeare quote from Macbeth is one of self-realisation. Macbeth says, “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself and falls on th' other.”

Vaulting ambition may get you to the top in politics. But without a coherent plan for doing something rather than merely being someone, it overleaps itself. A fall is inevitable. It’s a tragedy of one kind or another.

Published: March 08, 2023, 5:00 AM
Updated: March 21, 2023, 4:35 PM