Why Boris would be a suitable leader for the UK

Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, looks on as he leaves his home in London on Monday. Chris Ratcliffe /Bloomberg
Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, looks on as he leaves his home in London on Monday. Chris Ratcliffe /Bloomberg

The luxuriant flaxen hair. The flamboyant gestures and outrageous remarks. The suggestion of not being serious enough for the highest office. Comparisons have already been made between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London who is a leading contender to be elected the next leader of Britain’s Conservatives, and thus prime minister.

For some the prospect is too dreadful to contemplate. The television chef Jamie Oliver has rather dramatically declared that should Mr Johnson become premier: “My faith in us will be broken for ever.”

On top of that, Mr Johnson only finds himself in this position because he led the campaign for Britain to leave the EU. The suspicion of some is that his last-minute conversion to the cause was opportunistic; he wanted to burnish his credentials with Eurosceptic Tory MPs in the event of a leadership contest, goes the charge, while not actually desiring or believing in a Brexit he did not think a majority would vote for.

The liberal left elite will wring their hands, just as they did when he was elected mayor in 2008. Just before that vote, The Guardian newspaper ran a hilariously over the top feature warning readers to “be afraid, be very afraid”.

But there are a huge number of Britons, including many non-Conservative voters, who would be delighted if Boris, as he is universally known, were to be the next occupant of 10 Downing Street. For he is neither the bumbling Bertie he has sometimes made himself out to be, nor the Machiavellian man of no principle that his bitterest opponents allege. And I write with some knowledge, having had many dealings and conversations with him over the years.

First of all, the fear that he would lead a hard right administration should be dismissed. Boris is a Conservative, of course, but he is no mean-spirited Thatcherite with scant sympathy for those who did not have the advantages, such as an Etonian education, that he did.

As Tony Blair’s biographer John Rentoul has correctly put it: “Johnson is a compassionate liberal Conservative, just like his schoolmate Cameron ... in the referendum campaign Johnson presented himself as the champion of the working person, a denouncer of bankers’ greed and an advocate of egalitarianism.”

His record as mayor bears out that when in office he has displayed moderation and pragmatism. More affordable housing was built during his two terms than during those of his Labour predecessor, Ken Livingstone. Progress was made on public transport, crime fell, an “ultra low emission zone” was planned for central London, and a hugely successful Olympics was held.

On his departure, 54 per cent of Londoners reckoned he had been a successful chief executive of the capital, whereas only 20 per cent felt he had not. That was no mean achievement, just as were his two election victories at a time when the Conservatives hadn’t won a significant poll since 1992.

True, he may not have been a details man, but he chose able lieutenants, and focusing on the bigger picture has been the hallmark of some of the Conservatives’ most able politicians over the years.

Accusations of racism or bigotry also fall wide of the mark. He did once have to apologise to Papua New Guinea for associating the country with cannibalism, and on another occasion joked that women went to university because “they’ve got to find men to marry”. But anyone who cannot see that these were instances of a sense of humour, albeit of the schoolboy variety, needs to take themselves a little less seriously. And with a Turkish great-grandfather and a half-Indian wife, the suggestion that Mr Johnson harbours racial prejudices is just not credible.

The fact is that Mr Johnson’s larks, his willingness to be lampooned, and the unfashionable classical erudition that he displays at every opportunity, have made him hugely popular. Even his old adversary, Mr Livingstone, admits that “Boris makes people feel good about themselves – that’s an incredibly powerful force in politics. Not many people have got that.”

It is often underestimated. But just as Ronald Reagan’s sunny disposition made his “It’s morning again in America” campaign a convincing, presidency-defining statement of affirmation, so Mr Johnson’s ability to make people laugh, and feel just that little more confident, could be invaluable during a time of great uncertainty.

Finally, anyone still tempted to dismiss him as an unserious character who cannot be trusted to lead a country should remember this: Mr Johnson has always been so ambitious that as a child he declared he wanted to be “world king” when he grew up.

Mr Johnson is the chief architect of the Brexit victory. As prime minister, he would have to turn the most radical change in Britain’s relationship with the world since joining the EEC in 1973 into a triumph.

It is a tall order, and Mr Johnson knows it. But he is likely to do so, if only for this: because he cannot bear to lose. The greatest prize is within his grasp, but Mr Johnson knows it will turn to ashes if this leap into the unknown turns into a disaster.

For Mr Johnson, failure is not an option. Under the circumstances, that should be a cause for optimism – and a hailing at last of Boris as prime minister.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia

Published: June 28, 2016 04:00 AM

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