Pundits, MPs and even his cabinet colleagues all seem to have reacted sharply to the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s recent Telegraph article setting out his vision for a ‘bold thriving Britain’ after Brexit. After the furore surrounding the article, I felt somewhat underwhelmed by it. Nothing appeared particularly controversial or contradictory to current government policy. In fact, barring the occasional platitude about de-regulation, you wouldn’t have known it had been written by a Conservative MP, let alone a cabinet minister. The scope of the reaction to it is however far more newsworthy than the piece itself, betraying the complex rivalries between cabinet ministers about who ought to succeed May as leader, as well as betraying Boris’ perception of himself as destined for the role of party leader and Prime Minister.
These ambitions began to be given serious thought in the press before the 2015 General Election, during which he announced he would attempt to re-enter parliament to coincide with the end of his second term as London Mayor. His two terms, won as a Conservative candidate in a city which was and is an increasingly Labour inclined city, made him a superficially attractive candidate to Conservatives worried about defeat in 2015. Cameron’s shock win put his ambitions on hold, before the EU referendum gave him a platform to express himself on a national stage (he was at the time still the most popular politician in the country). His commitment to the cause he supported was questionable (remember the remain and leave articles he prepared), and the Brexit campaign’s victory set him up for a shot at the leadership he coveted before being memorably shot down by former ally Michael Gove.
It is in this context that the article should be taken. Boris is a man who has never really stopped running for the leadership, and the chance to be the leader that saves the country from a Corbyn premiership will appeal to many, not least someone with Boris’ almost messianic self-belief. It is hard not be affected when columnists and MPs talk about you in gushing terms as the party’s saviour, as many once did about the Foreign Secretary. The anger his article provoked among his colleagues, captured most memorably for me by Amber Rudd explicitly stating that she wouldn’t want him running the Brexit negotiations of his own accord. We might have got used in recent months to this level of cabinet disunity, but we ought to remember such publicly aired disputes are far from normal.
The final question then is whether Boris Johnson is the future leader the Conservative Party needs to stave off defeat by a resurgent Jeremy Corbyn come the next election. Simply put, he is not. The bumbling charm which made him a popular London Mayor and panel show guest is not, nor should it be, what the public want in a leader. More substantially, the suspicion that his position on the EU referendum was designed for personal gain is far from the behaviour of a future PM. It is unlikely that there is a single figure waiting in the wings to rescue the party from catastrophe, but one thing is for sure; that figure certainly isn’t Boris Johnson.
(Image courtesy of The Express)