The case for underestimating Boris Johnson

For the one and only time in my life, I’m praying for Jeremy Hunt. He is inexplicably popular with Tory MPs, but of all possible opponents, I choose him. Based on the current numbers, however, Boris Johnson is going to win the Tory leadership race by a country mile. And he’s going to get a polling bounce as a result. He will look like a strong Tory leader, and he will look popular.

If Nigel Farage has been underestimated as an opponent, however, Boris Johnson runs the risk of being overestimated. And, for him, that is a serious risk. Not that he isn’t clever. Not that he isn’t ruthless. Not that he doesn’t think strategically. Not that his contrived image as a gaffeur who stumbles charmingly through political life isn’t cunning, for an opportunist who must know how to speak in various and incongruous registers to different audiences. And not, crucially, that he doesn’t enjoy influential support. But anyone taking the job of Prime Minister and Tory leader, at this point in history, would have to be a miracle worker not to end up with shit on their face.

Boris Johnson is an excellent self-publicist, but he is not a miracle worker. He is not even a particularly effective administrator. There is a difference between climbing the greasy pole and being politically efficacious. He is lazy and incompetent, coming to power at a moment where the Prime Minister has to confront major crises of the British state and British economy. And the burden of being in office and having to work out an answer to Brexit is likely to put pressure on his panel show entertainer demeanour.

You might argue that I’m omitting, crucially, his experience as Mayor of London, a job for which he was twice elected by convincing margins. If he was as bad as all that, how did he keep his electorate? Indeed, in 2012 he massively outperformed the Conservative vote, which was knocked back to 32 per cent across London, compared to 44 per cent first preference votes for Johnson. The Tories lost control of the GLA, while Johnson remained mayor.

So let‘s give credit where it’s due. Johnson got what he wanted out of being London mayor. He got all the authority, with none of the stigma. He was mayor of the capital city for eight years, was then a senior cabinet minister, and is now the top candidate to be Prime Minister. In political career terms, you can’t fault that. True, you can attribute much of this success to Johnson’s class advantages, not least his support in the rightwing press. Not just the Telegraph, where he has an uncritical mouthpiece, but, crucially, the Evening Standard. He was close friends with both the editor and the owner of the Standard, which ran an absolutely hysterical, filthy racist campaign against Livingstone, claiming that illegitimate votes were being stacked up for Ken in Muslim areas. 

But this is politics; we take Johnson’s advantage with the rightwing press for granted. And he was very good at using the press to delegate nastiness. Perhaps, in this age, we should also take for granted the malicious stupidity of the Labour Right. They had always hated Livingstone, and were outraged when, in 2010, he defended Lutfur Rahman, who had been popularly chosen as Labour’s candidate for mayor of Tower Hamlet and then deselected amid a filthy campaign by Andrew Gilligan, who alleged that he was a secret fundamentalist. By 2012, many figures of the Labour Right overtly preferred a vote for Johnson over Livingstone. Tom Watson would only urge people to ‘hold their nose’ and vote for Livingstone.

However, what Johnson achieved for himself was wildly disproportionate to anything he can be said to have achieved for the Tories in London.  Indeed, he barely even ran as a Tory. He distanced himself from austerity, and was overtly critical of certain government policies. He packaged himself as vaguely eco-conscious liberal, riding his bike to work every day. His major class offensives, against the firefighters union and the RMT, didn’t get very far. He wasn’t able to impose a ‘no strike’ deal on the tube drivers. He outsourced the fight with the firefighters to the blustering Brian Coleman, a shambolic struggle that ended in a compromise. Apart from some malicious sops to the rightist scumroots, such as cancelling the annual antiracist festival, Rise, cutting funding for rape centres, wasting money on water cannons, and briefly installing ‘knife detectors’ on the tube, he basically ran the city much as Livingstone had. That is, he got straight into bed with the City, and with property developers.

As long as Johnson was mayor of a rich city where finance and property were protected at all costs, and where he had only a limited range of devolved powers, he didn’t face too many major dilemmas. And he always had an alibi, someone else to blame, inasmuch as he wasn’t running the entire country. How will he fare in a job that no one, least of all him, wanted to take until May had delivered Brexit and taken the shit for it? How will he manage, dealing with one of the biggest crises of state and economy faced by the government in decades? I’m not sure the sinister clown magic won’t wash off.

I raise all this because there are many ‘takes’ out there which are either enamoured over, or panicking about, Johnson’s strategic wits. He is dangerous. He will, surely, be a far better opponent for Labour than May was. And he has influential bases of support. But I simply ask, assuming he doesn’t have a magic solution to the Brexit issue, how long dealing with exactly the same dilemma that May had to deal with, would it take for his leadership to start disintegrating?

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