They’re not just whispering it any more. Boris Johnson’s supporters are openly talking about him as the next prime minister. Everything is going exactly as Johnson planned. His article in the Daily Telegraph caused precisely the controversy he wanted. Boris’ tasteless jokes about Muslim women’s attire were carefully chosen to create the maximum outrage in the right places. Demands for an apology were always going to lead to a loud defence from his allies in the media and the Tory Party. In this case, he’s outmanoeuvred his opponents. His dog whistle has woken up all the right dogs.
Johnson doesn’t really care about the burqa, but a section of the British public does. Johnson knew he could get them on side by mocking the garment, and win more support when conservative commentators claimed his free speech was under attack. Of course, Johnson is freer to speak than many British Muslims. It unlikely he receives as many abusive emails as Lord Sheikh did when he criticised the now infamous article. And he still has that Telegraph column. There was never any risk of losing it.
The former foreign secretary has always wanted to be prime minister. His friends, his colleagues and anyone who has casually observed his career could tell you that. Every action he takes is calculated to advance that goal. Johnson gambled on the Brexit referendum, writing two conflicting articles about the EU before plumping for Leave. This kind of cynicism-writ-large is Johnson’s modus operandi. Why did he resign as foreign secretary? His principled opposition to the Chequers Agreement? Hardly. Johnson saw which way the wind was blowing and jumped ship, partly so David Davis couldn’t position himself as the voice of disaffected Brexiteers. Davis resigned first; Davis seems to have genuine principles about Brexit. But who’s talking about Prime Minister David Davis now?
Theresa May’s difficulty is Boris Johnson’s opportunity. Arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg is already cheer leading for Boris and making outrageous claims about May’s potential ‘show trials.’ One more flub at the negotiating table could trigger a leadership challenge. Getting to No. 10 might be difficult, but what would Johnson do once he had real power?
Brexit true believers see Johnson as a saviour who’ll deliver the elusive, totally beneficial exit. But Johnson is a cynic and an opportunist. He’s not willing to die on the hill of hard Brexit. Watch as Prime Minister Johnson convinces his party that Theresa May’s deal is actually his deal – a new deal that is much better than any before it. Prepare for Nigel Farage to turn on the much admired BoJo as the PM abandons the rhetoric that brought him into office. Imagine Rees-Mogg desperately trying to square Johnson’s wheeling and dealing with the fantasy of Brexitland.
Yet the only thing predictable about Johnson is how quickly he can change his position to suit the circumstances.
Does Johnson deserve some praise as a pragmatist? Perhaps. He is certainly not the nationalist ideologue he plays in newspaper columns. Yet his pragmatism is subject to his own ambition. If it will keep him in power, Johnson will throw the British economy to the wolves. If it will help the Tories win the next election, Prime Minister Johnson will whip up hatred against Europe and cosy up to Donald Trump’s dysfunctional administration. Can Britain afford to be ruled by Boris Johnson’s ego?
In his book about Winston Churchill, whom Johnson claims to admire, the potential PM claims that Churchill argued against the Nazis because it was a political calculation. Johnson praises Churchill for seeing the long-term advantages of his opposition to appeasement. This is how Johnson sees principles : adopted only for self-advancement, abandoned when they become inconvenient. He cannot see Churchill’s hatred of Nazism as anything other than self-serving cynicism. Is this the man Britain wants to lead it?
If you want to see a country run by an ego, look no further than Trump’s America or Erdogan’s Turkey. As the UK faces the greatest challenge since the Second World War, the nation cannot afford to become the tool of one man’s ambition, especially not a man as changeable and unprincipled as Boris Johnson.