Boris Johnson is the paradoxical choice for UK prime minister
Boris Johnson has momentum. As Theresa May’s premiership crumbles ignominiously, the bombastic gilded one is ready, his hand outstretched to seize the crown. The Conservative party membership still adores the former mayor of London, despite his egregious gaffes as foreign secretary. Tory MPs have kept Mrs May in place for two years in order to avoid being led by the man they fear is, to use his own phrase, an “inverted pyramid of piffle”. Now many are concluding he is the man most likely to beat Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Mr Johnson is on course to become prime minister unless he blunders spectacularly. It could even be a coronation. MPs may not want the leadership contest to prolong the limbo the country is in. Some potential candidates are running more to edge their way into the next cabinet than because they expect to reach Number 10. We could soon see many withdraw and Mr Johnson become prime minister without formal endorsement by the members.
What would a Johnson premiership be like? The big question is whether the man who governed London as a socially liberal, One Nation Tory, who invested in transport and demanded an amnesty for illegal immigrants, can reverse out of the ideological corner in which he has parked himself.
Saying “F**k business”, when asked about the challenge posed by Brexit to British companies, was monumentally foolish and at odds with his behaviour as mayor. Siding with the Leave campaign because his great rival, former chancellor George Osborne, backed Remain and then failing for two and a half years to come up with a plan for what leaving the EU would involve, was monstrously irresponsible. Yet it is precisely that opportunism, a willingness to tack with the wind, which makes Mr Johnson so capable of reinvention. He will need to be, because Mrs May’s departure will not change the arithmetic, neither in Brussels nor the House of Commons.
If he becomes prime minister this summer, he will go to Brussels and try to renegotiate Brexit, threatening to leave with no deal on October 31. This ploy will be splendidly macho for a day, then morph into embarrassing failure. Brussels will hold firm and Mr Johnson will be faced with a choice.
Either he could take Britain out of the EU and into World Trade Organization rules, which would be economically catastrophic and give Mr Corbyn the bad Tory Brexit he craves to put Labour in power for a generation. Or he could come back and level with his country and party that there are only two ways out of the deadlock: a second referendum or a general election.
However much they are fulminating now, the party might prefer a second referendum. I suspect Mr Johnson will eventually pivot on that issue, perhaps supported by Amber Rudd, whose calm wisdom is helping her to galvanise the One Nation moderates.
Could he handle power? Mr Johnson’s time as foreign secretary, which left his own officials bemused, augurs badly. A man who doesn’t like detail will be made or broken by the quality of his advisers. At City Hall he had a powerful communications director in the form of Guto Harri, the former BBC journalist, and a wise chief of staff in Edward Lister. Such people delivered results and kept his worst instincts in check. Since stepping down as mayor he has seemed simply volatile and sloppy.
He might lose his nerve. That’s what happened in 2016 after Michael Gove ditched him, infuriated and alarmed by his lack of seriousness. That desertion need not have been fatal, but the entirely new experience of being unpopular (he had protesters at his front door) had a paralysing effect. Supporters watched in dismay as he gave a meandering speech which culminated in him ruling himself out of the race. If that happens again, someone else could come through the middle, just as Mrs May did in 2016 — but a repeat panic is less likely now that Mr Johnson is buoyed up by his new romantic partner, a public relations expert.
The paradox of Boris Johnson is that many voters and Labour and Conservative MPs think he is the candidate most likely to beat Mr Corbyn — but also the one least qualified to be prime minister.
When he began his second term as mayor of London in 2012, he was the most popular politician in the country. Today, polls show that he is very polarising — especially among centrist voters who are vital to winning elections.
When Mr Corbyn’s lack of fitness for office is the Tory’s greatest hope, selecting Mr Johnson would be a huge gamble. We may soon find out whether a naked Tory opportunist can beat a Marxist masquerading as a man of principle, while running a Brexit policy of constructive ambiguity.
The writer, a former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, is senior fellow at Harvard University