What Would a Boris Prime Ministership Mean?

It would be fair to say that Boris Johnson divides opinion – at home, in the UK, that is. People tend to be adamantly for or against him becoming Prime Minister.

His detractors cite his two job dismissals for lying, a shambolic private life and a political career where he has seemed poorly organised, poorly briefed and at times irresponsible. His enthusiasts include his father, Stanley, a former member of the European Parliament, a handful of longstanding friends, and a large number of Conservative Party members, especially outside London, who regard Boris (always Boris) as a hugely talented politician and someone who speaks for them. They say his personal life is his own affair, and cynically suggest that all, or at least most, politicians lie.

It would be equally fair to say that opinions are far less divided abroad, where the impression he created largely during his two years as Foreign Secretary, is overwhelmingly negative. He is seen as lacking seriousness and prone to tasteless gaffes. He has described the EU as a Nazi-style super-state, and a careless remark about a British-Iranian national imprisoned in Iran landed her with an additional prison sentence. When he finally visited Russia, after much delay, he and foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, dismally failed to get along.

Yet there are reasons why, if – as now looks likely - he succeeds Theresa May as Conservative leader, Boris Johnson could become a successful and popular prime minister.

It would probably be wrong to forecast the future from the hindsight of his time as Foreign Secretary. His appointment to that post was, in a sense, cursed. It is believed that Theresa May appointed him because she did not want a potentially dangerous rival outside her Cabinet tent. Once appointed, he was excluded from the portfolio that most interested him, because relations with the EU and the whole Brexit process were removed to a separate government department. It now transpires that he may also have been excluded from full access to intelligence information – even though the foreign secretary is officially in charge of the foreign intelligence service, MI6.

Now, of course, showing petulance and boredom with a major Cabinet position is hardly an admirable trait. But being prime minister is very different from being foreign secretary. As undisputed top dog, he would have to take ultimate responsibility. For pretty much the first time in his privileged life, the buck would really stop with him. What is more, the Civil Service – even those of its members who never wanted Boris Johnson as Prime Minister - would have little choice but to offer their advice and try to get along with him.

In many ways, his position would be more analogous to his time as mayor of London, where he won two terms as a Conservative in a city that is regarded as leaning left. And he did that by appealing appealing across the political, racial and religious divides; by dint of his personality and generally optimistic world view.

At City Hall, he was considered to be easily distracted and lazy. But he also assembled a competent team around him and largely let them get on with what they knew how to do. This helps to explain how the London Olympics became a success, despite the prevailing national sentiment that it was bound to fail. Johnson is good at being a figure-head, and he has a genuine popular touch. He was rarely allowed to show this side as Foreign Secretary, but it could be crucial if he becomes Prime Minister.

As with the Civil Service, so with the EU. If Boris Johnson is elected, EU leaders will have no choice but to deal with him, even if they detest him for his Nazi remarks, his economical way with the truth and his high-handed attitude as a Brexiteer. What they will find, however, could be a slightly different Boris from the one they expect.

If he wants to, Boris Johnson can show immense personal charm. His gaffes and indiscretions as foreign secretary might suggest otherwise, but he is more at ease with Continental European and has more cultural sensitivity than either of the UK’s past two prime ministers, David Cameron and Theresa May. He also has infinitely more imagination and flair than Theresa May, which could be an asset at this stage of the Brexit negotiations, and vastly more ability to persuade.

There were times during her three years as Prime Minister, when Mrs May had the possibility to build alliances – with the EU, with MPs, with dissenters within her own party - that could perhaps have clinched a “deal” – even her “deal”– on leaving the EU. But she failed even to start such a process until it was too late, and she was totally unpersuasive as a saleswoman. Boris Johnson is the one politician who might be able to do that. And if he cannot, probably no one can.

Some of his greatest failings could also be turned to his advantage. He is a big picture, not a small print person. His questionable relationship with the truth can also be cast as affording a degree of flexibility to shift or change policy. On the central issue of Brexit, a U-turn looks unlikely, though not impossible. But it seems he already enjoys the confidence of Trump and it is entirely possible that his harsh words about Russia could be consigned to the past, as the UK clears the decks for a post-Brexit foreign policy. Much could depend on who he chooses as Foreign Secretary and/or his EU negotiators.

In short, the prospect of Boris as Prime Minister need not be the embarrassment that his many foes predict. He may even, for all his faults, be the only politician able to extricate the UK from the bind it is now in.

The more immediate question is whether he will have the opportunity. First, Johnson could lose the run-off election for party leader to the current Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. With two weeks of voting to go, that looks unlikely. But it is not impossible. Hunt is presenting himself as the safer, more reliable, candidate, but he is suspect to many Brexit supporters because he campaigned for Remain in the EU referendum and he lacks Johnson’s personality and capacity to persuade.

Even if Boris Johnson wins, however, his stint as Prime Minister could prove short-lived. If he tried to take the UK out of the EU without a formal agreement (“no deal”), MPs of all parties could revolt, forcing a general election that the Conservatives could lose. Or, if no one party gained an overall majority, one result could be a coalition government in which Johnson would probably not be Prime Minister.

Then again, even if there were no general election, he could find that even his formidable persuasive talents were insufficient either to win over a sufficient number of MPs or extract new concessions from the EU. He could perhaps slide out of his pledge to meet the 31 October Brexit deadline, but he could then find himself forced out – as Theresa May was - by his own MPs. 

Within the next three months, Boris Johnson will either have succeeded where Theresa May failed, reviving the office of Prime Minister, the Conservative Party, and his own reputation along the way, or he will have been exposed once and for all as a lightweight poseur, whose failure demonstrates how far his reach exceeded his grasp. There is unlikely to be a middle way.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.