As breakfast draws to a close, Stanley Johnson, father of Boris, comes on the Today programme. He is saying the rules should be changed so that his son would be able to run for the Tory leadership even if not an MP at the time when the contest is held. He has said the same in this morning’s Daily Mail.
It is a characteristic intervention. I do not believe Boris put Stanley up to this: but I am sure Stanley would not have made these remarks if he thought they would damage his son.
Father and son share a number of characteristics. One is a marked disinclination to allow anything so technical and essentially unimportant as a set of rules to stand in their way. So while conscientious commentators try to work out how Boris could obey the rules, Stanley just says the rules should be changed.
Another characteristic which the Johnsons have in common is the tendency to resort, when faced by a question they do not want to answer, to diversionary tactics. They have a genius for this kind of thing, for the new topic they raise is almost always more alluring and amusing than the one which they want people to forget about. No aircraft which emits metallic chaff to divert incoming missiles could be better than they are at diverting incoming questions by changing the subject.
In this case the question Boris does not wish to answer is whether he will return to the Commons in 2015. Rational observers, including Paul Goodman on this site, have pointed out that the sooner Boris clarifies his intentions, the better. It would be a nightmare to have the party conference dominated by the subject.
But Boris, as I remarked in this Sunday’s Observer, hates being tied down. He cannot bear becoming a mere subordinate operative in someone else’s masterplan. He wants to remain free to react spontaneously to events: to grab the ball when it unexpectedly comes loose from the scrum, as he himself has put it.
So now we have a diversion, and an interesting one. The contention is that the rules need to be changed, so that if there is a strong candidate for the leadership who is not an MP, he or she can still stand.
In my opinion, this is an outrageous demand. The Prime Minister of this country is whoever can command a majority in the House of Commons. It follows (or has done for over a century) that he or she has to be an MP, and that the leader of any party which aspires to govern this country has to be an MP.
Stanley cited the interesting case of Alec Douglas-Home, who when he became Tory leader in 1963 was a peer. But the comparison does not work. In those days there were no formal rules for the election of a leader: there was something known pejoratively as the magic circle.
Douglas-Home became Prime Minister, disclaimed his peerage and returned to the Commons at a by-election. This is not a procedure that could be used to ease Boris’s passage into 10 Downing Street. He will need, at the time of any Tory leadership election, to be an MP. It would certainly be odd to exclude him from any contest: but the way for him to ensure he is not excluded is to find a safe parliamentary seat, which would not be difficult for him to do.
Boris’s supporters, including his father, are within their rights to say that the next leadership election, whenever it is held, should not be a rushed affair, and should allow time for any prospective candidates who are not MPs to seek to become MPs. They are not within their rights to try to waive the rules.