The press coverage of Boris Johnson’s appearance yesterday before the Treasury select committee is not entirely favourable. The report in the Financial Times, by that paper’s political editor, George Parker, appears under the headline “Boris Johnson skewered over Brexit”, and is worth quoting at some length:
“Boris Johnson seemed pretty sure of his case. The City of London would ‘flourish mightily’ if Britain left the EU, there would be no economic uncertainty and anyone who told you otherwise was wrong.
“But this was the day when the London mayor’s breezy assertions ran into a brick wall, or more precisely Andrew Tyrie, the cerebral, dry-as-dust, Tory chairman of the Commons treasury committee.“Mr Tyrie quickly made plain his impatience with Mr Johnson’s ‘busking, humorous approach to a very serious question for the United Kingdom’. The chairman wanted to see the facts.“The mayor’s appearance at the Treasury committee was like seeing a swaggering corporate high flyer called in by the accounts department to explain the discrepancies in an expenses claim.“It was an extraordinary session. Mr Johnson has made a career as journalist and politician out of sweeping assertions about the EU and poking fun at the absurdities of the Brussels bureaucracy.
“Now, as the most prominent figure in the Brexit campaign, he is facing far greater scrutiny. His 2½-hour grilling by the Treasury committee was perhaps one of the toughest he has faced.
“Mr Tyrie began by asking Mr Johnson to substantiate his claim that the EU had banned children aged under eight from blowing up balloons and forbidden the recycling of tea bags.
“Mr Johnson blustered in familiar fashion until Mr Tyrie sternly intervened with the relevant facts. The EU had insisted only that balloon packaging should have a ‘warning of suffocation’; there was no ban on tea bag recycling.
“The mayor admitted that, in fact, it was Cardiff city council which had apparently ‘gold plated’ some EU legislation to crack down on the tea bag menace. ‘We do relish bureaucracy in this country,’ he said.
“Mr Johnson’s shortcomings as a Brexit frontman were exposed in this apparently trivial exchange, exactly as Mr Tyrie had intended. Not only had the mayor stretched the facts, he seemed to be undermining his own case.
“If, as the mayor claimed, Brexit would ‘unshackle us from a great deal of excessive regulation’, would the UK not then be trussed up by exactly the kind of homegrown bureaucracy he had just identified?”
At the other end of the scale, the Sun’s report appears under the headline “Eurosceptics at war: Boris Johnson accused of spouting ‘mountains of nonsense'”, and is equally unfavourable.
Any individual report can be dismissed, if one wishes, as misleading. My purpose here is not to add my own impression of how Boris got on: for various laughably trivial reasons, involving the loss of most of the day in a vain attempt to get a mobile phone mended, I was unable to attend the session.
But Tyrie is an admirably serious and conscientious chairman, and Parker an admirably serious and conscientious correspondent. The interest of this session lies in Johnson’s evident refusal to try to win the approval of such people.
The Mayor of London could, if he wished, have dared to be dull, and have demonstrated a massive mastery of the facts, in order to reassure serious and conscientious people that he is really one of them.
Johnson instead decided to play his natural game: to be the irreverent insurgent who refuses to take the pedantic concerns of the Establishment at face value. He clearly intends to make a virtue of ridiculing these sober, solemn people, who cannot see the wider picture because they are obsessed by getting every trivial fact right.
If the referendum develops into that kind of insurgency, this could turn out to be a brilliant way of playing things. “Where there’s a will there’s a way” has always encapsulated Johnson’s approach to the implementation of any project to which he lends his support.
And if the Tory leadership race develops into that kind of battle, Johnson’s tactics for it could turn out to be equally brilliant. Instead of trying to be more professional than David Cameron and George Osborne, he will demonstrate that in the great scheme of things, such professionalism is a petty-minded irrelevance, and stops those who succumb to it from seeing the big picture with the necessary clarity.
Many years ago, when Johnson was the Daily Telegraph‘s correspondent in Brussels, he grasped the big picture, which was that Jacques Delors was engaged in a power grab at the expense of the nation states. Johnson proceeded to illustrate this theme with a cascade of stories whose details were, at the very least, exaggerated, as his biographers, including myself, have noted. His critics seized on these inaccuracies, and failed to recognise the correctness of his overall view.
But there is also a risk that Johnson’s referendum tactics will end in disaster. The outcome will turn on the millions of as yet undecided voters, and they may turn out to be looking, not for a gung-ho adventurer, but for reassurance that their jobs and mortgages will be safe.
The outcome of the Tory leadership race may similarly turn on the question of which candidate can be trusted to do the prudent thing. So Johnson is taking an almighty gamble. He has enlivened our politics by attempting something dangerous, and not everyone who wants to leave the EU will thank him for it.