Boris Johnson led a revolution. He placed himself at the head of the Leave campaign, which overthrew a complacent Establishment.
In this campaign, his rapport with the wider public was invaluable. Just as it enabled him to win election as mayor twice in Labour-leaning London – where in 2007, when he entered the race, the incumbent, Ken Livingstone, was conventionally assumed to be invincible – so it helped him lead Leave to a victory which few if any of the metropolitan pundits had expected.
David Cameron at once resigned. But a week later, the ancien régime has taken its revenge on Johnson. It always found his style of politics intolerable, for as I wrote in my biography of him:
“There is something about Boris which is an affront to serious-minded people’s idea of how politics should be conducted. By refusing to adopt their solemn tone, he implies that they are ridiculous, and the dreadful thing, from their point of view, is that a large part of the British public agrees with Boris. So it is not just lefties, but people from every part of the political class who cannot bear his unwillingness to take them as seriously as they take themselves.”
If Ed Miliband had managed, as Labour leader, to win the largest number of seats at the last general election, it is likely that the Conservatives would have turned in panic to Boris, and would already have made him their leader.
But in present circumstances, Johnson’s remarkable gift for persuading Labour-minded voters to feel good about voting Conservative is entirely superfluous. Labour is in such a mess that it appears to pose no threat at all.
Cameron won the general election (another setback for the pundits and pollsters). The only threat he faced was from his own side, on the issue of Europe, but this he foiled by promising to hold a referendum, in which the full resources of the Establishment would be deployed, in order to ensure that the people knew what was good for them.
The Prime Minister reckoned without the temperamental differences between himself and over 17 million voters, including Johnson – differences which which were already evident when I wrote my book:
“For while Cameron is a favoured son of the Establishment, and takes the Establishment’s view that there are certain things which are just not done, Boris is an outsider, a loner, a man who likes to be on genial terms with everyone but who has no circle of political intimates. Cameron is a man of astonishing gifts, including cool judgment under pressure, but his instinct is to work within the existing framework of rules. Boris frets under such restraint and is always ready to drive a coach and horses through it. Cameron believes in order: Boris believes in being free. Cameron is bound to regard Boris as a bit disreputable, while Boris is bound to regard Cameron as a bit limited.”
Paul Goodman relates, in his penetrating account for ConHome this morning of yesterday’s convulsions, the shock felt by Michael Gove’s friends at the way Johnson conducted himself:
“They say that with Vote Leave no longer present to guide him, Johnson proved himself to be, as a campaign head and potential leader, a bumbling charlatan – directionless, incapable of chairing meetings and taking decisions, and a stranger to the MPs he now had to woo. According to them, Johnson’s team lounged around at a barbecue in his Oxfordshire home last Sunday, when they should have been working the phones – and refused to share information about MPs’ voting intentions.”
What a limited idea of politics is here conveyed. Almost everyone involved in the convulsions of the last week is suffering from severe sleep-deprivation.
Of course a professional staff had to be put together. But that was an administrative task which could not be achieved overnight.
Manic attention to detail, and inability to delegate, are not the attributes one looks for in a leader. The fact that Johnson was not attending personally to that side of things, and was encouraging his weary team to consume a charred sausage or two, is in most respects to his credit.
Many of us hoped his gifts and Gove’s would prove complementary. Together, they would both be more formidable, and might rise to the level of events.
Instead of which, we find that apart, they are both diminished. The revolution has swiftly devoured its own children, and the Establishment turns in desperation to Theresa May for reassurance that Humpty Dumpty can somehow be put back together again.
I doubt whether Humpty Dumpty can ever be reassembled. We are in a new world, where bravery and quickness of apprehension, of the kind shown by Boris when he abandoned this leadership campaign, will be in greater need than ever. It is too soon to write his obituary.