Boris Johnson’s Daily Telegraph column is back this morning as though it had never been away. It carries on roughly where it left off by pealing out a ring of bells for Global Britain.
But a lot has changed since he was compelled to drop the column when he became Foreign Secretary. Peak Johnson was probably the Olympics. His coming out for Leave made him a divisive figure – as backing Remain would also have done, though not perhaps to the same extent – and lost him part of his coalition of support. Opposition to Brexit has become noisier and hostility to him nastier. That £350 million has become a rotten egg to hurl at his head: the Government’s NHS spending spree won’t end the rancour.
At the Foreign Office, the mistakes he made live after him; the good will be interred with his bones. For example, ConservativeHome has seen polling showing that his blunder over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman imprisoned in Iran, cut through to voters. His success in persuading other countries to name chemical weapons suspects, say, will not have done. Outside King Charles Street, his flight abroad over the Heathrow vote was contrasted with Greg Hands’ principled resignation.
The days when awestruck aides would report the then Mayor being mobbed on the tube by voters of many viewpoints and none are long gone. This site’s last Cabinet league table saw him fall to seventh from the bottom with a net plus rating of only twelve. Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove have been swallowing up the Brexiteer vote in our Next Tory Leader question: last time out, Johnson was marooned on eight per cent. He defeated only Jeremy Hunt in our run-offs. (YouGov got the same findings against the same people.)
None the less, his resignation – for all of it effectively being forced on him by David Davis going first – offers him a reset moment.
For say what you like about ConHome polls or Remainer hate or “f**k business”: Johnson is perhaps the only Conservative politician, with the exception of the Prime Minister, to have cut-through with the public. Polling of voters that this site has seen showed that more consider him a future Tory leader than take the same view of Michael Gove or Jacob Rees-Mogg or Jeremy Hunt or Ruth Davidson: it’s a name recognition thing.
He still has his media fan base at the Telegraph and, up to a point, at the Spectator. This gives him an entree to the Conservative faithful. His ratings in our survey are likely to rise (though how far is a moot question). His artfulness at projecting a point is as well-honed as ever – witness that vulgar but effective comparison between Theresa May’s new EU policy and a turd. At 54, he has at least ten years left in British politics if he wants it. (By contrast, Davis is nearly 70.)
The question now is what he makes of his new status. Friends of Jacob Rees-Mogg say that he is Lord George Bentinck to Johnson’s Disraeli. But the last was a master of the Commons. Johnson is happier orating from a platform or pronouncing in the papers than debating in the Commons, where he can be intervened on and picked up and treated on equal terms. He notably failed to puncture David Cameron when the latter returned from his EU negotiation.
Nor is he the leader of the Brexiteers, if only because they have a flurry of leaders: Rees-Mogg, Iain Duncan Smith, Johnson himself, and now Davis too. The legend during the leadership contest that May won was that Johnson didn’t always know the names of the colleagues whose votes he needed. That will need to change for him to have a chance of making it to the membership stage in the event of a contest. Fǘhrerprinzip won’t be enough.
He will need to spend a lot of time working in the Commons – a resignation statement is expected on Wednesday – and a lot of time working outside it, too. There will doubtless be a Brexit book. Or TV programme.
All in all, Johnson could do a lot worse than take his unputdownable effervesence on tour – not only in his old London stomping-ground, where he has work to do, but in the Brexit Britain of the midlands and north.
It won’t like the developing Remain moves to overturn the referendum decision – by either re-running the poll to “get the right result”, or by kicking the voters’ decision into the long grass. We need a Johnsonian equivalent of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign.