The Sunday Times said yesterday that though “many thought this would be a leap too far”, Boris Johnson “is starting to look prime ministerial”.
Many people will disagree. But it is noticeable how anxious his critics are to pin labels on him – racist, right-wing, posh – in order to place him in some unacceptable moral category, and condemn him without going to the trouble of listening to what he says.
This urge to reach a definitive view, which excludes other views, is an impediment to understanding what he is actually like.
In his acceptance speech, after it was announced that he had defeated Jeremy Hunt, Johnson sketched his approach to politics:
“I would just point out to you that nobody, no one person, no one party has a monopoly of wisdom, but if you look at the history of the last 200 years of this party’s existence, you will see it is we Conservatives that have had the best insights, I think, into human nature, and the best insights in how to manage the jostling sets of instincts in the human heart.”
Here is a politics which acknowledges emotion, “the jostling sets of instincts in the human heart”, rather than establishing an intellectual orthodoxy before which all else, including human nature, must yield.
To those who crave certainty, this is unsatisfactory. But we have recently been presented with too many certainties. The whole referendum debate was conducted by each side as if it was in possession of the exclusive truth, which demonstrated that its opponents were so many fools or liars.
Here is how Johnson’s acceptance speech continued:
“And time and again, it is to us that the people of this country have turned to get that balance right, between the instincts to own your own house, to earn and spend your own money, to look after your own family. Good instincts, proper instincts, noble instincts. And the equally noble instinct to share and to give everyone a fair chance in life. To look after the poorest and the neediest, and to build a great society.
“And on the whole, in the last 200 years, it is we Conservatives who have understood best how to encourage those instincts to work together in harmony, to promote the good of the whole country.
“And today, at this pivotal moment in our history, we again have to reconcile two sets of instincts, two noble sets of instincts, between the deep desire for friendship and free trade and mutual support in security and defence between Britain and our European partners, and the simultaneous desire, equally deep and heartfelt, for democratic self-government in this country.”
Noble sets of instincts have to be reconciled with each other. We have argued for generations about Europe, and will go on arguing, because each side has a strong case.
The present Prime Minister will try to reconcile those cases, not achieve a knock-out victory for one or the other.
It is true that achievement of the October 31st deadline will be presented as a crushing victory, and failure to achieve it will be treated as a humiliating defeat.
The conventions of our adversarial system of politics will be respected.
But if we wish to understand what is at stake in this battle, or the mentality of our new prime minister, or his hopes of unifying the nation after Brexit, those conventions are pitifully inadequate.