It is dawning on Boris Johnson’s critics that they may have underestimated him. Until recently, many of them were content to think, or at least assume, “Boris Johnson disagrees with me, therefore he must be stupid.”
There are innumerable variants of this argument. A favourite version runs, “Boris Johnson wrote articles for and against EU membership, therefore he must be an opportunist.”
Often the holders of such views are people of some education. Richard J. Evans, until 2014 Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, states in a piece published yesterday in Prospect that “Conservatives know Johnson is lazy, chaotic and superficial”.
Do Conservatives know this? I have often quoted Charles Moore’s description of Johnson as “a lazy workaholic”, but that is not the same thing.
Moore coined that expression in The Spectator in April 2012, near the end of Johnson’s successful campaign for re-election as Mayor of London. The whole paragraph is worth quoting, for it gives a better insight than Evans has yet acquired into Johnson’s conservatism:
“Like everyone, especially his old friends and colleagues, I can think of unkind things to say about Boris Johnson. He is a lazy workaholic — too busy doing things to do them thoroughly. He can be exasperating. But as the mayoral election campaign reaches its climax, I must dispute the central current criticism of Boris — that he does not really stand for anything. He may not have yards of clear policies, but his essential message is important and genuine. He believes in freedom, and has a strong preference for letting people get on with their lives without official molestation. He is equally genuine in seeing his voters as Londoners, rather than blacks, whites, Muslims, gays etc. In all this he remains the opposite of Ken Livingstone, who sees politics wholly in terms of groups who can be made his clients with public money and then enlisted for his relentless assault on this country’s liberty, identity and tradition. It is actually more important now that Boris should win than it was four years ago.”
But what of the claim by Evans that Johnson is “chaotic”? At the start of his mayoralty in 2008, things certainly were rather chaotic: he did not have competent people lined up for the key jobs at City Hall.
It appears to me he has learned from that mistake, and from the disorganisation of his abortive leadership bid in 2016. This year’s leadership campaign was professional, and he had competent people lined up for the key jobs in Downing Street.
Mujtaba Rahman reported at the start of this week on Twitter that “it seems the PM did manage to impress his German & French counterparts last week”, and quoted a “senior official” who said of Johnson:
“In terms of substance, it is clear he has dived into the issue far more than people think. The Boris that visited us was serious; the Prime Minister of a big country with a political problem he needs to resolve, well briefed, talking like a statesman.”
Nick Gutteridge, a Brussels reporter, endorsed this view, also on Twitter:
“PM Johnson has made a (some would say surprisingly) positive impression on the EU side in early contacts. There is some relief in Brussels and capitals to be working with a real political operator compared to Theresa May.”
When Johnson was Foreign Secretary, the press searched with energy for gaffes, and found some. The then Prime Minister gave him little responsibility, which meant gaffes were pretty much all that could be hoped for.
The buck now stops with Johnson. He bears a heavy responsibility, and it seems to suit him. Interviewers ask me sometimes (as one of his biographers) whether he will succeed.
The answer is that I do not know, so I tend to reply that he has been underestimated by his critics. His chances are better than their scornful verdicts would lead one to think.
A hysterical note enters their denunciations – see Stephen Fry, Hugh Grant, Philip Pullman et al on Twitter after the prorogation story broke – because they are trying to suppress their own growing doubts. The Prime Minister has not lived down to their estimate of him.
They are confronted by the dreadful possibility that Johnson will make a success of Brexit.