Earlier this week, I told the tale of how ConservativeHome liked Boris Johnson’s Party Conference speech of 2017; offered him a fringe platform at that of 2018, and backed him for Tory leader last summer – because we believed that he was the candidate most likely to win a snap general election for the Conservatives.
I went on to describe how he restored the Tories from 20 per cent in the polls, and the disaster of last summer’s European elections, to 40 per cent or so in less than six months – despite multiple Commons defeats, the Supreme Court judgement, the Letwin vote, the Benn Act, a biased Speaker and the revolt of the twenty-one.
Our editorial ended by quoting T.H.White’s The Sword in the Stone, which “tells the story of how Wart, a.k.a. King Arthur, is unable to free the sword at first attempt. As he heaves and sweats, his childhood tutors, companions, and friends become mysteriously present.”
“For the next four days, Johnson is the Wart, the Once and Future King, of this electoral struggle. “Put your back into it,” says one friend to Wart. “What about those forearms?” asks another. “Keep a steady effort,” says a third, “and you will have it yet.” “Come along,” says the last, “for all we humble friends of yours are here waiting to cheer.”
The next line in the story is: “He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as from a scabbard”.
Johnson has been told all his life that he won’t be able to draw the sword from the stone. Andrew Gimson’s biography of the Prime Minister quotes a letter from Martin Hammond, who taught Johnson at Eton, and has been described by the latter as “really influential”, to his father, Stanley Johnson.
“Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility…I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else.”
This is an early demonstration of the Johnson Derangement Syndrome that I once described as having driven me “nuts”, and which has put pay to Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Rory Stewart, Amber Rudd and a very large number of more conventional people.
Johnson has been told that he could not dream up quotes and survive as a working journalist; be both Spectator editor and a Conservative candidate; be taken seriously as a politician and appear on Have I Got News for You; irritate Michael Howard and survive on the Tory front bench…
…anger the people of Liverpool; win the London Mayoralty; win the London Mayoralty again; be on the winning side of an EU referendum if he backed Leave; contest the Conservative leadership election a second time; survive his turbulent period as Foreign Secretary; win as a front-runner in that leadership contest…
…survive the Supreme Court judgement; endure in the Commons 40 or so seats short of a majority; win a no confidence vote; get a deal with the EU; maintain campaigning discipline; not be brought down by the Leeds Infirmary row; evade Andrew Neil; vanish into a cupboard – or gain a majority, let alone a landslide.
That he has somehow done all those things is a tribute to his strange genius. An even greater one is that he had the humility, last autumn, to bring order to his Downing Street operation by sending for Dominic Cummings, Munira Mirza, Danny Kruger, Tim Montgomerie and the most committed Number Ten team in modern times.
I wrote yesterday that Johnson has at last laid to rest the legend that no Conservative leader other than Margaret Thatcher could again win with a big majority. His near-landslide may also mark an even greater achievement, putting Thursday’s election into the same basket as that of 1979, 1997 or 1945.
Thatcher and Tony Blair were part of the long continuum of Prime Ministers who, however different they may have been, governed on the assumption that Britain must be part of the EU (one that the former only began to bridle at towards the end of her long period in government).
These were the years of the rule of the EU Ascendancy – summed up for us by Lord Kerr, a former Ambassador to the EU, who told the Lords last year that Britain would “come to heel in the end, probably quite quickly”, and be absorbed back into the European project which the British people voted to escape in 2016.
Johnson’s big win marks the end of that Ascendancy and the beginning of a new era: that of Britain as a sovereign nation – whose government will honour the instruction given to us in the country’s greatest-ever democratic exercise. This will be good for the country, Parliament, politicians, the Conservatives and Johnson himself.
Trials and tribulations lie ahead: the next phase of the Brexit negotiations; Scotland; squaring the Tory majority with its new electoral territory; making sense of conflicting needs and demands. But there is reason to hope that Johnson, so often scorned as a liar, will begin to restore trust in politics, simply by delivering the referendum result.
Some of us have waited a long time to see a working Conservative Government with an emphatic Commons majority. Not since the second Thatcher landslide, the third Thatcher term, of 1987 has the country seen one in action – over 30 years ago. Then, I was 27. Now I am 60.
“Well, Wart,” said Merlyn. “How nice you look in your crown…in future it will be your glorious doom to take up the burden and to enjoy the nobility of your proper title: so now I shall crave the privilege of being the very first of your subjects to address you with it – as my dear liege lord, King Arthur.”