Enter Boris

And so, to nobody’s surprise at all, Boris Johnson has become leader of the Conservative party and the UK’s 77th prime minister.  It is the one, the only, positive from the long, drawn-out and almost totally meritless process that was the Conservative party leadership election that the rest of the UK population – the more than 99% of the country who had no say in who their next prime minister would be – did at least have time to get used to the idea, as a Johnson premiership moved inexorably over the summer from unthinkable to inevitable.

What exactly his premiership will bring is still far from clear.  Certainly neither the Tory faithful nor indeed the rest of us could glean much from the leadership selection process, which largely consisted of the various candidates making multitudinous statements, claims and promises almost entirely without any rigorous analysis or even facts to back them up.  Indeed so vacuous was the whole exercise that many Tory party members did not bother to wait to hear what the two candidates had to say, voting as soon as they got their ballot papers – and well before the end of the leadership campaign.

As a way of uniting their fractious party behind a talismanic leader, the exercise may prove effective.  As a way of choosing the head of government to conduct and conclude the UK’s most challenging policy negotiations for more than a generation, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Box:  Choosing party leaders

The question of how best to choose party leaders is not an easy one.  Traditionally the major parties gave much greater weight to the views of the MPs;  they saw the leadership candidates close up, and since they would be required to provide the lobby support for the leader it was felt important that he or she had their confidence.  In the last 20 years or so, though, the idea has grown that this is “undemocratic”, and that it is better to involve more people in the selection process.   The solution both major parties have adopted is to give the final word to their members; but although this ensures a numerically larger consultation process, it is very far from obvious that it is better.  Party members almost always hold more radical views than the general electorate, and hold them more strongly – it is after all for this reason that they are attracted to join political parties.  But this makes them almost by definition unrepresentative of their party’s supporters in the wider electorate, let alone of the country as a whole, and the process is biased towards favouring those with extreme views. 

It is a familiar criticism of the US system of primaries that candidates for office in the States have to tack to their party’s extremes to win nomination and then tack back to the centre to win election.  Somehow the two main UK parties have each developed a method of selecting their leaders which copies the US system in encouraging candidates to adopt extreme positions to win favour from the party faithful – but without the counterbalance of the need to thereafter modify their most extreme views in order to appeal to the wider electorate.  The result is that both major UK parties are now led by people who are more extreme than most of their MPs and much more so than the population overall.

But although we learnt nothing significant from the leadership campaign about Mr Johnson and his government’s probable policies – other than the fact that he has a habit of making so many conflicting promises that he cannot possibly keep them all – we can learn a bit both from his actions over a much longer period, and from what he has done since arriving at Number 10.

Johnson’s two previous stints in a position of authority, that of Mayor of London from 2008-2016 and Foreign Secretary from 2016-2018, are contradictory more than illuminating.  As Mayor of London he was an attractive and successful politician who reached out across the party divide to win two convincing election victories as a Conservative in a Labour-leaning city and who once in office, implemented several innovative policies.  As Foreign Secretary he was less successful, widely seen as arrogant and shallow, unwilling to read his briefs and undiplomatic with his opposite numbers.  He was not able in his 2 years in the post to solve a single significant diplomatic challenge he faced and many consider he made several of them worse.

In his character he is often portrayed as a bit of a lightweight – he has a chaotic personal life, he seems to change both his policies and his persona at whim, he has reinvented himself on numerous occasions and he is liable to prefer a clever quip to a serious debate.

But we think this is to underestimate him, and beneath the jocular and dishevelled exterior he has had two driving principles to which he has held constant for his entire political career.

The first of these is a deep dislike of the EU.  This goes back to before he even entered politics:  he was the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent from 1989-1994, and his ring-side seat watching first-hand how the European Community reacted to the fall of the Berlin Wall and transformed itself into the very much more ambitious European Union turned him into a strong opponent of the whole concept of Ever Closer Union.

It is surprising how even people who think they know Johnson quite well have been unaware of or have overlooked this deep and constant distrust of the EU.  Certainly David Cameron appears to have been genuinely surprised that he decided to campaign for the Leave side in the Referendum;  those in Westminster and in the Leave campaign who know him better say that this was never in any doubt and all the talk of “difficult decision, pros and cons” was something of a smoke-screen to avoid hurting his friend too much.

The second strand to Johnson’s career, indeed his whole life, is his desire to be prime minister.  Famously, at the age of 5 he announced that he wanted to be “King of the World”, and while that position does not exist, it is clear he has wanted to be Prime Minister of the UK for almost as long.  But unlike his predecessor Gordon Brown, who also patently obviously wanted to be PM but did not really know what to do when he finally achieved his ambition, it is unlikely that Johnson will sit in Number 10 paralysed by self-doubt and indecision.

The first signs of this came with the announcement of his cabinet.  Most new prime ministers try to find room in their cabinet for senior colleagues of proven competence, even if they hold slightly differing views;  this is both to benefit from their abilities and to limit (through the concept of cabinet responsibility) their opportunities to criticise.  Johnson has ignored this conventional wisdom completely and has constructed a cabinet whose dominant theme is loyalty to his absolute desire to leave the EU:  it is a hard Brexiteer cabinet, possibly one of the most extreme and certainly one of the most single-minded cabinets Westminster has seen.

While this will allow Johnson to avoid the infighting and bitter arguments that dominated Mrs May’s cabinet, he has potentially created merely an echo chamber for his own ideas, with no-one to challenge him or bring reality to bear on their discussions.  It is not a recipe that has produced successful or productive government very often in the past.

Secondly, even in his first few days in office, Johnson has increased the rhetoric and pressure on Brussels.  Although EU leaders employed the usual diplomatic niceties of congratulating Johnson and welcoming the chance to talk with him (and after their frustration with Mrs May they may even have meant it!), Johnson himself appears to have had no time for such pleasantries and has reiterated his position that May’s deal is dead and that unless the EU change it, and in particular abandon the Irish backstop, there is nothing more to discuss.

The problem for Johnson is that, to put it mildly, the EU leaders do not give any indication of being about to change their stance.  It is true that they do not want the UK to leave without a deal – they are well aware that this will cause difficulties for them as well as for the UK, in particular in Ireland.  But their desire not to compromise their core principles is very strong, and having shown almost no willingness to be flexible up to now, there is little reason to suppose that a change of heart is about to be forthcoming[1].   Quite the opposite in fact, as the hardline view of President Macron – in summary, “No renegotiation, no extension” – appears to be gaining ground in Brussels[2].

Nor has the parliamentary arithmetic changed.  Johnson inherits the same House of Commons that repeatedly stymied Mrs May;  he has a tiny majority which depends upon both the DUP honouring their confidence and supply agreement[3] and all his fellow Tory MPs following him into the lobby, neither of which can be relied upon, and he knows that the House as a whole is still very hostile to leaving the EU without a deal.

So, he has a problem.  He has set 31 October as Decision Day, but that is under 100 days from now, and he cannot expect the EU to give him a deal he can accept by then, and he cannot expect the current House to agree to leaving with no deal if they don’t.

As things stand therefore, and unless something changes, he seems trapped.  But while changing the EU may be beyond even Boris, changing the composition of the House is not.  Hence the talk of an early election.  It is a high risk strategy, but he may well reckon that it will be better to call one and face the country at a time of his choosing rather than be forced into one by parliamentary defeat.  And given his unshakeable self-belief, he will almost certainly think that having battered the Conservative party into agreeing with him, he will be able to batter the country into doing so as well.

Sebastian Haffner, in his magisterial assessment of Adolf Hitler “The Meaning of Hitler”[4], commented that Hitler only had two real objectives in life:  to beat the Russians, and to eliminate the Jews.  And in the final analysis, of the two the more important was the latter.

Boris Johnson also has two dominant objectives, to take the UK out of the EU and to be prime minister.  The problem for him is that an early election may offer him the best chance of achieving the former – but it puts at risk the latter.  On Johnson’s choice of which of his two life objectives to prioritise rests the fate of his premiership, his party and his country.


[1]              Indeed, in many respects the EU seems to be hardening its attitudes on trade matters and international relations more generally, as its increasingly harsh treatment of Switzerland and increasing willingness to withdraw previously agreed concessions to the Swiss demonstrates.

[2]              The nomination of Charles Michel, currently prime minister of Belgium, to be President of the European Council in succession to Donald Tusk will further encourage those who agree with Macron.  Although many in the Conservative party may not think so, Tusk was a genuine friend of and sympathiser with the UK, and tried to find solutions to the challenges of Brexit.  Johnson may well find Michel rather less sympathetic.

[3]              The DUP’s agreement was with Mrs May’s administration not with the Conservative party, and Johnson cannot rely on them honouring it and supporting him without further discussion.  Given that the House of Commons is increasingly impatient with the deadlock at Stormont and increasingly wanting to legislate for Northern Ireland to overcome the administrative vacuum there – both things the DUP are very sensitive on – their continued support for the government is not guaranteed.

[4]              Published originally in German as “Ammerkungen zu Hitler”, Kindler Verlag 1978, and in English translation as “The Meaning of Hitler”, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1979.