The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Boris Johnson is woefully unprepared to be the next prime minister

Boris Johnson at the launch of his campaign to become the next leader of the Conservative Party in London on June 12. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg News)
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Sonia Purnell is the author of “Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition.” Her most recent book is “A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II.”

Boris Johnson — he of the haystack hair and plummy vowels — is almost certain to become the next British prime minister. Despite the fact that he remains a controversial and divisive figure in the country at large, he is streets ahead of his remaining opponents in winning support from fellow Conservative members of Parliament. Finally, he is within reach of the position he has coveted for decades — and the responsibility he has long tried to evade.

Reports swirl around Westminster about him promising the same Cabinet jobs to four people at a time and about his campaign team attempting to use private information to influence moderates to back him. Yet such accusations — which have been denied by a spokesman — seem to do nothing to dent his support among grassroots Tory party members, some 160,000 older, Brexit-backing voters who have the final say in electing Britain’s next leader. This tiny, unrepresentative group apparently believes that Johnson, and only Johnson, possesses a sort of magic that will somehow trace a path through the Brexit morass to leaving the European Union. Recent polls suggest they consider this more important than the future of their party, the economy or even the union of the United Kingdom.

They no doubt remember Johnson winning the mayoral race in London, normally considered a Labour stronghold, in 2008 and 2012. This double electoral whammy — ironically achieved by convincing Londoners he was an enlightened lefty at heart — rendered Johnson invincible in his supporters’ eyes.

He then veered dramatically to the right for the 2016 European Union referendum, when he was a figurehead of the Leave campaign that specifically and repeatedly attacked the very “liberal metropolitan elite” whom he had previously so successfully courted. Again, he won — even if, as a reportedly once-devoted Remainer, he might not privately have really wanted to.

As has been the case throughout his career, his crushing desire simply to beat his political rivals triumphed over what he had previously said was clearly in the public interest. Principles gave way to his pursuit of power — and will likely do so again.

The grim reality is that, even after spending the past 20 years plotting his way into 10 Downing Street, Johnson may be woefully unprepared for what happens when he moves in behind that famously glossy black door. His ability to flip-flop between contrasting worldviews for electoral advantage — what might be called chameleon politics — could just translate into a simple lack of conviction or policy on the national and global stage.

In particular, he has given no glimpse that he has fresh ideas on how to deliver the undeliverable promises of the 2016 E.U. referendum, blustering when faced with the issue in a recent television debate. While he spouts a meaningless “Believe in Britain” mantra, the once-thriving economy is showing the strain of three years of political kerfuffle, multinational employers are pulling out and the divisions between Remainers and Leavers grow ever deeper.

Brexit may bring Johnson to power. But Brexit may also destroy him, as it has David Cameron and Theresa May before him, because the fact remains that Brexit is not possible without irreparable harm. And Johnson has floundered in the past when faced with difficult challenges.

His tenure as mayor of London was lackluster, beyond his making headlines for getting stuck on a zipwire during the London Olympics in 2012. After a tumultuous start to his reign in London — leading to a raft of departures and even a criminal conviction among his appointees — exasperated Conservative Party elders brought in competent officials to take on the relatively limited responsibilities.

Even in his own party, critics dismissed him as a “do-nothing” mayor who failed to rise to the occasion during the only real crisis on his watch, the street riots of summer 2011. At the time, he initially refused to return from vacation, and when he did finally come back, offered little comfort for those who had suffered or feared for their lives.

He did precious little with his large London mandate other than to leverage it for his own political advantage. It became painfully clear he had no real ambition other than ambition itself.

The two years he spent as foreign secretary, from 2016 to 2018, were even worse. His tenure was notable only for a catalogue of casually offending foreigners and a reckless statement that may have resulted in the lengthening of a prison sentence of a young British woman in Iran.

It is simply not possible, of course, for a prime minister to behave in the same disengaged way — particularly not when Britain faces its most serious crisis since the second World War, one that he helped to create by convincing voters that Brexit would be beneficial. It is arguably his mess — and it is for him to clear it up.

But the smart money is that he will eventually try to duck what he knows to be impossible and probably never actually wanted. Britain’s future, then, could hang on which version of Johnson emerges: the Brexit-courting blusterer or the Europe-loving realist.

Read more:

Henry Olsen: Boris Johnson may be just what Britain needs

Ryan Bourne: Only Boris Johnson can stop Boris Johnson now

Megan McArdle: Brexit and Trump are flailing. But the establishment shouldn’t relax yet

Nick Cohen: The quest for Brexit has killed Britain

Anne Applebaum: There’s no point in wishing luck to Theresa May’s successor

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