t is easy to see how Boris Johnson could be prime minister by the autumn. “Leave” wins, and David Cameron resigns. We already know that a majority of the 140,000 or so Conservative party members, who will decide the government of a country of 64 million, back him. Give them the chance, and they will put him in Downing Street.
If countries get the politicians they deserve, the possibility of a Johnson premiership suggests that the British are now a nation of charlatans. No one who has studied him thinks he is telling the truth when he says he believes that it is in our best interests to leave the European Union. The reason why he must deceive reveals Johnson’s low character as clearly as his casual mendacity. As he may be ruling over you soon, you had better understand how low he can go.
Throughout his life, Johnson has succeeded in British institutions that value the glib. The older he has got, the more institutions have dumbed down to accommodate him.
People who describe the Eton that Johnson attended as Britain’s “top” school, don’t quite understand it. Because it insists that Etonians must persuade their fellow pupils to elect them to school societies, rather than allow them to advance by merit, it is “top” at teaching the art of ingratiation above all else. As Jonathan Aitken cheerfully admitted, Eton produced so many politicians because: “You have to learn to oil. And at Eton you do learn.”
Johnson certainly did. He went on to Oxford, where in 1986 he became president of the Oxford Union. In a taste of what was to come, after losing as a Tory, he won on his second attempt by pretending he opposed the policies he had previously endorsed. He was as big a success as Brussels correspondent of the Telegraph, where he exhibited the vices of the worst columnists by confirming rather than challenging his readers’ prejudices. In that time and in that place, pandering to Telegraph readers meant producing alleged stories about insane EU bureaucrats, none of which colleagues on rival papers could confirm.
He was a big hit on the BBC’s Have I got News for You, which again valued the fast and flippant above the considered and true.
His two terms as mayor of London may seem a break from his past. But elected representatives have too few powers to hold mayors to account. In London, Johnson distinguished himself by his reluctance to answer questions from members of the London assembly, and confining where possible his interviews to his claque of courtier journalists.
Only two institutions have seen through him: the Times, which sacked Johnson for making up quotes; and parliament, where he vanished without trace because he had no arguments to prosecute and no cause to champion beyond the cause of his own self-advancement.
There lay his problem. To become prime minister he had to persuade enough Tory MPs to overcome their indifference and nominate him as one of the two candidates for leader. The EU gave him the chance to do it.
Cameron once told my colleagues that he learned much about politics from The Godfather. Almost at its end Michael Corleone’s consigliere Tom Hagan is shocked that the loyal capo “Sal” Tessio has betrayed them. Corleone almost admires him. “It’s the smart move,” he says.
When his treason fails and Corleone’s gunmen come for him, Tessio tells Hagan: “Tell Mike it was only business, I always liked him.”
Business is all Johnson’s attack on Cameron and support for Brexit is. It’s the smart move that will persuade previously unimpressed rightwing MPs to nominate him whether Cameron goes this summer or in 2019.
Any man with a functioning sense of shame would have worried about his long record of supporting the EU. As late as February, Johnson was saying that leaving would embroil “the government for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems of this country”. And so it would. Elsewhere he acknowledged that we would not get free trade without accepting EU regulation and immigration.
Any man of honour would have been mortified by the pathetic figure Johnson cut at the Treasury select committee last week. Bombastic and evasive, he gave a shifty smirk every time MPs caught him out. “A good liar needs a good memory,” we used to say. Johnson’s appearance at the committee showed he didn’t even have the conman’s basic ability to memorise a cover story. Originally he had said that he wanted two referendums – one on whether to leave on principle and then another on the terms. He dropped that asinine idea after a few days. Then he said Britain should have the same trade relationship with the EU as Canada does.
Last week, after thinking about it for five minutes – maybe longer – he said that he didn’t want “to imitate the Canadian deal” either.
Andrew Tyrie, the committee chair, accused him of “exaggerating to the point of misrepresentation”. It was not the case, as Johnson maintained, that the EU had banned the British from recycling teabags or children under eight from blowing up balloons. Nor had it regulated on the size of coffins. Nor were EU regulations costing Britain £600m a day.
I fear his evisceration of Johnson won’t matter. Men like him thrive because they know that hardly anyone cares about the detail enough to go to the Treasury select committee website and watch its members expose him. Johnson understands that in the 21st century a pat joke and a cheap stunt can take you a long way, maybe all the way to Downing Street. Lies take time to unpick, and by the time your accusers have finished unpicking them, the bored audience has clicked on to another screen.
I am not one for blaming the media, but I cannot think of a politician who has been treated with such woozy indulgence by my supposedly hardbitten colleagues. They have bought his persona as a lovable card, and ignored the emptiness beneath.
Britain may pay the price. Johnson’s career has seen him embrace the worst of every profession he has entered: the worst of journalistic mendacity, the worst of celebrity entitlement, and the worst of political ambition without political purpose.
It isn’t over yet. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you our next prime minister.