What is the meaning of Boris Johnson? The Tory leadership campaign might make Boris Prime Minister, so that question has shifted from “who is this Tory loudmouth who can’t hold a ministerial job” to “Who does Corbyn have to beat to win a Labour government.”
Spock, the Vulcan officer in Star Trek, was famously able to lay his hands on people and read their thoughts. These ‘mind melds’ can cause Spock great pain if he is forced to share feelings and ideas from other species.
A proper understanding of Johnson means undergoing an uncomfortable Conservative ‘mind meld.’ The Tories don’t know which way to turn after May’s fall, but there are broadly two camps.
Firstly, the ‘Cameroons.’ Cameron did an effective job decontaminating the Tories. He kept their Thatcherite economics, but shaved off some of their obvious bigotries and added social gestures to help reach to voters beyond the Tory core.
Leadership candidates Matt Hancock, Jeremy Hunt, Rory Stewart fit into this mould. Likewise Amber Rudd. Liberal pundits hope these ‘nice,’ so-called ‘one nation’ Tories will ward off the hard right and, at the same time, keep Corbyn at bay.
But they aren’t that nice. The one nation Cameron built included the Bedroom Tax, Universal Credit, austerity and arming the Saudi war in Yemen. The Tory right call this group ‘Theresa in Trousers’. May herself was a leading Tory reformer. But she oversaw a hostile environment that stole citizenship from black British people, and sent ‘go home’ vans into immigrant communities. She also refused NHS treatment to those without the right paperwork. This was part of the ‘nice’ Tory project.
The hostile environment was originally a Cameroon Remain strategy to have popular racist policies within the European Union. The niceness of ‘nice’ Tories who backed it is one that pleases centrist pundits while hurting everyone else.
At the other end of the Tory tent, right-wing candidates like Dominic Raab, Esther McVey, and their backers like Liz Truss, want what they see as a fresh wave of Thatcherism. They want to go beyond regular Tory cutbacks to slash-and-burn regulations and benefits. Even though Cameron delivered Tory majorities and Osborne’s cuts, they—and much of the Tory grassroots—thought his compromises were a sell-out. Many were involved in a failed attempt to drive the Tories rightwards with a 2012 manifesto called ‘Britannia unchained.’
Most media commentary divides these two groups into soft Brexit and No Deal Tories. But the underlying division is between those desiring a steady right-wing government and those who want a bigger wave of neo-Thatcherite reforms. When the Britannia Unchained movement failed, the Tory right focused its energies on Brexit. Unable to win directly, they hoped to get their cuts in benefits, social spending and labour regulation by leaving the European Union.
These are deep ideological and economic divisions. But there is one frontrunner. How does Boris fit in this picture?
In one sense, he doesn’t. He is an egotistical bluffer who will say almost anything to get on top. Famously, he wrote two columns for the Telegraph in 2016, one arguing passionately for Brexit, one against. He joined the Brexit cause late, driven by ambition rather than ideology.
Boris posed as a metropolitan liberal to win the London mayoralty under Cameron. But he has since revived his inner racist to adapt to the rightward shift in the party. We shouldn’t forget that, back in 2002, he was a crowd-pleasing Telegraph columnist writing about African people being “picanninnies” with “watermelon smiles.”
By 2018 he had resumed this line, calling women who wear the Burka “letterboxes” to rile up the hardline right-wing segment of the Brexit base. Johnson’s route into politics was a series of contrarian articles, as a Telegraph or Spectator columnist, rather than through the Conservative Party itself. In some senses, this means he fits the current moment well. He is firmly right wing, but can pick up or drop policies at his convenience.
The Tories are rapidly shifting rightwards—and Nigel Farage’s European election victory will speed up that process. But a successful leadership candidate will still need to have some appeal to both wings of the party. Boris’s opportunism holds its advantages. He can grab bits of the ‘one nation’ Tory manifesto and graft it onto a No Deal narrative.
Raab-type Tories might be riding high on the wave of anti-EU feeling, but their bone-dry economics don’t promise popular answers to the housing crisis or stagnant wages. The most Cameroon Tories will make gestures on social spending. Some might even follow Theresa May in talking about “burning injustices.” But they will look compromised on Europe. Boris’s strength is that he can make nationalist noises, engage in Brexit bombast and then promise to spend money on social problems.
But his opportunism is also a weakness. Leading Tories don’t trust Boris, and will say it openly. His actual record of spending in government makes Chris Grayling look good. As London Mayor he threw away cash on vanity projects like the £53m wasted on the unbuilt “Garden Bridge.” Even his attempt to play the hard man have ended in farce. In 2014 Boris bought second-hand water cannons from Germany for the police to blast at any potential rioters. The police declined the offer and the water cannons had to be sold for scrap at a £300k loss.
There’s serious money behind Boris’s leadership run. Tory donors like hedge fund boss Jon Wood and Lord Bamford’s digger firm JCB back it. But, while he is a favourite among members, he is viewed warily by much of the party machine.
If the Tories back Boris it will be as a last-ditch gamble, hoping that he can use a Trump-style approach, winning votes by breaking the rules and ‘saying the unsayable’. Just as it proved with Trump, picking over Boris’s ugly past won’t be enough to beat him in an election.
Reacting with outrage to his provocations won’t work. To some extent, he will rely on this to cover up his weaknesses. As America has shown, without a positive case from the left, the worst man can win.