Let’s begin this analysis by not referring to him as ‘Boris’. I’ve lost count of the number of times usually serious and balanced political journalists have used this term of affection, in a way they would of no other politician. BBC London went through a phase of referring to him as ‘Mayor Boris’, where there is no way they would refer to ‘Prime Minister David’. I’m not sure whether BBC London still does this – I don’t live in the city so don’t regularly view its content.
Another good reason for not calling him ‘Boris’ is that it is not his name. He is known by his family, and his immediate circle of friends as ‘Al’. It seems ‘Boris’ may well have begun as a journalistic pseudonym, but went on to form a useful part of his caricature image.
It’s also only right and fair to highlight Johnson’s good qualities. He is a gifted writer, though he has a tendency to overstretch his ‘eccentric posh boy’ rambles during his speeches, especially those delivered to the Conservative Party conference each year. Nevertheless, he is amusing, well read, intelligent, and has shown personal kindness to people known to me.
These qualities are all very well and good, but Johnson’s announcement that he’s seeking a route back into Parliament means that we need to look beyond the buffoonery and ask serious questions about whether he’s a man fit to lead the country.
Voting for an eccentric, amusing act is all very good in a tacky TV talent contest, but a general election is an altogether more serious matter with altogether more serious consequences for us all.
The three key things we need to ask of any political leader are: 1. What are your political principles? 2. What kind of a moral compass do you have? 3. Do you have the set of skills necessary to lead the government effectively?
In answer to the first question, nobody can say for certain what Johnson’s political principles are. His current position as Mayor of London has limited powers where political ideology often comes second to one’s ability to deal with pragmatic matters such as transport and housing.
Ken Livingstone, a man with whom I have little in common politically, understood that large numbers of people either cannot drive, choose not to drive, or would willingly cut back on car usage if cheap, reliable and integrated public transport were available, so he made this a priority during his time as Mayor of London. The same Ken Livingstone, speaking on his LBC radio show, recently said of Johnson, “The only thing he believes in is in being there.”
Livingstone may have hit the nail on the head. The thing that motivates many of today’s leading politicians is not principle or a burning desire to change things for the better, but a wish to belong to the political classes. If this is not the case with Johnson, why, after around two decades in the public eye, do we know so little about his political beliefs?
There are, perhaps, some clues in Sonia Purnell’s controversial biography, ‘Just Boris’. What becomes clear from that is that Johnson’s main motivation is power itself, but scratch the surface and there isn’t much substance or conviction behind it, certainly nothing that would single him out as especially Eurosceptic or even conservative.
Moving on to point two, Johnson’s moral compass, and there are serious causes for concern. Like his father, Stanley, he is a serial philanderer. This aspect of his life hasn’t received anything like as much media attention as it deserves, but that would change very quickly if he looked like winning a Conservative leadership contest. As with most other things he does, the media made light of him being publicly locked out of his house by his current wife, Marina, after yet another marital indiscretion.
Johnson is known to have sired at least three children outside marriage, while his affair with fellow journalist Petronella Wyatt resulted in one abortion and a miscarriage. As with everything, Johnson has managed to shrug this off, but his private life will be under far greater scrutiny if he becomes, or gets close to becoming, Conservative Party leader. His philandering, and the misery it has caused, may be seen as acceptable or a non-issue in the trendier parts of London, but in the Conservative heartlands of Shire England and in marginal seats, it sits somewhat more uncomfortably with many people.
His professional moral compass fares little better. Within a year of becoming a trainee reporter at The Times, he was sacked for making up a quote from his godfather, the historian Colin Lucas. In 1995, when Johnson was Assistant Editor of the Daily Telegraph, a recording of a telephone conversation from four years earlier emerged where he plotted with his Old Etonian friend Darius Guppy to have then-News of the World reporter Stuart Collier beaten up. Guppy was later jailed for an attempted jewel fraud.
By 2004, Johnson had spent more than a decade in senior editorial roles and three years as a Conservative MP, but, as editor of The Spectator, he still saw fit to publish a stupid and highly offensive article about the people of Liverpool, making insulting references to the Hillsborough Disaster and the death of Kenneth Bigley in Iraq.
As Mayor of London, Johnson was given advanced notice of the arrest of Conservative MP Damian Green, and put pressure on acting Commissioner Paul Stephenson not to proceed with the arrest. Johnson was, and is, Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, meaning he isn’t permitted to be involved in operational matters. Although Johnson was found not guilty on all charges following an in-house enquiry, it’s hard to reach any conclusion other than that he was informed of Green’s arrest in his capacity as Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority but had reacted in his role as a Conservative politician.
Although Johnson makes no secret of his well-off background, he seems to have an arrogant, even flippant approach to money. In addition to the annual salary of £143,911 he receives as Mayor, Johnson picks up £250,000 per annum as a Daily Telegraph columnist, something he described during a major television interview as ‘chicken feed’, even though it is around ten times the average national salary.
As Mayor, Johnson has made several large claims on his expenses for short taxi journeys because he’s kept the driver waiting for lengthy periods with the meter running. One three mile journey from City Hall to the Elephant and Castle cost £99.50. In his private life, he can obviously afford such luxuries, but to have such a careless attitude towards public money during a time of austerity is inexcusable.
Johnson does not appear to have learnt from past mistakes relating to his lack of transparency and honesty. The very fact he has backtracked on his pledge not to seek a return to Parliament confirms this.
The third and final question about whether he has the range of skills necessary to lead a government effectively again leaves us with serious doubts. It might well be that he is too much of a maverick and an individual to make it. He did not appear to fit in well with the House of Commons the last time he was there, and struggled with the concept of collective responsibility. It’s also far from clear whether leading and managing human beings is one of his strengths.
We also need to ask ourselves what image we want to project of Britain on the world stage. Would Prime Minister Johnson be a suitable figure to negotiate on Britain’s behalf in Brussels, the White House or Beijing? It’s all very well being a figure of fun in Britain, but the wider world may struggle to ‘get’ his act and take him seriously when called for, which could in turn cause embarrassment, offence, and lead to Britain’s status as a serious nation being diminished.
How would Johnson come across in, say, the aftermath of a major terrorist attack? Could he deliver an effective address to the Commons and on a special TV broadcast to announce that British armed forces have been sent into battle? How would he come across comforting the bereaved relatives of fallen service personnel? Could he appear convincing, solemn and sincere when laying his wreath at the Cenotaph? In other words, can he be statesmanlike when the occasion demands?
We need to stop treating Johnson as a figure of fun, and someone whose weaknesses we can overlook because he keeps us amused and entertained, standing out in a political field consisting largely of conventional, conformist characters. He is about to try and enter the big time. The time has come to take an altogether more serious approach and address these important questions about his suitability for the top job.
By Marcus Stead