No-one has perfected the art of ‘personality politics’ quite like Boris Johnson – love him or loathe him - the British public certainly know who he is.
There are a number of images which spring to mind when thinking about the current Foreign Secretary. Perhaps the best would be the image of him stuck on a zip wire in 2012 during celebrations for the London 2012 Olympics, or the numerous pictures of him with his startling hair flying in all directions, looking a far cry from the smart, polished looks of his Westminster colleagues.
This cult of personality politics, which has accelerated in recent years, is precisely what has led us to the situation we now find ourselves in: the prospect of Boris Johnson becoming leader of the Conservative Party – perhaps even Prime Minister, and Britain becoming once and for all the laughing stock of the Western world. Not exactly the post-Brexit image of the UK Johnson had in mind, that’s for sure.
Boris’ ambitions have taken a bit of a downward turn over the last few days however – the Conservative party conference hasn’t quite provided the reception Boris no doubt wanted after his article in the Telegraph which set out his vision for the UK after Brexit last month, which many viewed as the start of his leadership bid.
Followed by The Sun’s report on Boris’ ‘red lines’ on Brexit, his popularity seems to have declined dramatically amongst his fellow MPs who have called for Theresa May to sack him. The British public certainly aren’t as favourable to him as they used to be, in large part because he is no longer such a prominent political figure since stepping down as Mayor of London last year.
At a time of substantial uncertainty for the Conservative Party, MPs appear to be rallying around their leader and dismissing the notion of a challenge to May’s leadership. This is somewhat surprising given the climate following the general election result appeared to be very much against May, but it would seem now the Tories have bigger fish to fry as Corbyn asserted at the Labour Party conference that his party are a ‘government in waiting’.
One Conservative minister asserted that there was no appetite for a leadership election, with many hinting at their desire to quell the murmurings of a potential leadership bid on Johnson’s part once and for all by removing him from his cabinet position.
However, May’s precarious majority means she appears to be playing it safe and has decided it is easier to just ignore Boris’ endeavours and instead concentrate on uniting her party. Boris appears to be a mere annoyance that needs to be managed, as opposed to a credible threat to the Conservative Party leadership.
Even if there were to be a leadership bid, it is likely that Boris would quickly be overshadowed by other potential candidates, including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Phillip Hammond, both of whom are likely to command a far larger support base within the party than Johnson would. This is even more so the case now that Johnson has openly displayed his contempt for the way May is handling Brexit negotiations, which, to a number of Conservative MPs, has made him appear unfit to lead the party.
Brexit remains an area of sensitivity within the cabinet, with numerous reports suggesting internal divisions remain, despite the Prime Minister setting out a clear agenda for negotiations at her talk in Florence towards the end of last month. However, Boris’ repeated public interference is likely to have escalated tensions in the cabinet at a time when they are attempting to display a united front.
The influence Boris Johnson wields not only as an MP but also as a journalist might further explain why May appears reluctant to fire him: it only takes looking at George Osborne at the Evening Standard to see what free reign can do to an ex-politician in the media industry. With a minority government and a process as contentious as Brexit in the making, the last thing May needs is Boris trying to use his influence against her.
The Foreign Secretary has also found himself in hot water recently when, on a visit to Myanmar, he recited part of a colonial-era poem whilst in the most scared Buddhist site in the capital, Yangon. This prompted the UK ambassador to interrupt the Foreign Secretary to save any further embarrassment. Also earlier this year, while visiting a Sikh temple in Bristol, Johnson spoke candidly about alcohol, which is forbidden in certain strands of Sikhism.
These are just some of the latest in a long line of embarrassments on the part of the Foreign Secretary, who appears to be either lazy in his research of the religions he is being introduced to, or at worse, ignorant. This is not someone fit to be Prime Minister, and certainly not someone who can win back his party’s lost majority in Westminster.
At a time when the Conservative Party is under such international scrutiny as they are scrambling to come out of Brexit negotiations relatively unscathed and attempt to negotiate trade deals with countries around the world, the last thing they need is Boris Johnson bringing embarrassment to the country and even offence to other countries.
If his poem on Turkish president Erdoğan, which won the ‘most offensive poem’ in response to the president’s crackdown on free speech, is anything to go by, it doesn’t seem like Boris Johnson is the best person to be the face of our country.
It seems inevitable that the days of ‘Boris mania’ are over, with not just the political class but also the general public becoming more aware of the gravity of the current situation of the Brexit negotiations. Boris’ interventions are unhelpful, and it surely won’t be long before he fades from relevance altogether.