Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Johnson’s ruthless ambition

The former foreign secretary’s despicable targeting of Muslim women means many have written him off. But Conservative party conference has shown that this might be premature, writes  The Progressive

You may remember a 1970s American television detective called Columbo. He was dishevelled, slow and seemingly absent-minded. He wore a dirty raincoat and smoked a cigar. His speech was disjointed, veering off at tangents. All these traits were part of a cunning façade, crafted to lull the criminals into a false sense of security, before they were led away in handcuffs at the end of every episode.

For 20 years, this has been Boris Johnson’s political modus operandi. His hapless, bumbling japes and jaunts around the playground of domestic and foreign affairs masks his intelligence, cunning and ruthless ambition. We remember him hanging from the wire with his Union Jacks, misquoting Virgil, or jogging in garish shorts and bandana. Perhaps we forget he beat Ken Livingstone twice to serve eight years as Conservative mayor in a Labour city. Now he stands as the bookies’ and Tory members’ favourite to be the next Conservative prime minister.

There is something despicable and cowardly about Johnson targeting Muslim women who choose to cover their faces

That, of course, was what his carefully-calibrated article on burqas was all about. If he was running for London mayor, he would never have written such vile rubbish. But he is appealing directly to vaguely racist Telegraph-reading Tory activists who may get to choose the next prime minister. ‘Ah’, his defenders cry, ‘read the article. It says he doesn’t want to ban the burqa!’ This, as Johnson the classicist knows full well, is the rhetorical device known in the trade as paralipsis. You highlight an issue by saying you are not going to. Just to be sure, Johnson added colourful imagery about pillar boxes and bank robbers.

There is something despicable and cowardly about Johnson targeting Muslim women who choose to cover their faces. The bigger point is that Johnson is on manoeuvres and the battleplan he has adopted is Donald Trump’s. Trump has invented a form of populist politics which works. Because it works, others try to copy it. It is about appearing like an outsider, not part of the establishment. By resigning from the cabinet and getting himself investigated for Islamophobia, he has achieved that. It’s about speaking for ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’. His stance on Brexit ticks that box. It’s about creating ‘the other’ – for Trump it is Mexicans, for Johnson it is Muslims. Johnson has yet to go down the Trumpian route of conspiracy theories, misogyny and attacking the media, but it is only a matter of time.

The Tory establishment is rightly terrified of him, just like the Republican establishment was of Trump

Will the Conservative party go for Johnson’s populist schtick? The Tory establishment is rightly terrified of him, just like the Republican establishment was of Trump. The members of parliament have the power to keep him off the shortlist of two, and make it Sajid Javid versus Dominic Raab, or whoever. But the members love him, and would be galvanised in a way May has failed miserably to do. If he is on the Tory ballot, he wins.

Then there is the question of timing. The Conservative party is held together in a collective hug of death. The Tories will never forgive May for throwing away their parliamentary majority and the worse election campaign any of them had ever seen. She will not be given a second chance. But they do not want to get rid of her too soon and unleash all the demons imprisoned beneath the surface.
Under article 50, Britain leaves the European Union on 29 March 2019. The next general election in the United Kingdom is on 5 May 2022, according to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. There’s plenty of time for a new post-Brexit Tory leader to be elected in autumn next year, or even the year after.

That, then leaves one final question. Could Boris Johnson lead the Conservative party to a parliamentary majority in 2021 or 2022? He would need to appeal to the kind of voters who voted for him as mayor of London in 2008 and 2012. In these contests, the ‘personality’ of ‘Boris’ outplayed the old school left-wingery of Ken Livingstone by a narrow but significant margin. Despite being around since the 1970s, Livingstone had been seen as novel in 2002, representing a new kind of politics. He stood against his own party as an insurgent. By 2008, Londoners were a bit bored of him.

Sixty-five per cent of hitherto Labour voters agreed with the statement ‘I dislike Ken’ in the week before polling. Labour supporters voting for the ‘Boris’ personality decided the election. Johnson obviously believes he can do it again, not just in London seats such as Chipping Barnet and Richmond Park, but in super-marginal seats across the UK such as Crewe and Nantwich, Canterbury, Keighley, and Hastings and Rye.

In May 2022, the last possible date for a general election, Jeremy Corbyn will celebrate his 73rd birthday and have been leader for nearly seven years. Could Johnson, with the Trump playbook in one hand, his trusty dog whistle in the other, and Steve Bannon on speed dial, beat him? Who knows? In Columbo, you always knew what would happen at the end. In politics, we are, unlike the great detective, clueless.


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