Boris Johnson has one quality that could see him succeed where Theresa May failed – leader comment
Now that he is to become Prime Minister, the real Boris Johnson should finally be revealed. As a no-deal Brexit looms, much will depend on his true character.
New political leaders are generally given 100 days before the first real assessments of their record in office are made. What have they achieved is the question and the answer, usually, is not very much.
Boris Johnson, who will today achieve his life-long ambition by becoming Prime Minister, will have just 99 days to do something that Theresa May failed to do in three years – find a way for the UK to leave the European Union in a way that does not wreck the UK economy.
To her credit, May baulked at the idea of a no-deal Brexit, refusing to even attempt such a reckless, dangerous and foolish course of action. Johnson has insisted the UK will leave the EU on 31 October “do or die” – strong words that would be politically difficult to go back on. But, for the sake of everyone in the UK, we better hope he’s bluffing and it’s simply a ruse to get the EU to offer what he sees as a better deal.
It is clear there is no time for a sweeping renegotiation of the May deal and that there’s little appetite in the EU to do so. Probably the best Johnson can hope for is a tweak to the Northern Irish backstop agreement, a statement of good intentions and the re-wording of the political declaration. But, in the talks with Brussels, he may struggle because they do not appear to trust him.
He will then face one of the biggest decisions in modern British history – can he sell a May-style deal to the Commons where she could not or will he throw it all out and embrace no-deal?
In his speech yesterday after victory in the Conservative leadership election, Johnson appeared to realise the scale of the task, noting an article in the Financial Times about the “daunting” set of circumstances he faced, while insisting “we know we can do it”.
He also recognised that some outside the Conservative party would question its members’ faith in him and that some Conservatives shared similar fears. He espoused a One Nation Tory philosophy about the merits of individual freedom combined with the “equally noble instinct to share and to give everyone a fair chance in life”.
This sounded hopeful. The trouble is many see Johnson as a deceitful, untrustworthy and Machiavellian schemer whose only real guiding principle is ambition, a man so bereft of morals that he is unfit for high office, so it’s hard to know whether what he said yesterday will be reflected in the reality of his leadership.
Others believe Johnson is a right-wing populist in the style of Donald Trump, while yet more commentators think he is a “liberal internationalist” at heart or even a 21st-century version of Winston Churchill.
Now that Johnson has reached the pinnacle of his ambition – his childhood dream of becoming “world king” is not currently an option – his true character should become apparent.
But even if he turns out to be sensible and pragmatic enough to realise the dangers of a no-deal Brexit – as surely Churchill and Machiavelli would – he still faces the same trap that ultimately proved fatal for May’s career – the Northern Ireland border question has no solution satisfactory to all sides.
Johnson’s speech showed he can be funny, conciliatory and even humble and that he has a considerable dose of a quality May lacked – charisma. In short, he has style. The question is whether he has any genuine substance to go with it. He has now less than 100 days to show it.