Among the many fanciful notions peddled by the grubby little men and women who’ve gone out to bat for Boris Johnson on TV and radio while he maintains the lowest possible profile during the race to become the next prime minister, perhaps the most difficult to believe is the idea that he is – and would govern as – a benevolent, One Nation conservative.
We are invited to ignore the evidence – the speeches he has given, the articles he has written – and accept that in his heart he is liberal and open. He might have led the Leave campaign, that exercise in insular Little Englander nostalgia, but once he has seen off rival Jeremy Hunt, we should look forward to a premiership that will bring the people of the United Kingdom together.
In spinning this yarn of Johnson as a One Nation Tory, his supporters attempt to make a virtue of their candidate’s dishonesty. Sure, he might have said and done things, recently, that suggest he is interested only in harnessing the support of hard Brexiteer wing-nuts but he was only saying and doing those things because he had to, you see?
Johnson’s lickspittles remind us that he won two terms as mayor of the great – multicultural, pro-European – city of London and insist that, if we are looking for clues about how his premiership will pan out, we should examine his record in the capital between 2008 and 2016.
But the version of Johnson that won a brace of mayoral elections is not the same version of Johnson that led the Leave campaign to its miserable, lie-fuelled victory. Back in 2008, it suited him to present himself as a modern, outward-looking, progressive conservative, a Tory who even non-Tories could trust. But he has burned that particular disguise with his support for a referendum campaign that preferred scaremongering and dog-whistle racism to facts.
Yet still they pop up on our TV screens, MPs such as Kwasi Kwarteng, Andrew Mitchell and Andrea Leadsom (all the greats), to tell us that Johnson can and will be a unifying figure.
Like me, you might prefer the evidence of your own eyes and ears, you might reckon that a man who has built a career on lies cannot be trusted. You might believe that a man in hock to the hard right of the Conservative Party simply cannot afford to soften his positions on anything, whether it’s Brexit or equality or anything else that might matter to those with liberal views.
The question we should be asking ourselves is not “how will Boris Johnson reassert his centre ground credentials once he’s in power?” but “how low will he go to keep power once he has it?”. The answer, I fear, is “very low indeed”.
Johnson has set himself the mission of shutting down the threat of Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party, an unpalatable casserole of shits that manages to unite good old-fashioned right-wing racists and cranky, pro-IRA lefties. There is nothing noble about Johnson’s motivation. He does not intend to see off these rivals by making a more moderate offer. Rather, he intends to see them off by giving their voters what they want.
Johnson doesn’t want to argue away the lies of Eurosceptic extremists, he wants to get into Downing Street by giving in to Eurosceptic extremists.
During the early stages of the contest to succeed Theresa May, also-ran Dominic Raab got himself in something of a pickle over his suggestion that, if necessary, parliament might be prorogued so that Brexit could be forced through, free from the interference of the majority of MPs who believe crashing out of the European Union without a deal would be utterly catastrophic for the British economy.
Not unreasonably, Raab’s position was dismissed by most of his rivals as undemocratic and dangerous. But Johnson continues to refuse to rule out taking such a course of action. He will go low and then lower still in the interest of winning this contest.
Johnson is not a progressive liberal prepared to make concessions to the right in the name of unity, he is our very own Donald Trump, a man who will say or do anything that he believes necessary in the moment.
Once he has become prime minister (unless some miracle occurs and substantial numbers of Tory members suddenly shift their support to Hunt) Johnson will owe it all to tens of thousands of Eurosceptics in the Conservative ranks. These people would quite happily see the economy crash and the UK break apart in the name of leaving the EU. These people are extremists. These people are Johnson’s people.
And so when cautious and level-headed MPs argue that a No Deal Brexit would be a disaster, Johnson will not listen to them but to the minority in the House of Commons whose approach to constitutional change is wild and nihilistic.
Johnson has promised, during Tory Party hustings, that the UK will leave the EU by the deadline of 31 October. This is a “do or die” promise (though, given the damage a No Deal departure would inflict, it might more accurately be characterised as “do and die”) and he has urged Hunt to make a similar commitment.
Some might comfort themselves with the belief that a majority of MPs would vote against No Deal, but the truth is that if the 31 October deadline passes without a new agreement, then No Deal is the default position. Moderate MPs cannot compel the EU to save the UK from itself.
And so, I fear, No Deal is – even if Tory rebels joined opposition MPs to bring down the government – an entirely likely outcome.
And if that happens, and the warnings of “project fear” are found to be part of “project reality”, Johnson will need someone to blame.
Brace yourselves because this reckless, dishonest man will say or do whatever he feels he must to protect his position.
Boris Johnson lied his way into power in London and lied his way to victory in the 2016 referendum. And he will keep on lying, even as the United Kingdom sinks deeper into the quicksand of right-wing extremism.