Boris Johnson’s ascent to the top job seems unstoppable, and gone are the days when power brokers in the Conservative Party were driven by moral imperative, writes Dani Garavelli.
‘Boris Johnson, eh?” a friend said as the conversation turned inexorably to politics. “I bet you journalists are digging away, trying to unearth a scandal that will scupper his chances.” This friend is opposed to Brexit in general and Johnson in particular, so I understood the comment was said in hope rather than disapproval.
From the stories that emerged last week, I am sure he is right. Nevertheless, as he spoke I found myself wondering: is there really any point?
As with Donald Trump prior to the 2016 presidential election, so much dirt is already on public display. Everybody knows Johnson is a serial liar, a shyster, a racist, a diplomatic nightmare. Everybody knows he has no credibility, courage or convictions. His toxic language and inability to focus on detail are legendary. He has proved himself unfit for public office time and time again. And yet, from the day Theresa May announced her resignation, no other candidate has come within spitting distance of him.
What – short of mass murder – could journalists reveal that would stop the Conservative Party membership anointing him leader now? An affair wouldn’t come close (he’s had several already). A blatant lie, perhaps? But he told one of those in January when he said he had never spoken about Turkey’s prospective membership of the EU – despite footage of him claiming 80 million Turks would come to the UK if it were accepted into the fold.
What if the police were called after neighbours overheard screaming at the flat he shared with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds? This is the scandal that broke on Friday night. Vigilant neighbours recorded the row in which, it is claimed, Symonds shouted: “Get out” and “Get off me.” Could this be the much-sought game-changer? It is too early to tell, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Last week, a YouGov poll suggested Conservative party members would countenance the destruction of their own party in the pursuit of Brexit. Johnson, who has threatened to prorogue parliament to push through a no-deal if necessary, is the man many believe most likely to deliver it. If they are willing (as the poll also suggested) to sacrifice the Union to get what they want, is it likely they’ll let some domestic incident stand in the way of their preferred candidate?
Within the hour, Johnson’s supporters were attempting to shift the narrative. “What kind of people record their neighbours’ arguments and then send the tape to the newspapers?” they asked. The kind of people who want to save the country being driven full-pelt into a cliff-face, perhaps? “A pound-shop version of the Stasi,” was Toby Young’s pro-Johnson take. That was before Allison Pearson suggested the neighbours should be publicly pilloried and made to reveal their political allegiances. No, that doesn’t sound Stasi-ish at all.
Gone are the days when the power-brokers in the Conservative Party were driven by any kind of moral imperative. Johnson, who would sell his own Muslim great-grandfather for a shot as PM, is the most craven, of course; but his rival candidates were hardly members of the Justice League. The final four included Michael Gove , who criticised middle-class cocaine users while snorting it himself; Sajid Javid, who allowed Shamima Begum’s baby to die in a Syrian refugee camp; and Jeremy Hunt, who backed Trump’s recent attack on the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and is now the only man who can stop a Johnson victory.
As for the love-in with Rory Stewart, what was that all about? Sure, Penrith’s answer to the hot priest from Fleabag was anti-Boris and spoke human. But he voted for (and against) most of the same things everyone else did. He was in favour of reducing benefits and against increasing the tax rate for those earning more than £150,000. It’s odd that those who hate Johnson should be so easily seduced by another posh maverick, given that falling for that whole posh maverick shtick is what got us where we are now.
The BBC debate was like a window onto Armageddon. Perched on bar stools, the five contenders were more Thuglife than Westlife as they competed to big themselves up. Oh, they’d all been to Northern Ireland. They were giving it the full-on “when I was in Enniskillen” and “the last time I was in Belfast”.
And they all had lots of Muslim friends (except you wouldn’t know them, because they don’t live round here). Johnson thought mentioning his great-grandfather would make everyone forget he’d said women in burqas looked like letterboxes, though it was headline news everywhere. That was before Stewart trumped him by saying “Salaam alaikum” as if it was a tribal greeting known only to those who have wandered in the foothills of the Hindu Kush.
Johnson, who had skipped the first round, thought the whole thing beneath him. An indolent doughball, he sat like a cocky student who hasn’t done the reading but knows his bluster and privilege will carry him through.
Meanwhile his bag-carriers – the likes of Johnny Mercer and Kwasi Kwarteng – continued to defend the indefensible. Mercer took umbrage at Emma Barnett when she suggested a potential leader of the country ought to be able to keep track of his procreation, while Kwarteng attempted a feat of rhetorical contortionism, insisting Johnson’s succession of racist comments did not make him a racist.
As for Johnson’s supposed nemesis Ruth Davidson, the woman feted by the London commentariat as authentic: what a letdown she turned out to be. True, she backed Javid and then Gove (if only she’d back Johnson, his fortunes might wane). But she toned down her invective. Where once she branded him “shameless”, “calculating” and “cynical”, she now believes it would be possible to work with him as PM. Should a general election be called she would campaign on the doorsteps. To put it more succinctly: she knows he isn’t fit to lead, but her political career comes first.
Equally reprehensible are those journalists who chummily call him Boris and refer to #Team Johnson as if this was a reality TV show rather than an unforgivable squandering of our children’s futures.
No-one in politics or the media is under any illusion about the danger Johnson poses; Symonds’ lament: “You don’t care about anything – you are so spoiled” is an epiphany the rest of us experienced long ago.
Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” comments emerged two days before the second presidential debate, and made no difference at all. Pinning our hopes on the notion that some minor domestic incident will be Johnson’s undoing seems naive.
Yet with so much at stake, we cannot give up. We have a month to pile on the pressure, to keep pointing out to MPs, and the wider membership of the Conservative party, the almost criminal folly of allowing this amoral man-child anywhere near the levers of power.
If we fail, those cheerleaders who allowed him to carry on regardless because it suited their dark purposes should be held legally and morally accountable for whatever catastrophe ensues.