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MICHAEL WHITE: The truth behind Boris Johnson’s offensive charm

Boris Johnson leaves BBC Broadcasting House in London after appearing on the Andrew Marr show. PA Archive/PA Images - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

MICHAEL WHITE on the truth behind Johnson’s supposed asset – his charisma.

OK. Let’s try to sort this one more time. Boris Johnson, self-proclaimed World King, has spent years telling anyone who would listen that his charisma and the “enthusiastic positivity” of his character constitute his unique selling point, the USP on which his Churchillian claim to the Brexit premiership is based. But when this carefully confected version of his lovably chaotic self is challenged by ugly personal misconduct – by evasion and mendacity as well as late night bust-ups in Camberwell – the runaway favourite runs away. He then insists that his character is not the issue, that to discuss his private life is unfair to “my family, my loved ones”, of whom he has had so many.

Now it turns out that what the prime minister-presumptive really wants to discuss is policy. Unfortunately policy is not his forte, as Bottler Boris’s stuttering performance in the five-candidate debate with the BBC’s Emily Maitlis showed last week. His reluctant session with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg reinforced it on Monday as critics savaged his tax and Brexit plans. Tuesday’s appearance with LBC’s Nick Ferrari was also panned for being content-free waffle. He remains determined to avoid a television debate with Jeremy Hunt for as long as possible. “Why risk it?” say his handlers. In saner times the Tory selectorate would say the same of Boris.

The flurry of controlled media access came after the shy candidate (55 last week) and his girlfriend (31) appeared to stage a cynically lovey-dovey photo opportunity in the Sussex countryside for new mate George Osborne’s London Evening Standard and others. Presumably it was to confirm that Carrie Symonds is not sporting a Camberwell shiner. “Mills and Boon,” declared the Mail. What his other “family and loved ones” thought of it can only be imagined. But let’s not do detail or consistency, that would be unfair, “defeatism and negativity” as the candidate likes to put it. Rumours that it was an old photo surely cannot be true. That would be too much, even for Iain Duncan Smith. A suspiciously old haircut in the photo? Oh dear.

Though such pantomime humbug becoming the new normal in the Ruritanian condition of British politics, this is all extraordinary. The Tory tabloids had a field day (“does he really want to go back to his wife?”), but hedged their bets by denouncing the Guardian-reading Camberwell couple who recorded what they feared might be a noisy murder as “curtain-twitching Corbynistas”.

Out there in the real world, important things are happening. Around the same time of night, in the early hours of Friday, that the World King and his consort were exchanging pleasantries and crockery in London SE5, president Trump was also getting over-excited. He authorised a retaliatory air strike against Iran and then rescinded the order with 10 minutes to spare. That was a serious near-miss and it isn’t over yet. It’s page one news every day in most Western capitals, but not in Camberwell.

Iran is ruled by a vicious and corrupt theocracy, its economy is being ravaged by unilateral US sanctions. But there is little evidence that Tehran will bend to Washington’s will, any more than that Brussels – which is only marginally corrupt and theocratic – will yield to the World King’s demands. As per his Kuenssberg interview, these now turn out to be keeping the “serviceable bits” of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement while revisiting the divorce bill and parking the Irish border until later. What’s not to like, Michel Barnier? In Brussels and Tehran the downside risks of miscalculated brinkmanship are far more obvious than the potential benefits.

Most signatories to the Iran/US/EU nuclear deal still think that it is Trump who is in the wrong in renouncing it, though Ruritanian Britain now seems to be wobbling his way, much diminished since it last dispatched substantial fighting forces to the Gulf. Ditto the consensus on Brexit.

Not easily impressed, letter writers to the New York Times – Trump’s most formidable adversary after president Xi of China – ironically congratulate Fox News commentator, Tucker Carlson, for phoning the president and telling him not to bomb the mullahs because it’s not what the base voted for. One writer speculates that POTUS pulls back from so many crises of his own making that he may be suffering from Munchausen syndrome by proxy. That’s the one in which the perpetrator injures someone, but gains admiration and attention for then ‘saving’ them.

That’s not Boris’s version of narcissism. He is not much good on the ‘saving’ bit. But let us briefly stay with the World King’s state of mind. MP-turned-pundit Matthew Parris speculates that he may be deliberately sabotaging his own campaign because somewhere inside the hollow man that he is the WK knows he is inadequate to the daunting challenges which the next premiership will bring. The victim of his own myth-making, self-indulgent, over-entitled, his veneer of charm a mask for a volcanic temper (biographer, Sonia Purnell, once shared his Brussels office), he seeks to escape the trap of his own making.

Don’t laugh. When Democratic senator Gary Hart was on a fair course for the White House in 1987 he challenged the media to “follow me around” if they did not believe his denials of womanising habits. The Miami Herald did and followed him to a young campaign aide called Donna Rice. Hart quit the race and useless Michael Dukakis was beaten by Bush Snr.

Interestingly, a majority of US voters disapproved of media snooping in the Hart affair and told pollsters that a rackety private life does not impede a leader’s suitability to do the job. That’s always been my line too. Many leaders crush their spouses and leave their kids damaged by their self-absorbed indifference, that’s the price too often paid by family and loved ones. But a leader must surely demonstrate organisational competence and tact by conducting his/her rackety private affairs discreetly. That’s what private means. When François Hollande was photographed dashing off for a cinq à sept perched on the back of an Elysée scooter – not something the predatory Chirac or Mitterrand would do, JFK neither – I sensed he was a goner. In due course he was. Dignity matters in high office.

Talking of which, CCTV footage not provided by Guardian-reading, pro-Remain artists (would Camberwell coppers have leaked the Sofagate row to the Sun anyway?) has now emerged of Boris shopping for two-for-one wine offers in a Tesco Express last week. Armed with a rucksack, he looks dishevelled and out of control. It is not very prime ministerial and far from dignified. That is much like his dishevelled tax cuts, which the fastidious Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) now cost at £9 billion (upper rate tax perk) plus £11bn for raising the NICs threshold which would also help life’s Borises more than the average wage earner. Hunt proposes to spend £15 billion more on defence, but at least that might buy something more useful than a swimming pool in the basement. Boris’s response to the IFS? “I don’t recognise those figures.” I bet he doesn’t. Cue another retreat.

But we are in an odd place, forced to contemplate a Tory leadership contest in which the successful candidate has the unusual additional incentive of needing to obtain the keys to No.10 in order to have somewhere to live. He is 55 and meant to be dieting. His wife has kicked him out. His children are reportedly not talking to him. His girlfriend seems to have put an end to Bozzie Bear’s sofa surfing (“get off me” and “get out of my flat”) after he surfed with a wine glass. His campaign manager, serial loser, Lynton ‘Dog Whistle’ Crosby, has friends from Australia staying this summer, so the WK can’t stay in the spare room. The Rees-Moggs, who have children too, don’t want him in the house. Weep, if you can, for Britain’s first homeless prime minister. No wonder there is persistent talk that Bozzie Bear’s spirits are low and he is no longer the bear he was 10 years ago. Or even pretended to be. The stuffing is showing and a spring or two are poking out. A plastic eye hangs from its socket on a much-loved, threadbare cheek.

None of this yet seems likely to change the verdict of the 160,000 Tory activists who will decide our collective fate. In 2015 Labour embraced a cult leader, shifty and opportunist in both his public and private conduct, conspicuously unsuited in experience and temperament. In the face of mounting evidence the activist core has stuck with Jeremy Corbyn, stalled to the point of irrelevance over Brexit because the pro-Remain and Momentum grassroots demands are blocked by Unite’s Len McCluskey, his Stalinist fixers and groupies. The failure of politics is not systemic, it is a chronic failure of leadership and conviction. It is not confined to us.

So Conservative activists are predictably determined to join the party, to replicate the Corbyn error because they cling to the belief – no more than that – that Boris can deliver Nirvana by October 31 without traumatic pain, at least not for them. It’s their equivalent of a McDonnell tax rise: the pain is for others. Like Corbyn, their hero’s public utterances are usually vapid. Like Corbyn, he is caught between stronger characters than himself who pull him in both directions: Starmer and McDonnell are for Remain, Milne and McCluskey for Brexit. Hammond and Rudd are for a deal, Farage and Mogg for a hard landing. Pressure from Steve (‘Nice little tied flat you’ve got Boris, shame if anything happened to it’) Baker and the European Remedial Group’s hardcore has already corrected last week’s Johnson wobble over leaving by October 31 – at least for now. But Ken Clarke and Tobias Ellwood, a junior defence minister with a name straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel, threaten to back a Labour no confidence motion that would stop it. The maths are messy – defection works both ways, Caroline Flint – but the possibility of a three-month premiership (July to October) cannot be ruled out. Tories in the Brecon Beacons have just picked disgraced MP, Chris Davies, to fight the coming by-election for his seat. Bang goes another vote.

In some pub scenarios Boris could be homeless again after just one day, July 25, if Corbyn bestirs himself to act. But not-so-deep-down he doesn’t want the job either, so don’t bet on either side triggering such an unpredictable election. In theory, Her Maj could send for someone else to form a government, says Meg Russell of UCL’s constitution unit. Tory activists no longer seem to care. They tell the pollsters that they would be willing to destroy the union with Scotland and Northern Ireland – as well they might, so Gordon Brown reminded us all – if it would deliver the Brexit of their imaginings. What Brown calls this new “English Nationalist Brexit Party” would even wreck their own party. For self-styled conservatives to talk like this is like a Christian denying the existence of God. They cannot be Tories.

My ministerial sources assure me that it’s “all still to play for” in Hunt’s battle to bring down Boris. The runaway’s conduct has more than halved his lead this past week and the challenger is dashing up and down the country staging an old-fashioned glad-handing campaign. Having been accused of being wet by Team Boris they can hardly complain when he calls the runaway a “coward” and focuses on the crucial character question: trust. Wiser campaign veterans than me in Labour’s ranks think exposing the World King’s policy weakness is the best hope the foreign secretary has. But if Boris’s career has been built on a sunny ‘character’, not on substance, attacking that character’s unsunny side must surely be key. It may bring out some previously unsuspected character of Hunt’s own. The underdog has little time. Ballot papers go out on July 6-8 and zealots will want to send them back before a disaster at the hustings unsettles their certainties.

But Boris’s most dangerous opponent is still Boris. During Tuesday’s session with the BBC’s unflappable Kuenssberg the WK made a significant admission, that his hopes of bouncing Brussels into a revised deal will depend on the EU27’s cooperation: we cannot do it on our own. But the very act of threatening to leave without a deal is sufficient to change the terms of debate towards a “mutuality of interest”. Brussels cannot continue to elevate politics over economics, the WK says. But why not? That is what we are doing, almost everyone agrees except the predatory Trump. “What I bring is the ability to change the equation,” says Boris. Pure Trumpery, but with a more educated tone – “Trump with Latin,” as the wits put it.

Brexit websites have gone into overdrive to prove that the GATT XXIV clause – you note the lapse into Latin numerals – will not require the UK to open its ‘no tariff’ markets to all trading partners, not just the EU, provided the UK/EU first agree a temporary deal while they negotiate a new free trade agreement, Canada-style. Precisely. All sorts of things are possible provided both sides agree, including the Prosperity UK think tank’s ideas for the evolution of granular borderless improvisations for the movement of goods across the Irish land border.

But why should the EU27 unpick cherry-picked bits of May’s Withdrawal Agreement because the Brits threaten to blow their own foot off if they don’t? We have heard this so often and heard it refuted. Hearing the World King, the
man his girlfriend says only cares
about himself, saying it changes
nothing. Not even if Iain Duncan
Smith and David Campbell-Bannerman agree with him. Bank governor Mark Carney, or IDS? That should be a no brainer.

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