Most normal people are fed up with the ferrets-in-a-sack natutre of the Brexit debate and are rapidly approaching a similar degree of annoyance with the angels-on-pinheads sideshow of the Tory leadership contest. The combination of a flawed parliamentary system of government with a media fixated on its esoteric nuances. The general public seems not only disenchanted but embarrassed by how irresolute and laughable this makes their country seem to foreigners, especially the Europeans that many see as having caused this in the first place.
Whatever your position on the EU, you can’t be pleased with this situation in which we find ourselves. Whatever Theresa May and he ministers ought to have done with the time they had since the June 2016 decision to leave, remaining options are a lot bleaker than the mob jostling for her job would have you believe. Ever since she announced she was standing down, debate has centred on the possible successors which, at one time, had numbered a baker’s dozen which, at the time of writing, have been whittled down to six.
But the bizarre debate held on Channel 4 last night (June 16th) was not only inconclusive in showing any clear, shining leadership but was rendered surreal by the absence of the “clear front-runner”, Boris Johnson, who was represented by an empty podium. While the media did their best to gloss over this glaring omission, this was the latest in a number of cunningly effective ploys by the Boris camp to bypass convention and win my a landslide, no matter the effect that may have on the future of 67,000,000 people.
In stark contrast to his 2016 campaign, Boris has been smart enough to gather a team of professional to run his campaign and (even more importantly) listen n to them.
His upper middle class origins and education at Eton and Balliol College were pretty standard Conservative qualifications. But his shock of blonde hair and disarming affability not only got him elected as President of the Oxford Union but helped deflect criticism during his journalism career with the Times, Telegraph and Spectator. He was sacked for falsifying a quotation and his articles from Brussels were meat and drink to a growing Eurosceptic sentiment among the Tory right wing that evolved into the European Research Group. Activities verging on buffoonery which concealed a formidable intellect and ambition gave him a high profile of a real character and iconoclast in a world if increasingly grey suits.
He parlayed this into ousting Ken Livingston as Mayor of London, where he pursued a colourful career that veered between controversy and success. Why many—even those n his own party—were appalled by his flamboyant approach, his profile increased until he became well known nationally as a leader of the Leave campaign in 2016. His ambition to replace David Cameron as PM being thwarted by Michael Gove’s betrayal, his tenure as Foreign Secretary was mixed. While displaying charm and affability, his dislike of detail and tendency to shoot from the hip made his star appear to wane and he took the opportunity to resign from the Cabinet when May presented her ‘Deal’ on the excuse that it was not robust enough.
Being smart enough to realise that mere affable boyishness had taken him as far as it could. Although he appeared to drop out of high profile media coverage, he started to assiduously cultivate support among Tory MPs and gather an election team to shore up a more substantial approach to the denoument he felt was looming about Brexit, This was a formidable crew and one he deferred to when positioning himself. The team consists of:
- James Wharton—Campaign manager a Conservative MP until he lost his northern seat in 2017. A Eurosceptic whose private member’s bill for a referendum on our membership of the EU which Cameron’s government was forced to support before – it was defeated in the House of Lords. Wharton deserves credit for the basic competence of the Johnson campaign this time round.
- Lee Cain—Press officer Cain worked for Vote Leave. His long experience means that he is considered to be an important adviser on strategy to the candidate. His is a familiar face on the “Burma Road”—the warren of media offices behind the press gallery in the House of Commons. Cain is a former Foreign Office special adviser
- Carrie Symonds—Girlfriend (but more than just that). She’s the daughter of Matthew Symonds, one of the three founders of The Independent, and Josephine Mcaffee, one of the newspaper’s lawyers,. She was head of broadcast at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, where she worked for eight years.
- Sir Lynton Crosby—Campaign and polling adviser He ran Johnson’s (successful) campaigns for mayor of London in 2008 and 2012, also helped David Cameron win his surprise election victory in 2015. His best-known saying is “throwing a dead cat on the table” – his way of describing a distraction that diverts journalists from discussing something unhelpful to his campaign.
- Gavin Williamson—”Chief Whip” one of the organisers of Theresa May’s leadership campaign in 2016. He has been pursuing an “inevitability” tactic with the Johnson campaign. As a former chief whip in May’s government, Williamson knows a lot about the importance of counting in politics, and a lot about the foibles, interests and soft spots of the 313 Conservative MPs.
Anyone paying attention to this campaign will have noticed a very different Boris. Not only has Carrie persuaded him to change his hairstyle and lose some weight but the brash and gaffe-prone Boris of yore is nowhere to be seen. Instead of fabricating quotes as a journalist, waging war on bendy-buses as Mayor and getting prisoners in Iran into deeper trouble by misstating why they were thee, the silence has been deafening. Despite the press corps camped outside his house, they get nothing from him. The silence itself, amplified by nightly TV reporting has kept him in the public eye without his saying a word. That’s what a good campaign team can do for you.
His sweep of the first ballot on Thursday, with 114 against his nearest rival’s 43, seemed inevitable. But declining to join the other five in Channel 4’s debate has the mark of genius. He stayed aloof from what seemed an esoteric set of arguments and none of his rather fanciful assertions of how Brexit could be achieved by October 31st came under scrutiny. The most the debate established was that Rory Stewart was stronger candidate than expected. But by voicing a pragmatic position on Brexit, he will not gain supportfrom the bulk of Tory MPs who are in a lther about leaving the EU asap.
By agreeing to appear in the BBC debate on Tuesday 18th, Boris ensures that more of his rivals will already be eliminated by the second ballot that day and hew will be left to question just how practical his sketchy position might be. He will enter the contest that is his to lose late enough to appear a shoo-in, no matter his performance. Even his rivals appear to concede they are scrambling for second place beside Boris in the ballot of 160,000 party members during July.
Whichever of the other five achieve second place, they will be confronted with an unbeatable combination of Boris’ affable persona, his higher profile across the country and his doughty Eurosceptic credentials that will go down a storm among elderly white male Britannia-nostalgic Tory membership such that the question will be largely about the scale of his victory.
Which is sad. Because his triumph may be short-lived. PM or no, he will be faced with the same intractable Commons arithmetic, the same unyielding EU stance and the same economic penalties from crashing out without a deal and the same terror of a General Election to reshuffle the cards that torpedoed May’s premiership.
And all that’s before he gets round to the daily bread-and-butter of running a country of 67,000,000, most of whom now deeply mistrust those who created the mess—their elected representatives have made. Boris’s election team is currently playing the system like an old violin. But who is the team of competent advisers who can do as good a job for the country, even if Boris, like Ronald Reagan is smart enough to stay out of the way as a figurehead and just get on with the job. His record as London mayor does not bode well nd this is a much harder job.
“Uneasy loes the head that wears a crown.”
—William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II