IN BORIS JOHNSON’s biography of Winston Churchill, the author deals with a number of accusations against his subject, including the charge “that he didn’t really have real friends—only people he ‘used’ for his own advancement.” This line, like many in the book, could have been written as easily about the author as about his subject. In the former case, the charge is hard to rebut.
Mr Johnson has become prime minister largely because he is an entertaining fellow who, on television and in print, makes people laugh. In the past lots of voters liked him: during a London mayoral race the Tories’ election guru, Lynton Crosby, found that pictures of Mr Johnson triggered feelings of affection even among those who disagreed with his policies. These days only Brexit enthusiasts quiver when his blond mop heaves into view. But even those who loathe the man concede that he has bags of personality. At a time of national gloom and division, that is a great asset.
Yet although he is capable of immense charm, Mr Johnson is a solitary figure. He has never been one for the aimless socialising that builds friendships, and few former colleagues are inclined to trust him. Max Hastings, who as editor of the Daily Telegraph hired Mr Johnson after he was fired by the Times for lying, recently wrote that “there is room for debate about whether he is a scoundrel or mere rogue, but not much about his moral bankruptcy”.
Nor does Mr Johnson benefit from the domestic support which Churchill enjoyed through his long and devoted marriage to Clemmie. Mr Johnson was ejected by his second wife, Marina Wheeler, a barrister with whom he has four children, after a series of affairs culminating in one with a Conservative Party public-relations officer which has proved so volatile that worried neighbours called the police when the couple were having a row. It is unclear whether she will be moving into 10 Downing Street with him.
Mr Johnson will not necessarily be able to lean on his birth family, either. He comes from a clever clan of journalists and politicians with a genius for self-publicity. “We’re like rats, basically,” wrote his columnist sister Rachel a couple of years ago. “In London, you’re never more than a few feet from at least two Johnsons.” The numerous siblings are fiercely loyal to each other, but also, Boris aside, fiercely pro-European. Rachel was a candidate for a Remain splinter group in the recent European elections, brother Jo was a Remainer Tory minister and father Stanley was a member of the European Parliament—so Boris’s recent political trajectory has strained relations.
Nor does Mr Johnson have a gang of parliamentary chums and supporters. He has spent only a decade as an MP—for eight years of his political career he was mayor of London—and when in Parliament was so busy making money by writing or speechifying elsewhere that he never had much time for dull Westminster work, such as sitting on committees. His fellow MPs didn’t like that. And although he is in great demand as an after-dinner speaker, his parliamentary performances have underwhelmed. Jollying along a bunch of drunk bankers is a very different business to commanding the floor of the house.
Yet although Mr Johnson puts less work than most people do into winning affection and approbation, he craves these things more than most people—even most politicians—do. He is intensely sensitive to criticism. This weakness leads to the gravest charge his former boss, Mr Hastings, levels against him: “cowardice, reflected in his willingness to tell any audience whatever he thinks most likely to please, heedless of the inevitability of its contradiction an hour later”, which has already tripped him up.
During his campaign for the leadership, Mr Johnson promised to leave the EU by October 31st, “do or die”. He has rejected any version of the Irish “backstop”, the default position which would keep Britain, in effect, in the customs union. The EU insists on the backstop; the hard Brexiteers abhor it. If he sticks to them, these commitments will force him to leave the EU without a deal. Given that everybody knew he was going to win the leadership contest easily, Mr Johnson did not need to limit his room for manoeuvre thus. But his yearning to be loved by the Eurosceptic extremists who dominate his party’s membership led him into a trap the hardliners had set for him.
For however passionately Mr Johnson wants to leave the European Union—which, given his historic willingness to adjust his beliefs to circumstance, is probably not very—his interests are different to the hardliners’. Their priority is to leave the EU, and damn the consequences; his is to stay in power. And the contingency plans for leaving without a deal that the mandarins will show him over the next few weeks—which, according to leaks, include imposing direct rule on Northern Ireland, averting widespread bankruptcies and managing civil disorder—will make it painfully clear how much could go wrong. He will be responsible for whatever happens, and many voters will be very angry with him.
The alternative is for Mr Johnson to renege on those Eurosceptic commitments, get some wriggle-room from the EU on the backstop—putting lipstick on the pig, as a putative attempt to improve on the deal Mrs May did with the EU is widely described—and use his undoubted charm to sell to Parliament the porker that it refused three times over to buy from his predecessor. Given his record, nobody—especially not the Eurosceptics with whom he has surrounded himself—would be greatly astonished by such a betrayal, but they would be very angry with him.
For a man who hates to be hated, neither is an attractive prospect. The only way of avoiding both would be to hold an election before October 31st. Very likely he would gain unwelcome fame as the shortest-lived prime minister ever, but—who knows?—maybe he could persuade the voters to love him.