The game’s up, Boris Johnson. No way can you become prime minister
Boris Johnson wants to become leader of the Conservative party. We’ve known that for a while now, of course, but it looks like he’s gearing up to have another go. Anonymously sourced stories have appeared in newspapers, claiming that fellow ministers are urging him to oust Theresa May. Mysteriously leaked WhatsApp videos show him demonstratively urging other MPs to unite behind her. It’s unclear for whose benefit, as even casual observers are quite aware that’s exactly what you would do if you were secretly planning a leadership coup.
There was a time when I would have considered Johnson a genuine threat to Labour. He’s always been a bit lightweight – buffoonish, incompetent, prone to getting basic facts muddled up – but that was supposed to be his charm. It was endearing, in a vaguely Hugh Grant in Four Weddings sort of way. Much like Nigel Farage, he was able to transcend his privileged background and present a relatable image. He was the politician you could imagine drinking a pint with and actually enjoying it. Youth-targeted websites focused mainly on football, bants and birds published articles describing him as a “lad”.
Leftwingers have always been able to reel off a long list of serious criticisms. His history of racist statements. His suggestion that poverty is caused by having a low IQ. His record as London mayor, particularly granting contracts to personal associates. His craven, last-minute transformation into a Brexiteer – a move he thought would help him gain power within his own party. The lies he was prepared to endorse as part of that campaign, most memorably, the promise of £350m extra funding for the NHS that was plastered on the side of a bus.
My worry was that those criticisms simply wouldn’t cut through; that voting choices were too motivated by emotion rather than substance. Theresa May is somewhat wooden and awkward in front of a camera. She’s not good at engaging with members of the public and is frequently photographed looking uncomfortable. After the chaos of the EU referendum she emerged as the supposedly “sensible” choice, but it always seemed likely her personal approval ratings were flimsy, a product of circumstance rather than her personal characteristics. Johnson is a very different beast. I even considered that his poshness might be an asset – that people find it easier to vote for the lazy confidence of someone who considers themselves born to rule.
After the recent general election, I’m convinced these fears were misplaced. Many confused onlookers have spent the past two years dismissing Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters as frivolous, naive, members of a personality cult. The reality is the opposite. A defining feature of this growing, youth-driven leftwing movement is its utter seriousness. Don’t let the memes and in-jokes fool you – what’s bringing people together is a feeling that the status quo is broken, and a belief that it’s possible to change things for the better.
George Osborne: Theresa May is a ‘dead woman walking’
Now we know that 40% of voters are on board with this vision – many whom were inspired by Corbyn’s Labour to participate in politics for the first time. If youth turnout was up significantly on 2015 it’s because large numbers of young people were convinced they were being offered something worth turning out for. Across all demographics, voters list things like the NHS and housing among their primary concerns. Seven years of Conservative government have had awful consequences for large swaths of ordinary people. Even those who weren’t particularly hit by the first wave of austerity are starting to worry about things like school funding and hospital beds.
Voters are not fools. No matter how affably and adeptly he manages to deflect questions about his record, they won’t forget that Johnson was one of the primary architects of their current struggles. In a time of chaos, increasing numbers of people are demanding serious answers from their politicians. On Brexit specifically, his “lovable”, bumbling idiot act is already wearing thin. Opinion polls show that were he to become leader it would make 31% of people less likely to vote Tory and only 23% more likely. If he were subjected to the level of media scrutiny that applies to party leaders, that gap would probably be far higher.
Corbyn critics have argued that May’s personal failings are the main reason the election result was so close, ignoring that Labour’s rapid rise in the polls coincided with the party’s leader being given a fairer hearing under purdah rules and the party’s manifesto being released. If those people genuinely believe that someone like Johnson is capable of turning the Conservatives’ fortunes around, all I can say is: bring it on.