THE race to succeed Theresa May is on as Tory candidates clamber over one another to brandish their leadership credentials. The bookmakers’ favourite is Boris Johnson who confirmed his candidacy this week. So we ought to examine his track record.
As Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph (1989-94), he routinely filed anti-EU stories with little or no factual basis. As London Mayor, he squandered taxpayers’ money on unusable water cannons and his (now cancelled) Garden Bridge.
As front-man for the Leave campaign, he peddled the lie that we could save £350m a week and spend it on the NHS.
As Foreign Secretary, he was a national embarrassment – the worst incumbent of that office in living memory.
His views on Brexit have changed with the wind. In May 2013 he wrote in his weekly Telegraph column (for which he is paid an astonishing £270,000 a year) that if Britain left the EU “we would have to recognise that most of our problems are not caused by Brussels”.
In 2016, a fortnight before he decided to join the Leave campaign, he wrote: “It is also true that the single market is of considerable value to many UK companies and consumers, and that leaving would cause at least some business uncertainty, while embroiling the Government for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems of this country – low skills, low social mobility, low investment etc. – that have nothing to do with Europe.”
No Remain supporter could have put it better.
When the referendum was announced, he drafted two versions of his column, one favouring Remain, the other Leave. He was unsure which way to jump.
Weighing up the pros and cons of the arguments, perhaps, deciding what was best for the country?
No, he was deciding what was best for Boris Johnson.
Once he had plumped for Leave, he changed his tune. “The cost of leaving would be virtually nil and the cost of staying in very high,” he said.
He described the Withdrawal Agreement as “a suicide vest around the British constitution”. “The British people won’t be scared into backing a woeful Brexit nobody voted for”, ran the heading to one of his Telegraph columns earlier this year.
Then, in the most spectacular of his many U-turns, he voted for it. So why the Damascene conversion?
There’s a very simple explanation: Mrs May had promised to quit as PM if the vote was passed.
For someone with eyes only on No 10, it was a no-brainer. Personal ambition won out, hands-down, over principle.
His two years as Foreign Secretary were littered with gaffes. The worst among many was his appearance before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, when he said that Zaghari-Ratcliffe, jailed for five years by the Iranian authorities, had been teaching journalism to students – an incorrect statement immediately seized on by the Iranians to justify claims of spying and to call for an even longer sentence.
In Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist temple, he showed his insensitivity and his ignorance of the country’s history by reciting Rudyard Kipling’s imperialistic poem The Road to Mandalay.
Only the British Ambassador’s intervention avoided a diplomatic row. He attempted to promote whisky in a Sikh temple, despite alcohol being forbidden in the Sikh faith.
He likened Francois Hollande, the former French President, to a Second World War general wanting to administer ‘punishment beatings’. He said the Libyan coastal city of Sirte would have a brilliant future once they ‘cleared the dead bodies away’. Consistently preferring cheap laughs to serious political engagement, he made our country an international laughing stock.
Their next leader – and our Prime Minister – will be chosen by Conservative Party members from a shortlist of two drawn up by MPs.
With a membership of only 124,000 (last year’s figure – the Brexit fiasco has probably reduced it further) and an average age of 72, it’s one of the
least representative electorates in the world.
A reputed 70 per cent of its members support a no-deal Brexit, despite the disastrous consequences foreseen by most of British business.
How can a traditionally pro-business party contemplate a leader whose response to companies’ concerns about Brexit was a crude ‘F… business’?
It beggars belief.
He has also played fast and loose with Parliamentary rules, failing to make timely declarations of income from newspaper columns, book royalties and property – probably carelessness rather than deliberate deception, but is such a careless, disorganised individual fit to be Prime Minister?
Boris Johnson is the epitome of style over substance, of self-confidence over expertise, and of bluster over rational argument.
But he is charismatic and he can connect with the electorate like no other politician.
That’s what his supporters say, and there is some truth in it. He can crack jokes and make classical quips.
Like it or not (and I certainly don’t), he does have charisma.
But leadership of a country requires more than that. What about character?
Old-fashioned virtues like honesty, integrity, truthfulness, industriousness, consistency, trustworthiness, reliability, resilience?
These are the qualities that count.
Charisma, as history has shown, can be a dangerous thing.
Tony Rossiter, from North Yorkshire, is a former diplomat and civil servant who worked predominantly at the Department of Trade and Industry.