Boris Johnson must prove he can be trusted before we all regret his election as PM – Andrew Vine
CAN he be trusted? That is the stark question that Conservative Party members must ask themselves as they gather for leadership hustings and listen to Boris Johnson, whom they have the power to make Prime Minister.
Just how extraordinary a question it is ought to strike them with some force because the issue of integrity is fundamental to this contest, making it unlike any other the party has faced.
Nothing like it arose over the three previous Tory leaders of modern times which the party cheered into Downing Street. Whatever the shortcomings of John Major, David Cameron, or Theresa May, at no point was there even the slightest suggestion that each was anything other than honest and decent.
These are qualities that the Conservatives once took for granted in their leaders. It was part of Tory DNA that the party embodied core values that reflected voters’ own. But does Boris Johnson embody them? It is perhaps the most telling indication of how fractured and neurotic the Conservatives have become that they are even considering handing power to a man facing such a question.
Doubts over him were underlined by the YouGov poll of Tory members which found that 40 per cent did not believe Mr Johnson can be trusted to tell the truth. In normal circumstances this would rule him out as a contender, but so desperate has the party become for both a vote-winner and somebody who can deliver Brexit that large sections of it are clearly minded to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The unseemly and unpleasant incident at Mr Johnson’s girlfriend’s home, which resulted in the police being called, has only added to the questions surrounding him. This matter is refusing to go away, inviting speculation about his temperament. Politicians’ private lives are their own, and every household has its arguments, but when neighbours become so alarmed by what is happening they call the police, that’s a different matter and raises any number of concerns.
His own silence about it – and repeated refusals to address it at the first hustings in Birmingham on Saturday – only adds to the sense of a man who, for all his high profile, remains something of an enigma to his own supporters, and worryingly, the rest of the country. Equally perturbing is the damning verdict of some who know him well. The distinguished historian and journalist, Sir Max Hastings, once Mr Johnson’s boss at the Daily Telegraph, was withering about him during his abortive leadership attempt three years ago after David Cameron’s resignation.
Sir Max wrote he was a “dangerous charlatan”, adding: “His indifference to truth seems comic to some people, but became repugnant in an aspiring Prime Minister.” It is rare to read criticism so condemnatory. This isn’t about policy or the skills necessary to lead the country, but about character and the fitness to hold office at a crucial point in Britain’s history.
Yet the party faithful cheered and applauded in Birmingham. Even though his approval rating amongst members fell after the police incident, he is still out in front and the keys to Downing Street almost within his grasp.
The weight of responsibility on the 160,000 Conservative members cannot be overstated and Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, was right to accuse Mr Johnson of cowardice for his reluctance to debate. Lying low, hiding behind minders and remaining silent can only be interpreted in one way – he is avoiding questions and relying on accumulated goodwill to see him home to victory.
Recent bitter experience should warn the Tories against being duped in this way. Only three years ago, there was effectively a coronation of Theresa May, elected unopposed on the basis of her spouting platitudes. Only when she came to office was her lack of aptitude for it mercilessly exposed.
But for all that, nobody, not opposition parties, foes within her own, nor those who had worked with Mrs May ever branded her a charlatan or questioned her truthfulness. Yet substantial numbers of Conservatives still seem inclined to back a man against whom these exceptionally serious accusations have been levelled. They cannot be dismissed lightly. The party about to decide who is to be our next Prime Minister has long prided itself on being the natural, responsible one of government, sober in its judgment and putting Britain’s welfare first.
And if members are to look each other in the eye and say they are doing their best for the country, they must insist on an answer to the question of trust.