Bernard Ingham: Does Boris Johnson have what it takes to be our next PM?

SUCH is the state of our politics that Boris Johnson is widely expected to try to oust Theresa May sooner or later.

By all accounts, Jeremy Corbyn faces a coup by Labour moderates. And the Liberal Democrats have all but disappeared.

I am frankly sceptical whether Boris will move or Corbyn can be moved. As for the Liberal Democrats, I couldn’t care less.

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Let me explain. I doubt whether, short of a resounding electoral defeat, Corbyn can be moved because of the menacingly iron grip his Momentum activists have on Labour. At the same time moderate MPs allegedly plotting his downfall are wary of breaking away after the Social Democrats’ fiasco.

This is how Boris Johnson presented himself to the media this week.

Nor do the moderates have a potential leader who is half as interesting, as distinct from sensible, as Corbyn. Contemporary politicians are but a shadow of the past.

I can think of worse Labour leaders than the principled Frank Field, but he does not exactly set the world alight.

Which brings me to the notable exception to the boring rule, the maverick Boris. I have not the slightest doubt that he wants to follow his hero, Winston Churchill, as a Tory Prime Minister. Nor can anyone deny that he is a larger than life character in the Bertie Wooster mould, though he could do with Jeeves to smarten him up.

But then his customary rumpled, untidy look is part of the charismatic whole and if the world can get used to Donald Trump it can surely cope with Boris’s mop and dishevelled self.

Like so many tramps in high places, with the notable exception of the profoundly ignorant Corbyn, he is highly intelligent – a classical scholar with both feet on the ground. He has the priceless ability to talk to people in their own language, give or take a Woosterish “Crickey” or two.

Understandably, he has a faithful following because he is undoubtedly leadership material. And his spells as Mayor of London have done him no harm.

I encountered him, as distinct from getting to know him, as a Daily Telegraph journalist in Brussels when I was the British spokesman at some of my 31 consecutive Euro-summits in the 
1980s. He then seemed to be Eurosceptic and, if so, has remained faithful to his principles over more than 30 years.

Unlike his predecessors, he did not go native, as it were, as Foreign Secretary with exposure to the incorrigibly Europhile FCO. Yet he seems to have impressed our diplomats with his grasp of essentials.

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He looks to be a shoo-in measured against his touted rivals to succeed Mrs May – Jeremy Hunt, a boringly safe pair of hands; Gavin Williamson, Yorkshire’s inexperienced Defence Secretary; Home Secretary Sajid Javid and the untried Jacob Rees-Mogg.

But – and there are several buts – will he move against Mrs May when he knows that he who wields the knife never wears the crown, as Sir Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine found in Mrs Thatcher’s time?

He doesn’t yet know the final colour of Brexit now that the EU seems to be blinking. Nor will his party thank him for imposing on them a leadership election if Mrs May manages to get us out on acceptable terms.

As things stand he seems more likely
to gain than lose by sitting tight, especially if he continues to endear himself, however clumsily, to the rank and file with his views on such things as burkas. People recognise he is anything but a racist, Tory witchhunters please note.

This leaves two outstanding questions:

1. For all his internationalism and bon homie, is he too liberal to run the tight ship needed to get the British economy in better balance – we simply cannot go on ratcheting up debt;

2. Does he have sufficient control over his exuberant tongue to make a success of the Tory leadership or is he all too likely to put his foot in it all too regularly?

No one can answer these questions because no one knows how a politician will handle the top job until he gets it. Nobody in 1979 thought Margaret Thatcher would make such a mark 
on history. In fact, most people
probably thought she would not last long because they felt Britain was ungovernable.

All I can say is that in due time, subject to the unexpected rise of a Tory rival, we could do worse than have Boris Johnson as our PM. But Mrs May deserves the chance to show us her final Brexit. We may yet be surprised.