Boris Johnson had a three decade record of opinionated journalism, notably punctuated by recurrent fake news attacks on Brussels, before he became the key member of David Cameron’s inner circle to defect and campaign for the Leave side in the 2016 referendum. It was this career as a provocative and partisan opinion leader that secured for him the hearty endorsement of Britain’s main press moguls, and that served as his launch pad for national leadership. First as Mayor of London, and more recently and more briefly as Foreign Secretary, he became famous for his Trump-like personality politics, and also for a chronic lack of attention to the details (even the very large details) of his public responsibilities. This helps explain why his long-time partner, and the sponsor of his first (2016) bid for Conservative Party leadership after Cameron, Michael Gove, unexpectedly reversed course at the last minute and declared Johnson personally unfit for the highest office in the land, thus sinking his campaign.
But Theresa May’s inability to deliver her Brexit deal by the end of March 2019, as she had promised, has just given him a second chance. This time his campaign was more carefully orchestrated, highlighting his optimism, his self-confidence, and his breezy way with words, while sheltering him from any serious scrutiny. He thus managed to avoid most of the leadership debates, and to position himself as the natural leader-in-waiting for which the rank and file of the ruling Conservative Party had long yearned.
Adopting a faux Churchillian pose and pledging to “do or die” on Brexit (with or without a deal) by the end of the coming month of October he has now won just under two thirds of the vote of this highly unrepresentative selectorate. His 92,000 votes amounts to one in seven hundred of the British population and about 0.2% of the national electorate, yet entitles him to occupy the position of British Prime Minister at a moment of acute national crisis. Despite his past record and his current rash promises he has overcome the doubts of many of his previous critics in the Conservative Party (including Michael Gove) because they fear a stampede of their voters to Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, and they hope (against much recent evidence) that a reshuffled Johnson cabinet can conjure away the failures of the past three years, and thereby restore the traditional ascendancy of their deeply divided and demoralized, but habitually dominant Conservative Party.
Johnson seems very likely to generate an at least fleeting upsurge of electoral enthusiasm, since most Britons now yearn for an upbeat message and an end to Brexit humiliations. However, this prospective honeymoon may not last long enough to carry him past the immediate hazards of parliamentary division and economic disorder that loom around his October 31 deadline. One option for him may be to crash out regardless of the consequences, and to then rush into an early election before the full impact of his dangerous voluntarism has crystallised. The sorry state of the opposition Labour Party renders such a gamble tempting, but the 2017 precedent shows that the risks are extreme. An even more divided House of Commons could emerge, in which case his leadership would be destroyed before it took hold. The main alternative is also fraught –a sudden U turn would not be out of character (his policy convictions are volatile). But in that event the Brexit Party and its hardline fellow travellers within his current coalition would explode. He seems to believe that by sheer force of personality he can bluster his way past these dangers. But, if that supreme self-confidence proves misplaced, it is the unity of the United Kingdom and the well-being of its entire population that he will have placed in jeopardy.