Boris Johnson is going to be an ex-Prime Minister once the Tory party figures out his successor. This is something he did it to himself by lying about something that he didn’t need to lie about and where there was copious evidence that he was lying. In fact all of the scandals of his government revolve about the same basic series of actions: Boris or someone in his government does something they shouldn’t have done, Boris denies it happened, denies he knew about it and then is finally forced to admit that yes actually it did happen and that he probably did actually know about it. Tweaking Oscar Wilde: To have your lies exposed once may be regarded as a misfortune, to have more than one exposed more than one looks like carelessness.
So how did such a flawed person get to become PM?
Boris is a fascinating character. There is no doubt that he is intellectually smart. You don’t get a scholarship to Eton if you are dim, and in the 1980s you certainly had to be reasonably smart to get in to Oxford. On the other hand, he disguises that intellect. He has clearly, IMHO, adopted a persona or disguise of the stereotypical Bertie Wooster upper class twit. Although I think that he intends people to see through the persona to a degree. He’s also very clearly a literate man who can present coherent arguments for whatever position he wants and he can use the stereotype to disguise and/or enhance the argument he makes. In other words, rather like Colbert and other US talk show hosts he has a “clown nose on”/”clown nose off” mix of seriousness and humor and he deliberately blurs the line between the two.
The problem though is working out what the man beneath the persona actually wants. This is complicated. He doesn’t seem to have terribly deep beliefs. If anything he has a sort of traditional belief in paternalistic government setting the rules for the otherwise free market, but all of this is malleable. He likes being influential if not in power, he likes the trappings – the respect, the girls and so on but he isn’t in is specifically for the money though he certainly likes the trappings of success and has a predilection to spend money he doesn’t actually have. On the other hand he’s not someone who insists on a limousine and entourage all the time – as mayor of London he cycled to work and in one case caught on CCTV was nearly run over by a sloppy truck driver. He’s also not afraid to make a fool of himself – witness the picture of him stuck on a zip line.
I think he has a greater desire to care about what future generations will think of him than what people think today. He doesn’t seem to be particularly grounded in any moral code and he has got used to moving in a generally upwards direction from scrape to scrape. There’s no doubt in my mind that he has no reluctance to lie to avoid what seems like a temporary unpleasantness or to toss colleagues under the bus if he seems like that will help him but that combines with a desire to defend people he likes. Like many politicians, it seems that he is egotistic if not narcissistic but, also like many other good pols, he has a sense of empathy that makes him someone you feel you can relate to.
The thing many people have pointed out is that he has a habit of agreeing with the last person he talked to. This means that if you can make a decent case for something and then wheel him out in front of the world he’ll make a decent case for that and then probably remain wedded to that position for a while. Hence a big chunk of the things that I like him for as a politician (e.g. Brexit, Ukraine) appear to be mostly because he was surrounded, at the key moments, by people who wanted those those things. He also appears to be unable to prioritize. Dominic Cummings has told a story of him being more worked up about a negative press story regarding his wife/dog than about handling the Wuflu which is not at all an isolated episode.
In fact that’s the problem. He doesn’t have a philosophical or moral underpinning. He has an ego and an intellect and a bucket of charisma but no principles to act as a foundation to all of that. And that is why, despite all his achievements (that will likely put him in the history books), he is destined to fail and why many of his close colleagues felt that he was unsuited to being Prime Minister – a feeling that appears to be entirely accurate. The problem is that the UK has no obvious alternative.