Four and a half questions about Mr Johnson
Will Boris be a good leader of Britain? Like searchlights piercing the gloom, The Day’s questions will save you hours of reading this morning and lead you straight to the nub of the matter.
1. Does he have a dark side?
Whether or not you believe it was set-up, the nocturnal row with his 31-year-old girlfriend Carrie Symonds on 21 June was a bad one: very loud screams, smashing sounds, cries of “get off me”, “get out of my flat” and the police called. In 1990, Johnson was recorded speaking to his friend Darius Guppy about having a reporter beaten up in revenge for investigating his activities. The anger, the violence — it crops up again and again in his story. Sonia Purnell, his biographer, writes: “[He] has the fiercest and most uncontrollable anger I have seen. A terrifying mood change can be triggered instantly by the slightest challenge to his entitlement or self-worth.”
2. Is he psychologically flawed?
Everyone who knows Johnson says he has a huge need for love, but remains essentially a loner. When their four children Boris, Rachel, Jo and Leo were growing up, the Johnson parents moved house 32 times in 14 years due to father Stanley’s work. Mother, Charlotte, homeschooled them. Johnson was rooted out of this nest at 11 and sent to boarding school because his mother was suffering a mental breakdown and had to spend months in a London psychiatric hospital. Three years later, her marriage collapsed. Later, she described Stanley as “completely unfaithful”. One of her paintings from the time, Hanged by Circumstances, shows the whole family dangling in agony by their arms. Charlotte Johnson, now 77, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when she was 40.
3. Is he a second Winston Churchill?
There are many parallels. Like his hero, Johnson is “rackety, feckless and gaffe-prone”, says Stephen Glover in The Daily Mail. Like Churchill, he has lived all his life yearning for the top job. Like Churchill, he has been written off countless times. Like Churchill, he assumes power at a critical time. Churchill has been sanctified by history. But when he came to power he was seen, like Johnson, as deeply flawed. He was a huge drinker, reckless with money. He had been responsible for the Dardanelles fiasco in World War One, in which nearly 50,000 Allied lives were lost. His stint as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s was a near disaster. Some of his worst enemies, such as Lord Halifax and Rab Butler, were on his own side. Yet all Churchill’s critics were later forced to eat their own words and, today, his name is a synonym for greatness.
4. Does he believe in anything?
You don’t get to be prime minister without core beliefs, surely? And Johnson is the cheerleader for Brexit. But many demur. “Beware of newspaper columnists,” Martin Fletcher, a former Johnson colleague at The Times, says. “They are paid to be controversial, to be colourful, to be provocative. There are very few consequences to what they write. But those are not attributes you want in your prime minister.” His former boss, Max Hastings, famously declared: “There is room for debate about whether he is a scoundrel or mere rogue, but not much about his moral bankruptcy, rooted in a contempt for truth.” Johnson himself has joked that he has no convictions, except an old one for speeding. The constitutional historian Lord Hennessy describes Johnson as the “unknown prime minister” who, despite his celebrity, is strangely elusive. “Margaret Thatcher used to say one must have stars to steer by,” he says. “Boris’s stars are still a mystery — apart from his own, which is of course the brightest to him.”
Elvis on Mars?
We have posed some big questions. Finally, here’s one which will only count as half because it is merely practical compared to the major existential matters above. Will Boris be a good leader for Britain? It is a question that divides the world sharply today. There are many who, considering the four questions above, say (i) he has not got the character, and (ii) the political logic will destroy him within weeks. They say he has sold something that he knows he can’t deliver, and now the facts are going to catch up with him.
But there are many, including the headline writers in the Brexit-supporting press this morning, who are almost ecstatic. Just listen to them. “Now bring us sunshine,” trumpets The Daily Mail. “I’m the dude,” chirps The Telegraph over a giant full-length photo of Britain’s new leader. “Hang on to your hats…Here comes Boris,” proclaims The Daily Express. For many, none of the flaws or difficulties matter in face of the overwhelming sense that a big character, with energy, humour and human foibles in spades, is now at the helm.
- Do leaders need to be better people than the people they lead?
- Is vision more important than a grasp of detail?
- Write a letter to Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street, outlining three changes you would like him to make.
- Using the Expert Links, make a list of all the similarities you can find between Boris Johnson and Winston Churchill.
Some People Say...
“My chances of being PM are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive.”Boris Johnson
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Today, Boris Johnson will visit the Queen who will ask him to form a government. He will then go to Downing Street, make a short speech to the waiting press, and be greeted by the staff. He will immediately sit down and write letters to the UK’s Trident submarine commanders giving targeting instructions, only to be opened in the event of a nuclear attack where communications with London have broken down. He will be prime minister.
- What do we not know?
- How long he can last in the job. He faces so many obstacles. The Government’s working majority in the Commons was cut to two after the Conservative Party withdrew the whip from Charlie Elphicke, an MP charged with sexually assaulting two women. Johnson could even become the first prime minister to lose his own parliamentary seat.
- Boris Johnson’s father is an author and former politician, who appeared on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! in 2017. He has written books on environmental and population issues. He was a Conservative MEP for Wight and Hampshire East from 1979 to 1984 and is a former employee of the World Bank and the European Commission.
- Politician, army officer and writer. He was the UK’s prime minister between 1940 and 1945, when he led Britain to victory in the World War Two, and again from 1951 to 1955.
- Lord Halifax
- Senior British Conservative politician of the 1930s. He held several senior ministerial posts during this time, most notably as Viceroy of India (1925-1931) and foreign secretary (1938-1940).
- Rab Butler
- Lived 1902 to 1982. The Times obituary called him: “the creator of the modern educational system, the key-figure in the revival of post-war Conservatism, arguably the most successful chancellor since the war and unquestionably a home secretary of reforming zeal”.
- Max Hastings
- Journalist, who has worked as a foreign correspondent for the BBC, editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph, and editor of The Evening Standard.
- Lord Hennessy
- Historian and academic specialising in the history of government. Since 1992, he has been Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary University of London.
- Margaret Thatcher
- UK’s prime minister (1979-1990) and leader of the Conservative Party (1975-1990). She was the longest-serving British PM of the 20th century, and the first woman to hold the job.