PETER OBORNE: Charisma. A great brain. And yes, the abilty to be PM. The only question: can Boris be trusted?
Highly accomplished. His brilliance on public display. A massive figure dominating the political stage. Deftly side-stepping difficult questions from former colleagues in the Westminster press corps.
Boris Johnson has remodelled himself as a serious political figure. He’s less jokey. The famous hair has been brought under control. He’s become more careful and measured.
He’s lost weight. His suits fit. It’s more possible than ever to imagine Boris Johnson going through the front door of Number 10 as Prime Minister.
Most telling of all was the audience itself. Big figures have swung behind Boris’s campaign. Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General who has emerged as a cult figure in the Conservative party over the past six months, made a powerful, flattering introduction.
Boris Johnson speaks during the official launch of his leadership campaign, in London on Wednesday
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith nodded approvingly. Cabinet minister Liz Truss, who many thought might chuck her own hat into the ring, was there. So was James Cleverly, the first candidate to drop out of the race.
Plenty of experts predicted Mr Johnson would struggle to win the support of Tory MPs. They have been proved wrong. Around 80 have pledged him their vote. And the numbers are certain to rise.
Mr Johnson is all but certain to go through to the second final stage of the contest, whose eventual winner will be decided by the 100,000 or so Tory activists across the country.
To sum up, we are no longer talking about the wayward Prince Hal of Shakespeare’s plays. Boris Johnson wants us to think he has metamorphosed, as Hal did, into Henry V — poised to save his country from the EU and rescue Brexit.
Unlike most of his rivals, Mr Johnson is able to boast of achievements while in power.
Over his two terms as Mayor of London, he built over 100,000 affordable houses (more than his Labour predecessor Ken Livingstone), he oversaw a fall in crime levels and presided over the triumphant 2012 Olympics.
It’s true some infrastructure projects he championed, such as the Garden Bridge in London that was abandoned after millions were spent, have been criticised as wasteful at best.
He derived great political capital from Crossrail, yet today the project is mired in controversy and delays, having run wildly over budget.
Boris Johnson and the former Prime Minister Theresa May at a NATO summit in Brussels in May 2017
Boris’s cycling reforms in the capital, too, have become enmeshed in controversy.
Although they certainly ensured more people were cycling in the city than ever before by the time he left office, his creation of cycle super-highways and removal of traffic lanes to cater for them has infuriated car drivers in the capital where gridlocks and jams have increased.
As to his period as Foreign Secretary, many mandarins speak of him with contempt, claiming he was seldom on top of his brief and less than diplomatic.
It must be said, however, he has been applauded for facing up to Putin’s Russia following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, and he helped amass an impressive international coalition of countries to join Britain in taking action against the country.
Johnson riding through the capital on one of his famed bicycles as Mayor of London in 2010
The point is, despite the gaffes, the setbacks and the criticism, he can claim achievements when in office. And this enables his supporters to declare not only is he the most talented but also the most accomplished candidate in the contest.
On top of all this, there is his charisma, which everyone takes for granted.
It lends credibility to his claim he is the only candidate for the Premiership capable of navigating between the ‘Scylla’ of Nigel Farage and the ‘Charybdis’ of Jeremy Corbyn — to use one of the classical analogies he is so fond of, in this case about two sea monsters. Indeed, such is his star quality that he commands blind devotion among many voters, including even old-fashioned Labour types who are otherwise contemptuous of politicians.
But Mr Johnson is distrusted and even detested. Big questions still surround him, and they weren’t dispelled in the course of yesterday’s press conference.
Yesterday morning on the Today programme, presenter John Humphrys barraged Liz Truss, one of Mr Johnson’s lieutenants, with questions about Boris’s moral character.
He quoted the veteran Conservative columnist Matthew Parris, a former Tory MP, woundingly describing Johnson as ‘a habitual liar, a cheat, a conspirator with a criminal pal to have an offending journalist’s ribs broken, a cruel betrayer of the women he seduces . . .’ among other things.
Ms Truss ducked the questions. She had little choice. And Mr Johnson followed suit at his launch.
Let’s take one killer question of just six he took at the press conference. Did Boris Johnson take cocaine at university?
Johnson’s rival Michael Gove confessed in full. His own accounts have been conflicting. On the BBC’s Have I Got News For You, he claimed to have been offered the drug but added ‘I sneezed and so it did not go up my nose.’
But then in an interview with GQ two years later he admitted to trying the drug at university before adding that it had no effect on him whatsoever.
When asked by the Mail’s political editor Jason Groves yesterday, Boris said only that the ‘canonical account of this event when I was 19 has appeared many, many times’.
So we’re none the wiser. All we know is his story has changed as he went along. He ducked the question.
Johnson slips over while competing in a tug of war during the launch of London Poppy Day in 2015
Will it be the same with Brexit? When asked whether he’d commit to resigning should he fail to achieve Brexit by October 31, he again failed to answer.
There is no question Mr Johnson is one of the most brilliant politicians of our age.
There is no doubt we owe him a great deal of thanks to his unbridled approach to politics. Political debate was almost dead when he emerged as a front rank politician more than a decade ago.
New Labour spin doctors had enforced uniformity on Labour ministers and politicians. They sucked the life out of politics. Ministers became terrified of saying anything controversial. They cowered behind clichés. They were forced to stay on message.
Boris’s originality and wit, his refusal to conform, have played a huge role in reclaiming politics as an arena of combat in ideas and intellectual battle.
Behind the easy charm and effortless humour there lurks a giant brain. I once worked for Boris Johnson. He is without a doubt one of the most intelligent politicians I have met.
The question is whether, as PM, he will apply his great gifts to the greater good. The Johnson I knew well 15 years ago was a liberal cosmopolitan and a man of the world.
Then Foreign Minister Boris Johnson listens to delegates in the United Nations Security Council on Somalia in March 2017
But in recent years, he has sometimes sounded like a bigot. He tastelessly described Theresa May’s EU Withdrawal Agreement, which he resigned over, as a suicide vest, and compared Muslim women wearing the face veil to letter boxes and bank robbers.
He dismissed Barack Obama’s views on the EU as those of a ‘part-Kenyan’ and fraternised with Trump’s hard-Right, sinister Svengali Steve Bannon. It is little wonder Johnson is the favoured choice in the election of the U.S. president.
Former adviser to the US president and US publicist Steve Bannon – he has fraternised with Donald Trump’s notorious ‘svengali’
It is striking that many former colleagues have come out against him. Sir Alan Duncan, his number two at the Foreign Office, said ‘cleaning up after Boris was a full-time activity’. Yet Kit Malthouse, deputy Mayor of London to Mr Johnson, was rooting for him in the audience yesterday.
The great paradox of Boris Johnson is he undoubtedly has the ability to be Prime Minister. But the question is, can he be trusted? After yesterday’s capable performance, it’s a question that’s still as real and as open as ever.
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