Why We Shouldn’t Overestimate Boris Johnson’s Powers of Recovery

This article first appeared at betting.betfair.com on 18th January, 2022

Throughout his career, Johnson has been likened to two infamous right-wing populists. First he was the ‘British Berlusconi‘ and later ‘Britain’s Trump’. Both men proved famously immune to controversy and scandal and are, amazingly, still in the game.

The former Italian PM is in the running for President at the age of 85. Trump is favourite to regain the US Presidency in 2024, despite his first term ending in defeat and a violent coup attempt.

Allies launch last-ditch bid to save Johnson

With the British PM on the ropes like never before – rated 64% likely to lose his job in 2022 at odds of [1.57] – Johnson will need to draw upon similar reserves of bravado and immunity. He clearly hasn’t given up, with his most loyal soldiers sent out to sell a series of hard-right populist announcements aimed at changing the subject. Destroy the BBC with cuts. Send the Navy after Channel-crossing migrants.

Will it work? I’m not convinced. Understand how Johnson got this far in politics, and it becomes clear that such comparisons are superficial.

Love or hate them, Berlusconi and Trump were pioneers who transformed the politics of their countries. Berlusconi literally created a party in his own image. Trump usurped one and bent it to his will. They have real political clout, whereas Johnson is more an opportunist in the right place at the right time.

Fifteen years ago, he was a celebrity journalist whose political career was going nowhere. The height of his achievement was to become Shadow Minister for Higher Education, and get sacked for lying about his affair with Petronella Wyatt. Nonetheless, a glittering media career beckoned for the new P.G. Wodehouse.

London Mayoralty made Johnson

Then David Cameron hatched an ingenious plan. Without it, Johnson would still be an immensely popular columnist who made watchable history programmes and amused us on Have I Got News For You.

Around 2007, following three general election defeats, Cameron needed to show he could win where Tories had previously failed. The Mayor of London job was just about in range, as Ken Livingstone’s appeal waned after two terms. A big job in name, but ultimately perfect for a celebrity. A big part of ‘Red Ken’s success was his name recognition and outsider brand.

‘Boris’ pulled it off. As we’ve seen since his era and in other elections during his eight-year tenure, London is a solidly Labour city. Multi-ethnic, liberal, pro-European. This considerable achievement transformed Johnson’s reputation and gave him political credibility.

As I understand, he had little day-to-day responsibility. That was delegated to a team of deputy mayors and particularly Kit Malthouse – now Minister for Crime and Policing. Meanwhile the Mayor would make people laugh in speeches and stunts, such as the zipwire incident during the 2012 Olympics.

A frontman for Brexit, with Cummings behind

Having transformed his image into a potential national leader, he next jumped late aboard the Brexit bandwagon. It was reported that he wrote two articles – one each for Remain and Leave – before playing a leading, perhaps decisive role, in that referendum. Again though, the donkey work was done by his team. Most obviously Vote Leave Director Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove and the think-tank network at 55 Tufton Street.

When David Cameron resigned, Johnson was immediately installed as the even money favourite to succeed him. But just as he was set to enter the race, with a speech planned, the Vote Leave network abandoned him. Sarah Vine (aka Mrs Gove) was at the centre of a media coup to destabilise Johnson, and her husband dramatically announced he was running. We had all expected Gove to be Johnson’s deputy, as in the referendum.

He looked finished after Foreign Secretary exit

Johnson’s speech was now changed to announce he wasn’t running. In the front row, now Culture Minister Nadine Dorries burst into tears. After Theresa May dominated the leadership contest, she gave him a role in which she could control him – Foreign Secretary. Neutered, Johnson flopped in that role and when resigning from the Cabinet as an obvious manouevre, people started writing his political obituary.

He enjoyed scant support among Tory MPs, who often scowled during his speeches in parliament, and drifted to double-figure odds for the leadership. When the vacancy opened in 2019, he had very few endorsements.

Did Williamson deliver the leadership?

Then Gavin Williamson – the former Chief Whip whose support had been deemed pivotal to May’s success in 2016 – signed up as campaign manager. Overnight, around 80 Tory MPs endorsed Johnson. The widely reported misgivings disappeared and an easy victory followed. Cummings joined the campaign, and became his chief advisor in No.10.

It proved a masterstroke. In 2019, the Tories needed to (a) get Brexit over the line despite an incalcitrant parliament and (b) win an election against Jeremy Corbyn. Johnson, maintaining his celebrity appeal and hero-status among Brexit voters, was just the ticket. This had nothing to do with his policy credentials, or ability to do the job.

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