How I imagine David Cameron must have preened when ITV News sought his opinion concerning Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation. That the media considers what The Blue Spectre has to say worthwhile suggested to him that it was worthwhile enough to share with us via Twitter, where he self-quoted:
‘My thoughts and prayers are with the Prime Minister @BorisJohnson and his family. He is a very tough, very resilient and very fit person, with a tremendous zest for life. Get well soon Boris – we all want you safe, well and back in @10DowningStreet.’
To which I reacted:
‘You want him in Downing Street?
He shafted you!!
What a simpering hypocrite you are.’
Leaving aside the irrelevance of Johnson’s toughness, resilience, fitness and zest for life – qualities doubtless attributable to many who have succumbed to Covid-19 – and the non-contributory worthlessness of the ‘prayers’ trope, and the presumption that he retains the authority to speak on our behalf (“we”)… Why do I remark so? Well, I’ve recently read his book, wherein, though there are one or two things he chooses not to discuss, he freely shares his thoughts on His Ersatz-ness.
He recollects Johnson as a ‘star’ and a ‘very funny speaker’ during their time at Oxford, and flits with the confession of their membership of the infamous Bullingdon Club. He very soon has digs at Johnson’s inattentiveness and shoddy attendance at meetings of Iain Duncan Smith’s preparation team for Prime Minister’s Questions. (Which, to be fair, must have been a most dispiriting chore.) But Cameron’s appreciation of Johnson’s early encouragement when he was contemplating running for the Conservative leadership in 2005 was reciprocated by urging (– sidelining –) Johnson into contesting the London mayoral election in 2008.
The cracks became wider during the London riots in 2011. Prime Minister Cameron hurriedly returned from a family holiday in Italy; London mayor Johnson from Canada. But Johnson irked Cameron by being late for COBR meetings, and for trying to lazily and publicly blame the riots on police cuts. When pressed on this accusation, Johnson actually told Cameron he was exacting revenge for (according to The Guardian) a No. 10 statement describing the situation as Johnson’s ‘.. ‘Hurricane Katrina moment’, alluding to the fact that it had taken him several days to return from holiday to London.’
‘He was being paranoid, and frankly at this stage of the proceedings a massive irritation…’ and ‘… veering all over the place… ‘
Funny, but this doesn’t tally too well with Cameron’s later assessment of Johnson as having been a good Mayor of London and wanting him to win a second term, despite being ‘… full of jealousies and paranoias, which so often influenced his behaviour… ‘ and who ‘… chose to pick fights over everything.’ Moreover, despite endorsing Johnson for the continued role, Cameron opines on Johnson’s unsuitability, as ‘… he couldn’t even remember the points’ of his own ‘nine-point plan’’.
Cameron takes other swipes at Johnson’s failures to contribute, such as during the protracted effort to recover the economy after the financial crisis. And at his headline-grabbing in China coinciding with a rift-healing visit by Chancellor George Osborne. And he writes that he ‘took with a huge pinch of salt’ Johnson’s pronouncement, upon winning re-election as London’s mayor in 2012, that he was:
‘… going to do this job, and that’s me done with public life, I’m leaving public life after this. People say I want to be an MP. I don’t. I’m not going to do that.’
‘For all our mini-run-ins, I liked Boris and he made me laugh. But I didn’t always trust him.’ (My emphasis in bold.)
So, based on their interacting histories, and well before the EU referendum campaign, Cameron lets us know that he already regarded Boris Johnson as untrustworthy.
Which might lead to the not unreasonable query as to why Cameron deliberated what to do with Johnson when appointing his cabinet following his majority election win in 2015 – when Johnson about-turned on his intended discontinuance in public life, re-entering Parliament as an elected MP whilst still mayor of London. Despite Johnson’s demonstrable disloyalty, poor attendance and untrustworthiness, Cameron ‘wanted him firmly inside the tent from the start’, appointing him to the ‘political cabinet’ with a view to a full cabinet appointment once his tenure as mayor ended the following year. Why? To keep the rival closer? Because Cabinet Collective Responsibility might compel Johnson to be more compliant? If so, Cameron may have benefitted from not holding the EU referendum for another year after appointing Johnson to cabinet. Instead he rushed it, freeing Johnson to self-forge into a throwing spanner.
And it turns out, as you might expect, that it is on the crunch matter of the EU referendum that Cameron is most critical of Johnson, pointing out bitterly that he
‘… had never argued for leaving the EU’ prior to ‘echoing the call for a referendum. He seemed to have done almost no thinking about what sort of referendum, when it should be held, or what the government’s view should be.’
But Cameron feared Johnson’s popularity (‘the most popular politician in the country’), which may also have been contributory pressure on his decision to hold the referendum. And early in 2016, with polls attesting to Johnson’s likely affect on the vote, he resolved to work on the waverer (in tandem with Osborne working on that other self-advancer, Michael Gove). Cameron was very fair and forgiving:
‘I had a lot of time for Boris. I respected his talent. While I found some of his political antics infuriating, there was a reason for his appeal to the public. He was a good mayor of London. He was a great communicator. At his best he was ambitious for Britain, had big ideas and the energy to drive them through.’
This, the same Johnson he criticises for laziness, poor attendance, disloyalty, attention-seeking, lacking ideas, publicly contradicting his government’s policies, and untrustworthiness?
Cameron points out that, though Johnson had never previously argued for leaving the EU, he was nevertheless famously Eurosceptic as the Brussels correspondent for The Telegraph. But he doesn’t comment on the fact that much of what Johnson was allowed to get away with writing was outright fabrication, which had sown contributory Brexit seeds and already undermined Cameron’s renegotiation and Remain campaign – before they had even begun.
Is this because Cameron never caught on? Or because it serves his argument better to disregard? Neither version reflects well on him. Or perhaps there’s another explanation… that Cameron needed Johnson’s glow to shine on him: keeping the popular star on-side brightened his own light. Which suggests insecurity on Cameron’s part – a need to be popular with the popular.
So, Cameron worked hard on the shit he knew he couldn’t beat. They met, played tennis and talked. Johnson ‘… didn’t spend long talking about the results of my negotiation in Brussels.’ (Well, Johnson’s inattention to detail regardless, there wasn’t a whole lot to talk about, for reasons Cameron has brushed under the carpet.) And Cameron dangled the bait, promising Johnson that, if he backed a winning Remain campaign, it would give him the best possible chance in the next Conservative leadership election, and hence to succeed him as Prime Minister. But Johnson was insufficiently moved, dithering under the pretext of wibbling over some Eurosceptic-appeasing legislation asserting the ultimate supremacy of UK law over EU law – and we get the hindsight-dropping of Cameron’s penny:
‘It soon became clear that while Boris cared about this issue, it was secondary to another concern: what was the best outcome for him? I could almost see his thought process take shape. Whichever senior Tory politician took the lead on the Brexit side – so loaded with images of patriotism, independence and romance – would become the darling of the party. He didn’t want to risk allowing someone else with a high profile – Michael Gove in particular – to win that crown.’
And Cameron reveals what must have been partially said in conversation between them:
‘At the same time, he was certain that the Brexit side would lose. So, opting to back it bore little risk of breaking up the government that he wanted to lead one day. It would be a risk-free bet on himself. He was doubling down: making doubly sure he would be the next leader.’
This makes sense: like Cameron, Johnson was confident that Remain would win, the Tory party (though still riven) would remain relatively firm, which would secure Cameron’s position. However, though Johnson would be in the race to succeed him in 2020, he couldn’t be certain of winning that vote. He would need the support of both Remain and Leave factions. To ensure the latter would look favourably upon him, he threw in his hat with it, believing, like Cameron, that it would lose.
Could Johnson have held off with the campaigning to ensure that outcome? Ah, but he had competition in the Leave camp – he had to outshine Michael Gove. So, he worked his popularity and populism, going round the country telling and repeating whoppers, wielding asparagus spears alongside grinning hypocrite accomplices, undermining Cameron’s government (of which he was part), taking for fools people happy to be taken for such (“The terrible art of the candidate is to coddle the self-deception of the stooge”) – and fucked it up by winning the thing! And then had the rug pulled from under his feet by the treacherous Gove who not only didn’t back him, but stood for the leadership himself, thus taking much of the Leaver support Johnson needed to count on, having alienated much of the Remain moiety of the party.
Cameron calls out Johnson’s blatant lying – which was all too predictable when you recall his Brussels journalism. The £350 million a week, which Cameron counters better in his book than I recollect him doing during the campaign, emblazoned on the side of the bus ‘… Boris rode… around the country, he left the truth at home.’ He reminds us that Johnson had thought similarly to him on Turkey’s potential eventual future membership of the EU. Though he somewhat contradicts himself later with his response to the Leave campaign’s scare-mongering over the EU’s objective of Turkey’s admission – ‘There was no prospect of Turkey joining the EU for decades, if ever’ – he takes the opportunity for a justified swipe at Johnson’s hypocrisy:
‘As for Boris, who proudly trumpeted his Turkish heritage, and who had advocated Turkey’s membership, he was now backing the false claims about its accession.’
Remember that clip of Johnson playing rugby, barging into a child like a boundary-oblivious puppy? Well, Cameron drops an anecdote of a similar incidence when Johnson visited Chequers with his family one Sunday; during ‘a highly competitive game of football on the lawn’, the rambunctious Johnson took his own son out the game with an overly vigorous sliding tackle. Why does Cameron tell us this, without overt judgement? Because they were friends at the time? Because he thinks it’s a funny story? That it doesn’t read too funny may be as much to do with Cameron not being too good at written humour. Or perhaps he’s throwing us the seed that Johnson is, well, an oaf; and an over-competitive bully.
I recall Boris Johnson during his 2013 party conference speech jokingly citing an overseas example showing it was possible to be both Mayor and Prime Minister. Oh, Cameron laughed along, but he’s never looked convincing when he smiles or laughs in public, and I wasn’t convinced that he either appreciated or enjoyed this fop-haired self-promotion of Johnson’s. Yet he was always ready, when pressed, to tell the world he loved “Boris”, despite being well aware of his unreliability and laziness and disloyalty and untrustworthiness – well before the EU referendum campaign, which provided confirmation, were any needed, of how devoid of integrity the stance-transmogrifying Boris Johnson is.
Though Cameron has every right to feel let down by Johnson, he cannot be too surprised that ‘Boris had backed something he didn’t believe in.’ Goodness me, was anybody?! ‘Leave were lying.’ And Johnson countered it naught. Cameron speculates that Gove probably decided to run for the leadership in order to prevent Johnson assuming the prize, having come to realise he was not suitable for it. In other words, Cameron didn’t think Johnson was suitable for it. This is the Cameron who advocates that politics is better conducted from the rational, centre ground, but whose gamble has resulted in his party and the government lurching increasingly rightwards – with Johnson now at the helm, acting in ways that you might have thought a supposed compassionate, moderate conservative would object to.
Yet Cameron now says he wants Johnson in 10 Downing Street. (“He’s doing a tremendous job.”) Either he’s changed his mind as to Johnson’s suitability or he’s a hypocrite. His book came out only six months ago. Does he assume that, if we’ve read it, we’ve forgotten his criticisms of and displeasures with Johnson? If not, why is he so comfortable that an integrity-devoid, narcissistic, career serial bullshitter is now running the country? If he’s going to contribute any worthwhile media commentary, perhaps he should take a look at his own integrity.