When UK politics was operating on its “business as usual” model of managed decline, it was never likely that Boris Johnson, a man known for his intellect, his humour and his gaffs would have ever become Prime Minister. In 2012, Johnson summed up the likelihood of ever being Prime Minister in the following way:
“I’ve got about as much chance of being reincarnated as an olive”.
With the benefit of hindsight it is now possible to say that 2012 was a very different time in UK politics, even though in terms of the passage of time, it was not at all long ago. In 2012, the ultra-liberal Blairite Europhile Prime Minister David Cameron had mastered the art of keeping colourful characters like Johnson at arm’s length whilst vocal members of the Conservative party in favour of leaving the EU were made to feel like mad relics by the liberal Cameron.
In 2016, Johnson made what proved to be the most fateful decision of his life. That year, he penned two potential newspaper articles although only one could be published. One of the articles outlined an argument for Britain remaining in the EU whilst the other was an argument in favour of Brexit. For reasons that only Boris Johnson knows, he chose to have his pro-Brexit article published.
During the Brexit campaign, Nigel Farage remained the loudest and clearest voice in favour of Brexit. After all, Farage’s entire political career had been devoted to the cause that by 2016 had come to be known as Brexit. Johnson therefore was a late arrival to the cause but he seemed to enjoy being a major Tory face of a campaign that was otherwise opposed by the majority of his colleagues including fellow old Etonian David Cameron. Incidentally, Cameron and Johnson have failed to reconcile to this day.
And yet, Johnson’s victory lap was cut short when his”pro-Brexit” colleague Michael Gove withdrew his support for what turned out to be a rapidly aborted campaign to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister in 2016. As a result, the pro-EU Theresa May, a wholly un-inspirational figure became Prime Minister in the wake of the falling out between Johnson and the more pro-establishment figure Gove. Incidentally, Gove and Johnson have since publicly reconciled although it is not clear if this holds true in respect of their personal affairs.
From the beginning, May’s premiership was depressing for most Brexiteers to watch and as the years went on, her abysmal performance continued to go from weakness – to -weakness. With Nigel Farage re-entering the political fray in 2019, many Conservatives looked to Boris Johnson as the last best hope of rescuing a party that under May had betrayed Brexit.
Even today, Nigel Farage has quite properly questioned whether Boris Johnson is a true Brexiteer, not least because the Prime Minister continues to publicly claim to want some sort of May style “deal” with Brussels. Perhaps fortunately for Johnson however, the details of his true feelings about Brexit have been obscured by the fact that his pro-Brexit rhetoric has aroused the nastiest side of anti-democracy agitators throughout the land.
Those seeking to nullify the will of the British people as expressed in the Brexit referendum have resorted to all levels of trickery in order to achieve their desire. From former members of his own party openly conspiring against him (with the reported aid of those in Brussels), to a politically active (in contravention of constitutional convention) Speaker of The House of Commons lambasting Johnson in all but name from the Speaker’s Chair, to judicial activism on the part of a former Prime Minister, the Labour deputy leader and a handful of high profile lawyers, to each of the opposition parties openly seeking to humiliate the entire nation for the sake of forcing Johnson to break his Brexit deadline promise made to the public – Boris Johnson’s enemies are themselves enough to give him the appearance of a hero.
The man who never liked to get his hands dirty with major policy issues has now been sent to the Augean stables of legal, constitutional and political minutiae by just about every major institution in the country other than the monarchy. From bishops and judges, to lords and a majority of MPs, to barristers and major corporations – Johnson has found himself on the receiving end of a chorus of excoriation normally reserved for those who consciously set out to be populist figures.
Johnson may well have sought popularity but he never sought to execute a populist agenda. What then has turned Boris Johnson into a political hero standing up to the might of those who seek to nullify the democratic Brexit vote? In the words of Harold Macmillan – “Events, dear boy, events”.
In many ways, Boris Johnson always flirted with a touch of the heroic and the romantic but he always stopped short of being the kind of man of action capable of reaching such heights. This has all changed due to the fact that circumstance has given Johnson a definitive ultimatum. He could either break all of his promises and in return receive a humiliating one-way ticket to infamy or he could summon the courage to fight each and every one of his formidable enemies to the last.
He has chosen the second option and if he continues down this path, Boris Johnson just might be the hero that he may have always wanted to be but which few ever suspected he was capable of being.