In 2005 I was a Parliamentary candidate in a key marginal seat and Boris had agreed to come and speak in support of my candidacy. I collected him from the station and he slumped into the seat beside me. A shadowy figure slipped into the back of the car. He pulled out a file and a telephone and began editing the Spectator. He chatted to me about all sorts of things and the shadowy figure in the back pulled out a notebook and pen. It turned out a magazine was doing a profile of him. The presence of the journalist did not seem to inhibit him at all. So why I asked him when he could edit a great national newspaper, which is clearly something he would be good at, was he trundling around far flung constituencies making speeches in cold halls. His instant reaction was: “Because it matters. Politics, the House of Commons, is the only place you can actually make a real difference . That’s why it’s worth the effort and that’s why it’s important.”
This evening Boris Johnson will emerge for only the second time in public in this Conservative leadership contest to debate with the other candidates the future of the country. It has the potential to be a bruising encounter. Boris is by far and away the frontrunner and his colleagues in the studio this evening know that somehow a knock-out blow needs to be landed to knock him off the top spot.
It is difficult to avoid falling into the trap that this contest is already done and dusted, but it is worth taking a step back and surveying the field of battle.
With retrospect it is clear that Boris and Michael Gove, the two principle leaders of the Leave Campaign, should have taken charge of the government following their victory in the referendum. The referendum, as referendums are not, was not technically binding on Parliament or the government but was advisory. Nevertheless promises by the then Prime Minister David Cameron were made that its result would be respected. It was a national vote and although it was not a General Election the fact is the winners of national votes generally end up leading the government. It was their own fault that they did not end up running the government but things might have been more straightforward these last three years for all of us if Johnson and Gove had ended up running the country.
Three years on however and national politics and the country has not moved forward. Positions have become entrenched, political divisions have worsened and our national debate has curdled into an increasingly unpleasant tone. Whatever else the vote for Brexit was it was certainly the start of a huge upending of the country’s political settlement. Tony Blair was a successful General Election winner but his legacy is the destruction of the Labour Party. David Cameron brought the Conservative Party out of the political wilderness and back into government but his legacy is one of profound upheaval in his party and for the country. Between them Blair and Cameron have finished politics as we have understood and received it since Labour replaced the Liberal Party a hundred years ago.
The establishments of the two main political parties have struggled to adapt to the new realities. Labour has been undergoing its own insurgency with Jeremy Corbyn seizing control of the party by the impertinent technique of twice winning a leadership contest. As with Donald Trump in the United States who battled his way through a series of primary contests before winning in the electoral college to seize the Presidency from under the nose of hot favourite Hilary Clinton political establishments are particularly enraged when insurgents win through democratic means. Here in the UK Nigel Farage never annoys the political establishment as much as when he wins an electoral contest.
Eton and Balliol Boris maybe but at heart he is an insurgent. He ploughs his own furrow. At Westminster he is not particularly clubbable. Few are the reports of him sitting in the tea rooms and bars of Parliament. He’s not part of a particular group or set. He is hugely family orientated for all the colour of his personal life. His former editors may complain about him now but they were eager enough to employ his at the time, for he is a brilliant journalist. He is by far a better reporter and columnist than most of those tasked with reporting on and about him.
Many times over the years bicycling around London I have encountered Boris and he has always stopped and chatted. Indeed I have observed him stop his journey and chat to many people. Not for him the pasteurised practices of modern politics. As Foreign Secretary I suspect the most difficult thing for him was being made to abandon his bike and forced into the back of a ministerial motor car. If Boris does make it to No 10 it may well cause his security detail palpitations but Boris should be allowed to, at least sometimes, cycle about and chat to people, because that is his secret – he likes talking to people, he draws strength from it. This is the same phenomenon we are seeing with Rory Stewart. He too radiates a sense of liking people and being willing to engage with them. When someone heckles he walks towards them and does not shy away. We have become weary of the oppressive professional slickness and media control freakery of the Blair-Cameron years. That’s why we warm to Boris and to the new-age upstart Stewart.
National politics is a brutal and unforgiving business. It always has been and whilst we enjoy democratic processes it always will be. Those that seek to lead us undergo gruelling and minute scrutiny. Every aspect of their character, behaviour, record and future plans are all crawled over again and again. This is how it should be and this is how it needs to be. It is a winner takes all contest where the stakes are higher than in any other field of national or individual endeavour. Tonight we will see it in the raw.