What has become of the Tory party? I spent last week at Conference in Manchester and it seemed that in its fall to Brexit, it has changed: it is no longer a party of rational thought, or even conservatism. It felt like Jeremy Corbyn’s incompetence had opened an abyss, and the Conservatives, almost as one, fell in.
And, yet, after that terrible week, I wonder, could Boris Johnson be the man to make his party sane again? I think he has that possibility, due to his flaws: to his desire to be loved; to his status of outsider; to his writer’s mind. He has done less strange things already in his life.
If he survives Brexit, I think he should look less to Winston Churchill for inspiration — always a ludicrous idea, since Tory wars are now imagined wars and he is obviously a physical coward — and more to the prime minister he most resembles: to Benjamin Disraeli, the Jewish-born novelist who remade the Tory Party as a One Nation reforming movement, and retired to live in faux-aristocrat splendour in Buckinghamshire with peacocks. He was also accused of unprincipled opportunism – it was almost his personal mantra — and yet he enabled famous social reform and now has a statue in Parliament Square.
A romantic without fixed principles — I can imagine Disraeli writing two contradictory columns, as Johnson did on Brexit — can potentially lead Conservatism to the centre. Sometimes only such a man has the imagination and the fearlessness to do it. I may sound like a hostage; four days of Conference is a long time to watch Jacob Rees-Mogg pose as an intellectual. But so, for now, is Johnson.
Our politics of impossible promises
The Tories chose Johnson for leader with their worst selves. That is obvious. They like his faux nobility, his satyrmania, his jokes, and his appearance of optimism, which is only an appearance. Boris Johnson — even the name is fake, his family call him Alexander; Boris is his power name — is a construct. He is not his shell; he is really grave, solitary and vulnerable. His risk-taking, which is obsessive, implies gloom and a sense of worthlessness.
Even so, the mention of his name brought cheers in Manchester, even when he was not there, and they were applauding an absence. They treat him as a toy, or mascot. But they do not understand that he is not like them. He is socially liberal — I saw him swat away a pro-Life activist at the hustings, in a reflex act — a descendant of immigrants, and he won over London, which is a city of immigrants, not fools, twice. He is not an ideologue, but an opportunist, which is less dangerous these days. He doesn’t seek power to remake a country but to remake himself. I know it is unfashionable to say it, but Britain, on the whole, is neither Socialist nor sadist. Whoever gets first to the centre will win a functional majority. That, too, is obvious.
Boris has a dream
Johnson at Conference looked like a man supping with the devil — or a toy who knows he is too clever to be a toy, and he doesn’t like it. He is getting fat again, which bespeaks anxiety. He now looks like Mr Incredible — and his father Stanley, the adulterer who made him — from the back. I sensed it in his obvious reluctance; his agonising repetitions; his slowness as the waddled about the halls; the outstretched arms as the disposable cup was torn away by a Tory serf for appearance of environmentalism. He knew the spin is stupid, and it is.
If the Tories chose Johnson with their worst selves, sometimes I think — and I thought this as he spoke to Conference at the end — he would give it his best self if he could. Would he like to be admired beyond the party, and put the country he helped fracture back together? What else is limitless ambition for?
It is curious that this, the party of the family — but only, I think, for the purpose of denying the state — has chosen a man who has fractured his family to lead it. Only his father Stanley and his girlfriend Carrie Symonds — rudely put, the cause and the symptom of his problems — were there. It is not impertinent to discuss the character rather than the policy — not with Johnson. With him, the character is the policy, and so that policy is ever changeable. The Tory Party thrills to his transgressions, which they would not accept from anyone else. Rather, they admire them; Symonds was even applauded in the hall, which felt bizarre, even to them, and it melted away. And so, I thought — where else could he lead them? What else could he persuade them to do, which they have not done before? Rather a lot, I would say.
How it could all go wrong for Boris
Johnson might lie to create the narratives he requires to survive — all narcissists do — and he will, for now play the strong man the Tories crave to deliver the Brexit their dreams require. He is a writer after all; and he will write himself a character of Prime Minister. Since his possibilities are endless, I will also write for him, and a potential happy ending too: Get Brexit Done and be the One Nation Tory he ought to be: for sanity.
I found this hope again when he said, off script in his speech, “I love Europe anyway”. He looked doughty, if a little nervous when he said it, and very young, which is why I think he meant it.
I never thought Johnson was in politics to take sweets from children. I know some who are. Psychopaths flock to it. Johnson is more complicated than that; he lacks that particular brand of malice. He only wants to be loved; and there are far worse things than voluptuaries in Westminster these days.
I wonder if he is better than the party he leads; if, at least, he could be. If the wind blows through your heart, you have that possibility. It might appeal to his vanity; it might soothe him to find lasting love with the British electorate. None of this is ideal, but these are desperate times. Whatever it comes from, I will take it.