Monday 17 June 2019

Tim Stanley: 'Cometh the hour - it's time for the Tories to send for Boris'

Household name: Boris Johnson has the appeal and recognition to drag the Tories back from the brink. Photo: REUTERS
Household name: Boris Johnson has the appeal and recognition to drag the Tories back from the brink. Photo: REUTERS

Tim Stanley

There is only one issue that matters: Brexit. There might be only one politician who can get it done: Boris. The fact that I don't have to use his surname speaks volumes. In an age of over-information, faff and paralysis, he cuts through.

If there was a general election tomorrow, the Conservatives would be in third place, on just 19pc, the Brexit Party second, and Labour could form a minority government. The only leader who can put the Tories close to beating Labour is Boris Johnson - and even he only wins them 26pc of the vote.

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It's a mark of the destruction wreaked by Theresa May that whoever takes over the Conservative Party has to start from scratch: reopen negotiations with Europe and rethink every aspect of policy.

The data suggests Boris alone has the appeal and recognition to do it. According to YouGov he's the most admired Tory in the UK, and his nearest rival for the leadership, Sajid Javid, only places 12th on the list. Mr Javid is less popular than Norman Tebbit.

One common reservation against Boris is personal - that he has a reputation for being fickle or vain or untrustworthy. Politicians who brief against these qualities are like sharks complaining about teeth: they are intrinsic to the entire species. What's unusual about Boris is that he leavens the natural nastiness of politics with humour and a classical education - he knows his Ares from his Io.

Opponents say these make him "unserious", a critique contradicted by the attendant accusation that he is "fiercely ambitious" and willing to play the populist card to win. He is, they mutter, dangerous. They cannot have read any of his columns from beginning to end. Boris is an old-fashioned liberal, being pro immigration ("We have prospered and flourished by being open"), pro globalisation ("a positive force") and in favour of Britain becoming "more outward looking and more engaged in the world than ever before". None of this is my cup of tea - my post-Brexit vision is a country that shuts the curtains and pretends no one is at home - but I revel in the irony that liberals who think Boris is a fascist because he once told a joke about burkas don't realise that when he failed to become Tory leader in 2016, they lost the chance for a Brexit with which they would feel most at ease. Had Boris been PM, Britain would not only have left on time but with fireworks and a disco in Hyde Park, drenched in the Global Britain brand. The UK would have gone out and into the world under Boris, rather than stay stuck in the driveway with Mrs May, arguing about hate crimes and Northern Ireland.

Boris can sell change by painting it with the veneer of tradition, which is why all the bumbling and blond hair is a major asset. As the world changes around us, these are the political symbols - like Thatcher's handbag or Wilson's pipe - that the British cling to for proof they remain themselves, still British after all these years. If Borisphilia sounds like the triumph of style over substance, it's worth remembering that he has executive experience as both London mayor and foreign secretary. Plus, symbols can stand for principles that happen to be shared by the exact voters the Tories need to win back. At this stage in its terminal decline, the Conservative Party cannot waste time reaching out to Cambridge or Brighton; it should be scrambling to hold on to Plymouth or Morley and Outwood. Electoral survival depends on reuniting the national pro-Brexit constituency, and Boris is Mr Brexit.

Unlike Mrs May, who mistakes a conservative approach to governance with having no fixed opinions and nothing to say, Boris has always understood that the real red line in Brexit is sovereignty. Not immigration, not trade. Both are hugely important, no doubt, but control over them flows from the question of who governs - parliament or a foreign power? - and that question has been the stuff of world wars. Yet it is sovereignty that the government has been happiest to use as a bargaining chip, be it in talks with Brussels or with Labour over the customs union. This has been interpreted by many Leave voters as not just an error but a betrayal, a far bigger issue than the mere procedural failure of not getting the withdrawal agreement through the Commons.

Devastation: Theresa May is leaving a sinking ship in her wake. AP Photo
Devastation: Theresa May is leaving a sinking ship in her wake. AP Photo

Anyone who is for Brexit does not favour it at any price, if only because a botched Brexit is likely to end in us returning to the EU.

That's why Boris left the government over Chequers. His best qualities are charisma, clarity of philosophy and willingness to take risks. He is, like his hero Churchill, a singular man waiting to be called. Such politicians are often disliked for long periods of time, until their colleagues suddenly realise they were right all along and that, even if they are not necessarily wanted, they are needed. This feels more and more like the hour of Boris Johnson. And if, after writing so much shameless flattery about, him he decides not to run, I shall find Boris's bicycle and let down his tyres. (© Daily Telegraph)

Telegraph.co.uk

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