There are two separate major doubts niggling the Johnson campaign. They are linked but they are not the same.
The first concerns Mr. Johnson’s private life. Or his ‘character’ as his colleagues have decided to call it. Recent events – at the home where he lodges with his partner – have resurrected questions over whether the particularities of his relationship to domesticity are well suited to the exposure and expectations of high office. There are those who say, with some conviction, that it should not matter. And there are many who argue, with some evidence, that (for Boris, at least) it does not matter, in the end. But all the same, there exists a part of the Tory brain that is instinctively mortified at the idea of the police turning up at the home of a future Prime Minister’s much younger partner to play peacemakers in an argument over a sofa.
The acolytes and ambitious sorts who are sent out to defend Mr. Johnson day-to-day like to say that the public is not interested in such soap operatic detail. That is almost certainly untrue. The British public are almost always interested in such things. But they may well have a point that – in the end – the public do not care. What some of these proxies then do, though, is attempt to draw some parallel between expecting Mr. Johnson to comment on the ins and outs of his sex life and expecting him to comment on the ins and outs of his policies. They conflate – and, in fairness, much of the press encourages such a conflation – his right to privacy with some perceived right to be Prime Minister. ‘How dare you demand that he answer for his private affairs’ becomes, through some alchemy, ‘how dare you demand that he answer for… anything’.
It is that second – linked, but distinct – issue that is of real concern. Mr. Johnson has made a series of claims, on those occasions that he has (for appearance sake) exposed himself to some semblance of scrutiny, which don’t bear up particularly well. He says that he will cancel the Withdrawal Agreement and negotiate a Free Trade Deal during the Implementation Period instead. Ignoring, or ignorant to, the fact that the Implementation Period only exists if we are implementing the Withdrawal Agreement. He says that he will leave ‘do or die’ on October 31st. Setting aside, apparently, the will of Parliament that should there be no deal this country must extend once more. He tells moderate colleagues that No Deal is ‘vanishingly unlikely’ whilst reassuring the ERG that he sees no issue hurtling towards it.
In other words, Boris Johnson’s prospectus rests on a near miraculous squaring of all the circles that so tortured his predecessor. Of course, he may be right. Brussels might cave when faced with the indomitable spirit of the character they call ‘Boris’. A new Withdrawal Agreement may be conjured – or give the appearance of having been conjured – from nothing. But it seems unlikely, no?
And this is where two distinct – but linked – problems meet again. Boris Johnson’s personal life might well tell us nothing at all about his suitability for high office. But one can appreciate why some Tory members are starting to see a parallel or two. There is a suck it and see, damn the consequences, seductive quality to Boris Johnson. It has given him much entertainment and not inconsiderable drama on the domestic front. The question some are asking is whether he is able to draw the line between the private and the professional that he is demanding from the press. Can Boris Johnson behave any more consistently when it comes to public life than he manages in his private life? And that is a real doubt that many Tory members – keen as they may be on the idea of Boris – are juggling as they weigh up whether they can actually, seriously vote for Boris. It is not a question that can be answered merely by the expression of some passion for model buses. Nor by the increasingly flailing attempts of his allies to defend him. It is one that he must answer himself.
It remains very likely that Boris Johnson will become our next Prime Minister. But in repeating – in his own, inimical style – the ‘all things to all Tories’ approach of Theresa May, Johnson is storing up problems. Miracles are nice and for some people real, but they are unreliable. And promising the earth to each and every suitor almost always ends in tears, recriminations and the occasional item of smashed crockery. If he isn’t careful, our next PM will have landed himself in hot chocolate before he even arrives in Number 10.