Are you feeling ‘energetic’? Are you a ‘dude’? Are you ready to let sunshine rule the day?
In a surprise to no-one, Boris Johnson has won the leadership of the Conservative Party and, with it, almost certainly the premiership of Britain. His victory speech was an exhortation to optimism and vim. Perhaps meant to reassure himself as much as anyone else. Because the fact of his triumph does not buy Boris that much in the way of breathing space – reality is closing in even from the off.
That said, the margin of victory was more than convincing and more than his campaign team had privately briefed – although expectation management surely played a part there. What does the quantum of the landslide tell us? A number of things. One, Conservative members are desperate – to feel good, to break the impasse, to get on the front foot. Many of those who voted for Johnson this time might not have done so had he made it through to the final two in 2016. But much has changed since then. A combination of the Brexit stalemate and the shocking collapse of the Tories in the 2017 election has shaken the grassroots. Even members who harbour more traditionally conservative perspectives – either on the character of their new leader or on the wisdom of No Deal, with the knock on economic shock it might effect – have decided to take a punt on Boris. Corbyn terrifies the well-to-do far more than a couple of years’ Brexit turbulence. And the party faithful have lapped up the narrative of Boris as a trot-killer to rival Stalin. He did beat that nasty Mr. Livingstone, after all. Twice.
That trade-off in many members’ minds tells us something else, too. No Deal was not on the table during the referendum campaign itself and was – until very recently – an eccentric and fringe aspiration. It is now proximate to centre-ground when it comes to Tory members. Not, perhaps their first preference (and it is not, to be fair, Boris’ either) but certainly the lesser of an array of evils. Britain needs to face up to this reality and brace itself for what Brussels calls an ‘accidental crash out’ and Boris calls ‘not the end of the world’. Over the course campaign, as both Johnson and Hunt tested the preferences of MPs and members, it became clear that No Deal is now more popular with the Tory core than a further delay or simply passing the May compromise. With Nigel Farage biting at his heels, a historically unpopular Labour leader and that cast iron pledge – ‘out on October 31st, do or die’ – ringing in his ears, Johnson has more to fear immediately from prevarication than he does from walking away. And Churchill’s sometime biographer may even see a sort of cleansing, righteous glory in delivering a bit of ‘blood, sweat and tears’.
Alternatively, he needs to produce a new deal. Or, at least, a deal that looks different enough to May’s so as to give him a cloak of respectability when he brings it before Parliament. But my goodness, if he wants to last the year he had better be sure – really, really sure – that such a deal could pass through Parliament without alienating his newfound allies in the ERG. Tory leader after Tory leader has mistakenly believed they could trick or charm the hard-Eurosceptics. Tory leader after Tory leader has been brought low by that miscalculation. Boris the historian, Boris the keen observer of the rise and fall of his erstwhile friends, Boris the political animal surely knows this?
Of course, for all it’s potential allure, No Deal may prove easier chuntered than achieved. Big beasts are walking out of Government in advance protest. The current Chancellor stands prepared – perhaps – to bring down his own party’s Government rather than countenance No Deal. There are some pretty jittery donors out there and Boris – who famously hates to be disliked – may balk at the prospect of food and petrol shortages, protests and public rage, all of which No Deal might trigger.
So, as he moves into Downing Street tomorrow (‘Finally! A home of my own!’) Boris has some of the most difficult decisions faced by any new Prime Minister sitting, begging urgent attention, on his desk. That is before one considers impending war with Iran or the global trade battle between Trump and Xi. He faces all of this with a practically non-existent majority and an economy that has only just (really only just) emerged from the last existential crisis to befall it. Tomorrow he assumes the office he is said to have coveted since prep school or even earlier – he once, apparently, claimed to want to be ‘world King’ as a child – in the midst of a political crisis not seen here for at least forty years. One doubts that he will regret the winning of it. But he may yet come to regret the promises that he made in order to secure the victory.