While it’s too early to judge Boris Johnson’s tenure, his person has been in the public eye long enough for some conclusions to be drawn.
That he has always been precociously brilliant is beyond doubt. After all, The Telegraph posted Mr Johnson to Brussels as its bureau chief at the tender age of 24, which is remarkable even by the paedocratic standards of modern times.
His subsequent career as columnist, editor, author and finally politician also shows flashes of brilliance. He is probably the best-educated PM since Churchill and the most intelligent one since Thatcher.
He also enjoys (if that’s the right word) a reputation for being priapic and louche, which, though unfortunate, isn’t unforgivable. Neither quality is particularly rare among highly driven men seeking public appeal, though at times one wishes our PM displayed more gravity and less levity.
All things considered, one can already see that Mr Johnson is a vast improvement on every PM since Thatcher, a contrast made especially striking if one compares his way of handling both Brexit and the general election with Mr Cameron’s and Mrs May’s.
Hence it would be curmudgeonly to gripe about Mr Johnson’s intellectual failings, small as they are by comparison to his predecessors’. However, abandoning for a second the relativist comparative standards, one is justified in lamenting the dim background against which Mr Johnson shines.
For, as the evolution of his views on the EU shows, he makes up in brilliance what he lacks in depth. The same process casts doubt on his integrity as well.
In a 2014 interview our future PM explained that he had been a Eurosceptic since his Brussels posting from 1989 to 1994: “The fundamental idea of free trade, cooperation and mutual respect, ensuring France and Germany never go to war again… that is fundamentally not a bad idea.
“The question is ‘do you need to create supranational institutions acquiring ever greater centralised power?’ I became convinced in my time in Brussels for The Daily Telegraph that it was not necessary.”
There Mr Johnson essentially repeated the EU propaganda line mendaciously claiming that free trade and peace are the main reasons for its existence. In fact, any serious study of that institution’s history shows that creating a central supranational state has always been its overarching end.
Everything else, including “free trade, cooperation and mutual respect” has always been merely camouflage designed not to scare off the prey, potential members.
Peace between Germany and France is indeed a good idea, especially since these countries tend to draw everyone else into a conflict between them. But that aim was already achieved in 1945-1960, when Germany was effectively disarmed, and France went on to become a nuclear power during de Gaulle’s administration.
In spite of his epiphany, Mr Johnson managed to do a good job containing his opposition to the EU. Until 2016 he had been publishing ‘balanced’ articles highlighting arguments in favour of that pernicious contrivance.
In fact, his coming out in favour of Brexit in 2016 caught David Cameron by surprise: he had been counting on Mr Johnson’s support for the Remain cause, and not without reason. Later Johnson contradicted his earlier stories about his Damascene experience in Brussels by spinning a nice yarn about Epiphany Mark II.
Apparently, when the issue came to a boil at referendum time, he sat down and wrote two articles, one arguing in favour of the EU, the other against. He then weighed the two pieces in the balance and found the second piece more persuasive – this in spite of having supposedly realised that the EU was “unnecessary” more than a decade earlier.
Two things are reasonably obvious here. First, Mr Johnson’s understanding of the EU was superficial and clichéd – he clearly never gave himself the trouble to study the issue at sufficient depth. Second, if he has any convictions on this or indeed any other matter, they are strictly secondary to political expediency.
His championship of the Brexit cause, welcome as it was, was motivated not by rational arguments weighed one against another, but by a cold calculation of the effect either position would have on his own electoral chances.
His calculation has proved correct, and I for one am grateful for the support he gave the Brexit cause, and also for his success in keeping Trotskyist ghouls out of government.
Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect to see present-day Burkes in our government. In fact, it’s full of them, but there the word is spelled differently. Mr Johnson isn’t the worst option, which is less than effusive praise. It’s merely a realistic assessment.