Analysis & Comment

Brendan O'Connor: 'Chilling change as Bumbling Boris becomes a strong man'

Chilling is not a word I thought I’d ever use about Boris Johnson. Like the rest of us, I always had a soft spot for him when he was the Bumbling Boris of Have I Got News For You. It’s strange to think of the benign view we had of Tory Toffs back then. Boris seemed like one of those posh, batty anachronisms the Tories could accommodate, while they had real, sensible-ish people to actually do the politics.

Boris seemed harmless. Almost endearing. That was back when we chuckled indulgently at colourful Tories like Boris, when Neil and Christine Hamilton were characters. That was when the Tory party were not universally loved here, but where they couldn’t do us that much harm in this country.

Those were the times when the worst of Tory peccadillos might be some kind of kinky sex scandal involving some bloke from the home counties who liked to dress up in a nappy or a football jersey when he was up in London during the week, and maybe wanted some mild punishment or humiliation by a colourfully-named professional dominatrix. But we could safely enjoy it all because it didn’t’ matter really, because Britain was one of the most stable democracies in the world.

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But somehow, everything has changed, and here we are, where we are, and I can only describe Boris as chilling. I think the launch of his leadership campaign might have been the moment I first felt the chill. It was Boris’s only real public appearance since the phoney war ended and race to succeed Theresa May began in earnest.

Boris took just six questions at the launch and didn’t really answer any of them properly. When challenged on what some view as his offensive remarks, he said: “I think it’s vital that we as politicians remember that one of the reasons why the public feels alienated now from us all as a breed, is because too often they feel we are muffling and veiling our language.” Straight talking, none of this PC nonsense.

Boris also batted away the question about past cocaine use. Now bear in mind that over the previous weekend, Michael Gove’s leadership campaign essentially collapsed when he admitted to using cocaine in the past, while a journalist. Now you can argue that part of Gove’s problem was a perceived hypocrisy, given he had in the past written and acted in a way that was tough on drugs, and tough on the people who used drugs. There was also a certain perception of privilege that was played up by his enemies. But these nuances aside, Gove’s campaign essentially ran aground because he admitted to using cocaine in the past.

Boris has also admitted to using cocaine in the past. In 2005, on Have I Got News For You, he said he was offered what may have been cocaine but he sneezed, so never got to snort it, and that indeed it may have been icing sugar. He essentially fell back on the Bumbling Boris caricature.

But it also emerged, that in 2007, in an interview with Piers Morgan in GQ magazine, Boris said he took cocaine, that he remembered it vividly, that some had indeed made it up his nose, but that it had no effect on him.

Whichever version of events is true, it doesn’t seem to be on the same level as Gove, taking cocaine on several occasions. Boris also admitted in that interview that he had a phase of smoking marijuana when he was young and it was “jolly nice”, but he said he has become very illiberal about it now, because he hears it’s got much stronger, and he wouldn’t like his kids to try it.

Lots of us aren’t that bothered whether politicians took drugs in the past. But you couldn’t help feeling that while Gove effectively ended his campaign by admitting to the mistake of taking drugs in the past, the same rules didn’t apply to Boris making similar admissions. And that was the chilling bit. This is a guy to whom the normal rules don’t apply. This is a guy over whom people have ditched all rational thought.

There were other unnerving things about the launch too. There was something unsettling about how Boris’s younger girlfriend Carrie Symonds seemed to have reinvented herself as more of a Tory wife-like character for the event. Indeed, there is relatively little comment on the fact that Boris has split from his second wife and is with a woman 23 years younger than him. Normally this would have Boris condemned far and wide as a middle-aged creep, especially in the current climate, but that doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to Boris either. Indeed, all other questions about Boris’s character seem to get brushed aside very easily in this race. Because the normal rules do not apply to this man.

We saw a new Boris last week. Something has subtly changed about him, and not just the weight loss and the haircut. There is something ugly and angry and arrogant in his demeanour. It’s almost like a physical change. Presumably there is a conscious attempt right now to make Boris look decisive and energetic and less like the bumbling caricature of yore.

But in fact, there’s something scary about it. When you take away the charm of the bumbling and the humour, what’s left behind is a slightly frightening prospect.

Chilling too that Boris did not feel the need, certainly for the first leg of the campaign, to come out and talk to the people. This competition is, after all, to decide the next Prime Minister of Britain. Of course you can argue that Boris was focusing on the constituency that matters right now, the Tory MPs he addressed at the hustings. But you can’t deny that there is an almost terrifying arrogance and coldness about a man who is becoming PM without having to engage with the public or with his opponents, who was becoming PM, essentially, behind closed doors.

Until he was pressed into it, he seemed to see no need to engage with the other mere candidates either. Indeed Boris’s supporters were out quickly after the first vote to tell the ‘vanity candidates’ who were trailing that they should just pull out. You get the impression Boris and his supporters would prefer if there didn’t have to be a competition at all.

Behind closed doors, Boris seems to be telling various constituencies whatever they want to hear. He has hinted at suspending parliament to prevent it blocking a No-Deal Brexit, which seems to suggest that Boris and his people might view even parliament as an impediment to Boris doing what he wants to do. The normal rules do not apply. Boris is above them.

Chilling too is the kind of language Boris’s supporters are starting to use. There’s a lot of talk about how the Tories need a winner now, and Boris is a winner. As against what – all his rivals? Who are losers?

More worrying still is the talk around the need for strong leadership. Which is fair enough. Strong leadership is probably needed right now in the UK.

But there are constant echoes all around this of Boris being the strong man that a country in chaos needs right now.

It’s a long way from John Major, warm beer and cricket.

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