John Bird: The man who would be king, and me

I cannot deny my part in Boris Johnson's arrival, centre stage

It seems impossible that a dirty, little, former-slum boy, a homeless urchin, orphan, thief, school truant, an illiterate lout of a graffiti-daubing kind could end up becoming kingmaker, but that’s exactly what this 73-year-old Big Issue inventing, country-dwelling peer of the realm is. A kingmaker. But not by choice.

It was not my intention of aiding and abetting that former editor of The Spectator, Boris Johnson MP, that self-appointed historian, Old Etonian, Old Bullingdonian, to climb the greasy pole to stardom of a political kind. Yet I cannot deny my part in his arrival, centre stage, a kind of last man standing as all the others who are going for top-dog status pale into insignificance.

The MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip has what you might call brand recognition. All the other brands applying for the job seem like supermarkets’ own brand deals. They lack his easy recognition of acceptable foibles and self-promoting personality. In short, Johnson is the nearest the Conservative Party has of a ‘leader-in-waiting’.

But this is a party and a political system in disarray. Mr Johnson, if he is gifted the top job and goes on to become the nation’s 77th prime minister – if you’re counting since the first de facto British premier, Robert Walpole – will have more than his work cut out for him. Starting with the coalition in 2010, Cameron’s referendum debacle and May’s inability to broker consensus, the shite has got thicker and deeper; and it will take a very, very, very astute leader to come out smelling pretty.

My role, which I’ve told all who will listen for a decade now, in bringing Johnson to power was that I gave up a chance of becoming the Mayor of London, which was offered to me by the then Tory leader, David Cameron. And Johnson, sweating that weekend because it looked as if I might take it up, blew a deep sigh of relief when I refused the offer. He jumped at the chance to be the candidate, and the rest is history.

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An unintentional kingmaker, I moved back into the political shadows, unwilling to become a Tory member for the sake of standing as their mayoral candidate. And Johnson moved on, as his popularity – spurred on by BBC panel shows – pushed him on, and soon he was climbing far beyond his former isolation as a lacklustre backbencher. He entered centre stage, where he’s been ever since.

Much like the man he has steadfastly modelled himself on, Winston Churchill, Johnson is quite capable of changing sides and opinions in the pursuit of career; although, unlike Churchill, he hasn’t had to leave his party and rejoin it later to achieve his career’s fluidity.

Watching Theresa May leave office reminds us how cruel the post is when it’s taken from you. If Johnson gets into Downing Street, will he be looking apprehensively at his predecessor’s departure? Or of how Churchill seemed so blighted when he had to surrender the keys to Number 10? Of course not! Politicians don’t look forward too far. Humiliation may come upon them later, but it doesn’t keep them up at night until it looms right above them. Johnson will only see opportunity before him. And spoils to be had.

Much like the man he has steadfastly modelled himself on, Winston Churchill, Johnson is quite capable of changing sides and opinions in the pursuit of career

Unfortunately, the complete devaluation of political leadership that we’ve witnessed since 2010 doesn’t mean it can’t get any worse. It can. And it probably will.

The divide between voters, with both sides seeing themselves as the ‘true winners’ of the 2016 EU referendum, has boiled into a turmoil that’s yet to be entirely played out. Everyone seems to talk as if those opposed to their European viewpoint don’t exist (and doesn’t exist in the tens of millions). This kind of scenario is likely to be the biggest cause of disruption in the coming period. This sense of unreality; of denying that there are others that don’t agree with you. I personally have never metso many educated people, people with children in school, at college, and at university, who refuse to accept the fact that tens of millions of people disagree with their stance on Brexit.

It reminds me of the time when 22 million people watched the first men land on the moon and I went down the pub. Potentially 56 million people, if you include babies, were capable of watching the landing, but perhaps two-thirds didn’t. Yet you would have thought the next morning that everyone in the UK had been glued to their screens.

Likewise with the EU referendum. Whichever box you crossed, more people didn’t vote the way you voted. They either voted against your side, or didn’t turn out at all. How can you have unity when most people who voted are ignoring the fact that, at most, their side got a third of the vote, and most people didn’t act as they did.

Under the shadow of this vast delusionalism, Mr Johnson may be chosen as the candidate to see the system through to some safer ground. He will need skills that probably have never been held by a politician up until this time. He will need levels of feistiness that he, like many others, haven’t manifested so far. He will need a grasp of the next 10, 20, 30 years; not just up to the next general election.

The tawdry world of party politics – crudely seen as the property speculators, estate agents, gentleman farmers versus the university lecturers, trade union organisers and thinktank gurus; the ‘comfortably off against different comfortables’, leads to no good place. And Mr Johnson (probably more than most) fits in well there.

Will the electorate of coming times demand more than the bun fight we’ve witnessed so far? Johnson may be the last of the political dinosaurs. Perhaps a new politics is well within the making.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue.   

Image: Alexandros Michailidis