Now that he is poised to assume the office that has been his life’s ambition, can Boris Johnson actually wield power?
It’s an open question. The incoming prime minister’s majority could shrink to one; more defections and desertions look inevitable. He is viewed with a mixture of disdain and suspicion by a large chunk of Parliament.
In every area of policy — and none more so than Brexit — he will need to command the confidence of the House of Commons. It is a vulnerability he might even be asked about by the queen on Wednesday when he seeks her permission to form a government and become prime minister.
If it were anyone else, the game would be over before it even started. But Johnson isn’t any politician; as Tom McTague sets out comprehensively in his profile for the Atlantic, and the journalist Andrew Gimson in his biography, his mixture of cunning and calibrated bungling, ambition and vulnerability make him impossible to write off. It is pointless to ask, as so many of us have, which Boris — the apparatchik or buffoon — will show up in Downing Street.
“Where did it all go so marvelously right?” you can almost hear him chortling in a few years, once Britain has extricated itself from Europe, signed a few trade deals, built a few new rail links, moved a few rungs up the PISA education tables, built its own satellite navigation system, refitted the navy’s destroyers, and even spawned a few unicorns.
The gravity-defying idea that Johnson — or Boris, as he is universally known in Britain — might actually succeed is one that even his critics struggle to shake off.
The case for success, however, is built not so much on Boris’s own qualities but the collective desire and determination of a country to rise above Brexit. The U.K. possesses a wealth of ingenuity and drive; that much is undeniable. Boris’s real skill might be to find a way to yoke his will to win with the desire among those he governs to keep swimming for shore.
European politicians might shake their heads at the chancer Britain has put in charge of its historic project. But Johnson knows they have skin in the game; they want to avoid the no-deal outcome he has threatened. Britain is diminished, that’s clear, but it is still a large, nuclear-armed power with waters full of fish that French and Spanish trawlers want to get their nets on. Once there has been the Big Fight — the one you sense Boris and the European Union need to have — and possibly a no-deal exit, perhaps there can be the reconciliation both sides desperately need. Everything we know about the EU, its demands and the inexorable logic of how trade works tells us this will hurt, though.
What is Boris’s governing vision? It has, throughout his career, been largely economically liberal, even libertarian. He has been an advocate of tax cuts and simpler regulation. He understands the value of learning and of having skills that can be put to work. He can be expected to focus on improving Britain’s highly unequal education system.
He has a fondness for vanity projects, but has also recognized that Britain needs more and better infrastructure. As mayor of London, he was socially liberal, though it’s possible to find Johnson policies, statements and fiascos on both sides of most policy divides.
Britain is a country that loves only one thing more than a celebrity: a celebrity with very recognizable human foibles. Reality TV shows like “Love Island” are fetishized, “The Great British Bake Off” given cult status. Every royal outing is noted, not just to marvel at the unattainable but to recognize the familiar. TV anchors, unlike so many of their U.S. counterparts, have more wrinkles, less perfect teeth, fat deposits and a certain recognizable authenticity. Johnson doesn’t need to obey the laws of politics because, unlike other politicians, he fits this mold.
As I construct the optimistic case for Boris, I am painfully aware of the obstacles he faces. I wrote last week that he is gambling either that Europe will give him what it wouldn’t grant Theresa May, or that his no-deal threat will be both more credible and less damaging in its realization than anyone imagined. But the EU cannot be charmed; it works by cold logic and the reign of rules.
Underpinning Boris’s bet is the idea, common it must be said, to great builders and achievers, that sheer imagination, force of energy, willpower, and a refusal to be denied can create new realities.
I recently attended a talk by the Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, who recounted how vision and sheer bloody-mindedness helped him face down insuperable obstacles from political opposition to budget constraints, engineering hurdles and timetables that seemed crushing. “Faith moves mountains,” he said.
Sometimes, it must be said, the dreamers and strivers are right and we are grateful to them. Boris the Builder has arrived. He may not last long. There is every chance he will falter at the first or second hurdle. But anyone who wishes Britain well during these fraught times must hope that he will surprise us.