Nigel Hastilow comment: Race to be PM is a battle of the crazies
Flaws aside, Boris Johnson could be the leader to cheer us up, writes Nigel Hastilow
Sofa, so bad: Drug-taking, feminism, domestic rows and a police investigation – it’s got everything except a clear plan for Brexit.
The Conservative Party leadership contest may have whittled down the contenders to just Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, but we are no clearer about the great question of the day.
They both think they can re-negotiate the agreement with the EU and get some sort of a deal through the Commons.
They both say we will be out by October 31 come what may, though Mr Hunt thinks he might extend the date by a few weeks if it looks like agreement is within reach, whereas Mr Johnson has promised some of his supporters we will leave without one if necessary.
Do we believe either of them? Have the mathematics in Parliament changed suddenly? Is there now a majority for a no-deal Brexit?
Will our august Parliamentarians really vote through a cobbled-together deal which is, to all intents and purposes, exactly the same as Mrs May’s even if it does include a few new whistles and bells?
The answer is surely a resounding: ‘No. We do not believe them.’
'The opposite of Catch 22'
Of course everyone in politics wants to be Prime Minister. It’s the top job and you get to go down in history. But do either of them really want to take over the chaotic shambles Mrs May is leaving behind?
It’s almost the opposite of Catch 22: In the book, a bomber pilot’s concern for his safety was the process of a rational mind. If he was crazy, he could be grounded.
All he had to do was ask but if he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to, but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to.
In Westminster, you’d have to be crazy to want to be PM and no rational politician would want it just at the moment. So we are left with the final two of the crazies who applied for the job. No rational being would want to be hurled into the black hole of Brexit with no idea of a way out.
A rational human being
Of the two, it still seems likely Mr Johnson will emerge the winner. This is despite his ramshackle life, his cavalier attitude towards things like money and the truth and his undoubted laziness when it comes to the details of a policy.
Mr Hunt, by contrast, is a rational human being who is diligent, reasonably straightforward and possesses genuine administrative ability.
Mr Hunt is a successful Foreign Secretary, in contrast to Mr Johnson, who was terrible.
One account from a Foreign Office insider tells me the whole fiasco about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian dual national held in a Tehran jail as a spy, resulted because Mr Johnson did not read his official briefing properly.
He blurted out that she had been training journalists when the official line was that she was in Iran on a private holiday. As a result, she was jailed.
Mr Johnson places all the blame on Iran’s hard-liners without accepting he gave them an excuse to over-react.
If Mr Johnson hadn’t tried to ‘wing it’ when discussing her case, she might have been freed by now instead of on hunger strike like her husband Richard.
And yet, Mr Hunt lacks charisma. It sounds trivial and may be completely superficial but his eyes are too close together, which gives him a bizarre, starey appearance, a little like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
He’s been a perfectly capable Minister, both in the Foreign Office and the more difficult Department of Health. He just lacks his opponent’s charm and stardust.
Can you trust Boris?
Of course, Mr Johnson isn’t everybody’s cup of tea - just ask his neighbours, who celebrate being extremely rude to him when they bump into him on the doorstep of their shared apartment block and plaster his car with stickers.
They’re left-wing ‘Remainers’ describing themselves tendentiously as playwrights. They record his late-night rows with girlfriend Carrie Symonds before reporting them to the police and The Guardian.
And, though the whole episode shames his neighbours, we all now know that Mr Johnson spilt red wine on Ms Symonds’ sofa.
We also know that, in her rage, Ms Symonds yelled at Mr Johnson: "You just don’t care for anything because you’re spoilt. You have no care for money… anything."
Boris Johnson interview:
It’s worth remembering Mr Johnson once described the £250,000-a-year paid him by ‘The Daily Telegraph’ as ‘chicken-feed’. As his hero Winston Churchill might have said: ‘Some chicken! Some feed!’
Having no care for money is certainly an accusation that’s been levelled at Mr Johnson in the public arena, as well as in his private life.
He has many critics, including some of the people who know him best and who have worked with him over the years. There is little doubt Mr Johnson is not the world’s most reliable or trustworthy character.
Yet most people – especially the Conservative Party members who are likely to vote him into office – are surprisingly forgiving about his vices and foibles. ‘It’s just Boris being Boris,’ they say with a shrug.
After the dour three years we have endured under Mrs May, we could all do with a leader who might cheer us all up a little.
And Mr Johnson, whose public persona suggests – incorrectly – that he doesn’t take things too seriously, is just the chap to do that.
Force of personality
In reality, he takes one thing very seriously: his ambition to become Prime Minister. That’s why he is saying as little as possible, dodging questions and is bumblingly non-committal about what he would actually do as PM, about Brexit, HS2, tax or just about anything else.
Mind you, after the chaos of the BBC’s leadership debate, it’s not surprising Mr Johnson is wary of taking part in another one.
The BBC has been permanently shamed by its incompetent handling of that non-event.
The sheer force of Mr Johnson’s personality may well be enough to win out in the end and secure his victory in the Tory leadership contest.
He is still the leader most likely to deliver Brexit and the Conservative leader most likely to defuse the threat of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party while holding off Jeremy Corbyn’s Marxists.
Still, the eavesdropping neighbours may have swung the course of British politics if Conservatives shy away from the obvious candidate and opt for Mr Hunt.
According to the received wisdom, the only person who can beat Boris is Boris himself. But that reckons without his 31-year-old girlfriend’s sofa rage.
And whoever wins, the Brexit paralysis will not have changed no matter how much Mr Johnson claims politics has changed since March 29.
(By the way, I know from bitter experience that the best way to get rid of red wine stains is to cover the affected area with plenty of salt.)