The Evening Standard editorial about Boris Johnson is well worth reading. In fact, for any student of our probable next prime minister, it is almost an essential text.
Johnson has made himself the runaway frontrunner to be next PM partly by winning the votes of a large number of hardline Brexiters in the Commons, including the most important figures in the European Research Group, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker. They believe he has promised them that he will take the UK out of the EU by 31 October, without a deal if necessary.
Despite some quite strong hints that Johnson is wobbly on this, his supporters are adamant that he has made a firm promise. Here is Liz Truss, the chief secretary to the Treasury, speaking on his behalf yesterday.
Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary, said yesterday that Johnson had looked him in the eyes and told him that he would deliver Brexit by 31 October. David Davis, another former Brexit secretary backing Johnson, said much the same on the Today programme this morning.
But the Evening Standard, which is edited by the pro-remain Tory George Osborne (who takes a very close interest in what is said in his paper’s editorials), says today that one reason it is backing Johnson is that he is the candidate with “the most room for manoeuvre” and that he has been careful, in public, not to “guarantee” that Brexit will happen by 31 October. Today’s editorial says:
Mr Johnson is the candidate who has the most room for manoeuvre to get the country out of the Brexit mess.
That may seem a paradox, as the one who helped get us into that mess, and who again today says he wants “to get Brexit done by October 31”.
But he is careful not to “guarantee” that date — Mr Johnson may be loose with words when it comes to the fates of others but never when it comes to his own.
The editorial also says Johnson is the candidate most likely to persuade MPs to vote for a version of Theresa May’s deal and that he could even end up backing a second referendum.
Ask yourself which of these potential prime ministers is most likely to persuade the Conservative party to vote for a repacked version of the existing deal? The one with the greatest credibility with hard Brexiteers.
Indeed, which of these possible leaders could you imagine making the even bigger leap and asking the country again for its views?
The candidate who first came up with the idea of two referendums back in early 2016. Of course, he denies all this — and, like the other candidates, promises to get a renegotiated withdrawal agreement out of the EU.
Perhaps he will. Most likely he will not. But one thing is for sure, having finally arrived in Downing Street, Mr Johnson won’t be in a hurry to leave it. Opportunism knocks.
Perhaps the Evening Standard has just got it wrong. But Osborne has always been an astute political observer, and he knows Johnson very well.
A better way of reading the editorial is to see it as evidence of just how effective Johnson has been at giving different impressions to different audience. This might be a simple matter of lying (for which Johnson has some form), but it may be more a case of constructive ambiguity being deployed on an Olympian scale (ie, far beyond anything Tony Blair managed). This is the conclusion that Bloomberg’s political editor Robert Hutton came to when he investigated why Tories have such different views as to what Johnson will do. He explains his findings in a Twitter thread starting here.
And here is one of his Hutton’s key tweets.
This strategy has clearly worked very successfully for Johnson in recent weeks.
But there is an obvious problem if you win an election by promising different things to different people. At some point your supporters will turn on you when they realise they have been betrayed.