Johnson is in the middle of a messy marital breakup and this has had no effect on his following, writes Terry Prone.
He’s a proven liar, adulterer, and drug-taking posh boy. Yet Boris Johnson is so ahead of the rest of the posse of contenders for the British prime ministership that the only reason any of the others will remain in the battle is to raise their profiles and render their inclusion in a future cabinet inevitable.
They may be stymied even in that grotty objective. Members of the Tory Cabinet unconnected to any of the losers in the race want Johnson to be nodded through, to prevent prolonged hustings, during which candidates might say bad things about each other that might be useful to Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader.
If that’s their key reason, they don’t really need to bother their little heads. Corbyn’s genius lies in fearlessly kicking over the cliff anything that might benefit him or Labour.
Absent falling over the same cliff, Boris Johnson is home and hosed, despite his grinning emptiness and broad-spectrum inadequacy.
In this paper, on Saturday, Joyce Fegan summed it up. “Much like Trump,” she wrote, “Boris Johnson has become a household name, building a PR campaign that relies on outlandish statements filled with shock and awe.”
It would seem, then, that visibility, particularly on social media, is all that matters, despite Johnson’s campaign managers being quoted, off the record, as saying their priority is to keep him silent until the election is over.
Which rather begs the question: What could Johnson now say, or be revealed to have done, that would preclude him from becoming the next prime minister of Britain?
Very little. Perhaps a crime. Possibly sending photographs of your private parts to recipients who had not sought them. Almost everything else is surmountable.
In the past, political leaders tended to be selected because they were seen as the best of their party, as exemplifying party virtues. That meant they had to hide away anything that ran counter to those virtues.
So, back in the day when the American president was supposed to be faithful to his wife, Franklin D Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F Kennedy all had mistresses — in JFK’s case, a multiplicity of them. It was regarded, back then, as a major disqualifier, so it had to be hidden.
Not so any more. Donald Trump has made no secret of his sexual sleaziness; Boris Johnson is in the middle of a messy marital breakup — and this has had no effect whatever on their following.
Why? Because there’s 1) Things the public are interested in 2) Things the public vote about.
This is why pre-election opinion polls are always all wrong. They confuse issues people are interested in, and like to talk about, with issues people actually vote about.
Look at the FF poll numbers as proof. Bertie Ahern retired in ‘scandal’ and the party was re-elected. People were very interested in his finances, but didn’t vote about them. When the economy hit the buffers, that was what people cared about and voted about.
In the old days, an issue in which people were interested could end a career, because media would interpret it to the people as proof of poor character.
Back then, media had major moral arbiters: people like Walter Lippmann in the States. If you think about McCarthyism, it was a moral arbiter in the US media, broadcaster Ed Murrow, who publicly pointed at McCarthy and told him he was a disgrace. And Murrow had so much power that in standing up to McCarthy, he finished the drunken demagogue.
We don’t have those moral arbiters any more. Well, we do. Every mainstream newspaper has at least one. They have a voice. But they have no power.
They have no power because news comes to everybody unmediated. People learned about Michael Gove taking cocaine a day and a half before columnists in the Telegraph and Express and London Times could tell conservatives how they should react to the news.
What Trump has proved is that issues that interest voters no longer destroy careers. If you can access the audience directly, and move on to the next thing without intermediation, you’re sound as a pound.
The only thing that would change the minds of all but his tiny core vote would be a failing economy. That would see him deserted in a flash. But personal behaviour? Cheating at golf? Twitter thuggery? Part of his brand.
So for Michael Gove, it’s not the cocaine that will end him — it’s how boring he is. He and Johnson snorted coke, but Gove accesses the pubic through traditional channels.
And he’ll struggle to get past the coke thing. Boris lights up social media, so he alone has the capacity to be the caravan passing, while the media dogs bark impotently.
And remember, this particular electorate is a small and peculiar one. A couple of hundred Tory MPs. They don’t vote on morals. They vote on a) who’s most likely to make it and b) if that person can be relied on to give their supporters good jobs.
In addition, Gove will go down, not because of the cocaine, but because of how badly he managed the cocaine issue. The Andrew Marr interview wasn’t that tough. But Gove seemed to have prepared on the basis that if he confessed to making a mistake and went no further than repeating essentially that one line, he was going to be fine.
He wasn’t. First of all, he presents an odd appearance on TV, all big brown glasses and tense, flying hands, and whenever someone appears on TV without content, attention, inevitably, goes to how they look. Secondly, he described coke-sniffing, more than once, as “a mistake.”
Now a mistake is what happens when you lock the keys of your car into the car. That’s a mistake. Sniffing coke repeatedly when you’re all grown up — when you’re 30 years of age — is not a mistake. It’s probably a habit and definitely a crime.
Even worse in the media idiocy department was when Marr asked Gove if Gove had a cocaine habit, back in the day, the answer was, “I don’t believe so.”
He doesn’t believe so? Coke addiction is not an issue of personal beliefs. It’s a yes/no factual issue. Either he was hooked or he wasn’t. Either he was spending a fortune to stave off withdrawal symptoms or he was just spending a lot of recreational money, at a time when he was sneering, in print, at middle class people ingesting the same drug at parties.
Because that was what he was doing: giving vent to a ludicrously old-fashioned sense of entitlement that made it OK for the aristocrats to roll up hundred quid notes to sniff a cheering powder, but not at all OK for the ordinary folk who didn’t get to attend public schools.
The problem is every one of those standing against him is lamentable, not least Dominic Raab, whose unique selling point is that he’ll convince the working class he’s on their side. Add it all together, and the conclusion has to be that Tory politics has turned a decisive corner into irredentist craziness.