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Theresa May is gone, but boogieman Boris looms

Boris Johnson. Photo/Getty Images

Relief at Theresa May’s Brexit exit has been replaced by fear at who might replace her: Boris Johnson.

Like all the best horror films, contemporary British politics moves with a slow but inexorable logic. When you see a strange-looking buffoon in the first scene, it’s a safe bet that he’ll turn out to be the psycho in the gruesome finale.

So it is that a large part of the nation has long dreaded the idea of Boris Johnson becoming prime minister, at the same time knowing in their souls that it was bound to happen. When Theresa May finally announced her resignation last month, after enduring the worst premiership in modern history, there was a collective sigh of relief, swiftly followed by a sharp intake of breath.

Now all that stands between Johnson and his tirelessly nurtured ambition is the Conservative party’s baroque voting procedure. Let me try to explain. Johnson is the overwhelming favourite among the Tory party membership, who ultimately decide who will become leader, and therefore prime minister. He’s so far ahead of any other candidate that if it were a sporting event, it would be cancelled due to lack of competition.

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But although the membership, which is made up mostly of the over-sixties, is ga-ga for the floppy haired, Latin-quoting maverick, they only have the deciding vote when the leadership race is whittled down to two contestants. Before that, there are various rounds of voting, depending on the number of candidates – at time of writing, nine have declared. As with musical chairs, whoever finishes last drops out.

Now, the complicating factor is that, although Johnson is a hero to the pensioners who fill the membership ranks, he is widely disliked by his fellow Tory MPs. And that’s a problem for him, because they are the people who vote in the initial rounds before the two finalists go before the membership.

Those who have worked alongside Johnson don’t trust him. In the 2016 leadership contest, Michael Gove, a Brains from Thunderbirds lookalike, entered the race at the last minute because, he said, Johnson was “unfit” to be prime minister. Gove was one of Johnson’s closest allies and a good friend. You can imagine what his enemies – and there is no shortage of them in Westminster – think of him.

At this stage, I should make a full personal disclosure. I know Johnson a bit. Or rather, I’m friends with his sister. Back in 2016, I went on a skiing trip with him. It was a few months before the fateful European Union referendum, and each evening our après-ski involved heated discussions on whether to leave or remain.

There were three remainers, including Johnson’s sister and me. We tried everything to dissuade him of his intention to back Brexit, but he batted away all our arguments with the firm confidence that leaving the EU would be a breeze. “They need our market more than we need theirs,” he kept saying.

Well, he was wrong about that. But although often accused of changing his opinion to whichever position benefits him most, Johnson has become an ever-more-determined Brexiteer. This is partly why the membership are so keen that he become prime minister, even though he was rather hopeless as foreign minister.

Shortly before landing that job, he won a magazine competition for writing a rude limerick about the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: “There was a young fellow from Ankara/who was a terrific wankerer/till he sowed his wild oats/with the help of a goat/but he didn’t even stop to thankera.

One of his first official visits as foreign secretary was to Turkey. That’s the kind of comic situation that endears Johnson to his fans and exasperates those who hanker for a grown-up politician to take the UK out of this waking nightmare. So, what now? I don’t know, but I doubt we’ll be going skiing again any time soon.

This article was first published in the June 8, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.