SARAH VINE: Boris Johnson was too nice to rule over the nasty party

Boris Johnson’s real tragedy is that he was too nice to rule over the nasty party: SARAH VINE has been alongside the PM during some of the most pivotal moments of his life. His enemies will sneer at her verdict – but they don’t know him like she does

Next week, a new Conservative Prime Minister will enter No 10. As that famous black door closes behind them, the calls of reporters and the whirring of cameras temporarily silenced, they will be greeted by smiling officials and emollient civil servants.

There will be a million and one decisions to make, from which of the two Downing Street flats to inhabit — the sprawling No 11 or the more intimate No 10 — to whom to appoint as Chancellor. None of it will be easy.

I wish them well, I really do — whoever she is. But as someone who has observed British politics closely, both from within and without, for nigh-on two decades, I can’t say I envy them.

The Conservative Party has been in power for well over a decade. By the time the next general election comes around, we’ll have had two winters of soaring fuel costs, rampant inflation, strikes, rising interest rates and goodness only knows what else. The electorate will be tired, broke and looking for someone to blame.

The Conservatives are staring down the barrel of electoral Armageddon, and they know it. 

That’s why so many so-called ‘Big Beasts’ are ruling themselves out of a role in the new PM’s Cabinet.

Some MPs and ex-ministers I speak to are even worried about the survival of the party itself. 

Boris pictured back in 2019 when it was announced he had won the leadership ballot and that he would become the next Prime Minister

They see a scenario where Labour and the Liberal Democrats engineer a successful electoral pact in the so-called Blue Wall seats in southern England.

Disillusioned Conservatives won’t vote Labour, but they will vote Lib Dem. Especially if Labour stand down their candidates, as they are planning to do.

Meanwhile, in the North and Midlands, Conservative support in Red Wall seats continues to crumble. 

The Tories will be caught in an electoral pincer from which it will be very hard to escape.

In the likely event of a hung Parliament, a Lib Dem/Labour coalition would look to Scotland for support from the SNP — in exchange, of course, for Nicola Sturgeon’s independence vote. 

Without a Prime Minister in Downing Street committed to maintaining the Union — as Labour manifestly is not — it is easy to see how Scotland might go her own way.

It is even possible that under a pro-Remainer Lib/Lab coalition, Britain could think about rejoining the EU. 

Especially if, as many economists are predicting, sterling runs into serious trouble as a result of inflationary pressures.

The final nail in the coffin would be if they pushed through Proportional Representation, the voting system which favours more densely populated, urban Labour strongholds.

The Conservatives could find themselves locked out for a very long time, perhaps for ever. 

Like I said, I hope I’m wrong. But the truth is whoever takes the party into the next election is going to have to bring about some serious political alchemy.

Otherwise, Boris Johnson may well, despite all his many difficulties, come to be seen as one of the last truly successful Conservative prime ministers in history.

Much has been said and written about how Johnson was the victim of his own failings, and a lot of that is true. 

However, even if he had behaved impeccably at every turn, Partygate had never happened and he and Carrie had never bought a single roll of wallpaper, the truth is we would probably still be where we are today.

Not just because the circumstances of his premiership — including a global pandemic and a terrible war in Ukraine — were uniquely challenging, but also because the Conservative Party is in such a disastrous mess.

Impetuous: Boris Johnson gives his then wife Marina Wheeler a ‘backie’ in 2015 on his bike 

I first became involved in the party over 20 years ago, when I met my now ex-husband, Michael Gove. 

Back then, it was at its lowest point, humbled first by Labour’s victory in 1997, then by further humiliation in 2001, out of touch with voters, mired by infighting.

It was then that I met and got to know people like David Cameron and George Osborne, bright young Conservatives with ideas and ambition.

I understood little about politics. However, I was drawn by their energy, enthusiasm and focus — and by their desire to rebuild and rebrand the party to make it appealing to a much wider range of voters.

And that is exactly what they did. Like him or not, Cameron came up trumps in the 2010 election by successfully detoxifying the Tory brand. 

He sidelined the old guard, silenced the rampant Right-wingers and metaphorically locked the ‘swivel-eyed loons’ in various dark cupboards.

Dave and George were meticulous — and ruthless — in this respect. They did not tolerate even the slightest bat-squeak of dissent within the ranks, and anyone who stepped out of line was swiftly dealt with. Always politely, but unequivocally.

Cameron may have seemed touchy-feely, but he ruled with an iron fist. Until, following his defeat in the 2016 EU referendum, he suddenly let go.

His decision to walk away from No 10 after losing the referendum was one of the most disastrous acts in the history of British politics. 

Not only did it plunge the country as a whole into chaos, it also added to the turmoil within the Conservative Party, already tearing itself apart over Brexit.

Michael and Boris, who had worked together on the Leave campaign, had their famous falling out, resulting in Theresa May becoming PM. 

While fundamentally well-intentioned, she did nothing to cauterise the festering wounds within the party.

So when Boris became leader in 2019, he not only inherited a political mess but also a deeply dysfunctional party, riven by internal conflict, long-running feuds and unsettled scores. It would have been a challenge for even the most disciplined individual.

While Boris may be many things — charismatic, energetic, fiercely intelligent — he is not disciplined. His personal life and his various other problems over the years have shown this.

And it doesn’t matter that he wears his heart on his sleeve and is quick to admit his mistakes: the outcome is the same.

From the beginning, he failed to exercise sufficient control over those around him. 

He also tended to give far too many people — from Dominic Cummings to the ‘groper’ ex-whip Chris Pincher — the benefit of the doubt; perhaps as a result of his own weaknesses. And that’s what did for him.

I wouldn’t claim to know Boris intimately, but our paths have crossed many times over the years, often at oddly pivotal moments. 

I was there at Carrie’s 30th birthday party where the pair danced long into the night to Abba, he awkward and ursine, she barefoot and breathless.

I was also there a couple of years earlier, when he was still living in Islington with his then-wife Marina Wheeler. 

Box of secrets: Boris’s ex-adviser Dominic Cummings leaves No 10 with a box

We ate slow-roasted lamb in their basement kitchen while Boris wrestled with whether or not to come out for Brexit.

There were fevered phone calls on loudspeaker, Michael and Boris to-ing and fro-ing between the options, discussing the various legal implications.

Marina and I sat there, slightly rolling our eyes and trying to make polite conversation with the other guest in the room, Evgeny Lebedev, of the Evening Standard and the Independent. 

It was possibly one of the most surreal evenings of my life. And I still don’t understand quite why Lebedev was there.

But I think the occasion that perhaps best of all captures Boris’s true character was a much less portentous night in the summer of 2015 when, following dinner at our house in North Kensington, he was snapped giving Marina a ‘backie’ on his bike.

At the time, of course, he was still Mayor of London, and the incident caused quite a furore among the capital’s humourless Lefties, who took it as a sign of his general recklessness.

In reality, he had never intended to ride all the way home like that — he had simply been giving her a lift to the main road, where she picked up a black cab (none ever ventured along our street).

I remember laughing in disbelief as they wobbled off into the night; she perched on the saddle, clutching her handbag, he pumping the pedals with Johnsonian zeal.

It was impetuous, but also rather sweet and romantic — and, in its own way, the antithesis of what you might expect of a person in a position of power.

That, for me, was always the essence of Boris — and it’s also, I suspect, what the British people instinctively sensed in him.

A tremendous can-do spirit combined with a strong rebellious streak and a healthy disregard for petty authority. In other words, Brexit — or at least people’s idea of it — personified.

That was why he breathed life into the Leave campaign, and it’s why Cameron and Osborne loathed him so much. 

They governed by compromise: he was a loose cannon, led by instinct and passion.

Partygate, or something like it, would never have happened to Cameron because he simply wouldn’t have allowed it. He understood the optics and he knew how to protect himself. Boris didn’t.

Sarah Vine said Boris is ‘too nice to rule over the Nasty Party’. Pictured is Sarah Vine on ‘Lorraine’ TV show in February this year 

Ultimately, that’s what makes a successful politician: their ability to sacrifice even their closest ally to save their skin. 

For all his faults, I just don’t think Boris ever had that in him. Which is, in a way, to his credit. 

It was both what made him so appealing — and what led to his downfall. It made him relatable, believable, likeable, but it also made him vulnerable.

And it goes to the heart of why, ultimately, he was pushed out by his own party. He was soft when he should have been hard. 

Through loyalty, affection and an inability to take anything all that seriously, he allowed various situations to persist that he should have knocked firmly and swiftly on the head.

Take Dominic Cummings. People forget that Cameron had his own Cummings, too. His name was Steve Hilton. Like Cummings, Hilton entered No 10 alongside the new PM, irritating the socks off civil servants (literally: he used to pad around No 10 in his stockinged feet), threatening all sorts of radical reforms.

But unlike Cummings, Hilton was mercilessly dispatched the moment it became clear he was doing the Cameron brand more harm than good.

Cummings and Hilton were brilliant ideas men. Let me assure you, I spent many nights talking policy with both, and they were, in their different ways, deeply impressive. But neither is diplomatic, or even biddable.

Cameron got what he needed from Hilton, then began to sideline him. Hilton left and forged a successful career in America.

This never happened with Boris and Cummings. Through loyalty and human weakness — being too bloody nice actually — Johnson failed to assert the necessary authority over his adviser.

When it came to the disastrous Barnard Castle incident, for example — in which Cummings drove to that northern beauty spot to ‘test his eyesight’ during the height of lockdown — Johnson indulged him, defended him, expended political capital on him — and the svengali stayed.

More fool Boris. Because when Cummings finally went full tonto and turned on his loyal former boss, it was the former adviser who leaked so many of the negative stories about Boris (and, no less damagingly, Carrie) from the box full of secrets he carried literally and metaphorically out of No 10.

The Cummings affair was important for another reason, too. It sent Tory MPs a message: Boris was vulnerable. They smelled blood and, like the sharks they are, they began circling.

Had his No 10 operation been coherent and efficient like Cameron’s, and had the Tory party been in a different state of mind, Boris might have been able to control the narrative in his favour.

But having justifiably apportioned far too much power to Cummings, he was left at the mercy of his Machiavellian genius. Tories with long-standing scores to settle finally sensed an opportunity to do so.

Boris’s tragedy is that he will be remembered not for rescuing Brexit or guiding the nation through Covid, nor for his courage in letting the vaccines lead us out of lockdown or his vision and strength on Ukraine.

Instead, he will be remembered for being a wildly popular Prime Minister, a potential colossus brought down by the petty vendettas of fellow Conservative MPs too short-sighted to see beyond their own small-minded agendas. And, ultimately, for being too nice to rule over the Nasty Party.

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