Boris Johnson once joked that he had “absolutely no convictions except one—and that was from a long time ago, for speeding.” He is the shape-shifting prime minister who is both left wing and right wing, liberal and illiberal—or, in the modern jargon, open and closed. His views morph as circumstances change to fit the politics that are most to his own advantage.
Now, after his election victory, he will be liberated to show his true colours. With a healthy parliamentary majority, some say he will be free to present a softer side and see off the Tory hardliners, others that he will no longer be constrained by a desire to appease soggy centrists. So just how right-wing is Boris Johnson?
Certainly he is happy to play the right-wing populist card when it suits him, claiming shortly before the general election, for example, that EU migrants had been able to “treat the UK as if it’s part of their own country” for too long. It was less a dog whistle than a foghorn by a leader who had already set out to neutralise Nigel Farage by pledging to rule out an extension to the Brexit transition period.
As a journalist Johnson often pandered to a right-wing Daily Telegraph and Spectator readership, with a series of now-infamous columns comparing Muslim women who wear the burka to “letter boxes” and claiming that the children of single mothers were “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate.” During the Tory leadership contest he promised to slash taxes for the rich—although he backed away from the plan in an attempt to avoid alienating poorer voters at the election.
He has shown little interest in helping those who rely on benefits and has so far refused to unfreeze the Local Housing Allowance, which has driven many families into homelessness and temporary accommodation. He appointed as home secretary a hardliner who had previously supported the death penalty and his cabinet is packed with the authors of Britannia Unchained, a libertarian tract that condemned British workers as “idlers.” It was also revealed this week that Tim Montgomerie, Johnson’s adviser on social justice until the election, suggested last month that he wanted to forge a “special relationship” with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, added that Johnson and the authoritarian Orbán shared a populist agenda and praised Hungary’s “interesting early thinking” on the “limits of liberalism.”
Under Johnson, the Tories have effectively turned into an English nationalist party, but it is too simplistic to pigeon-hole him as a traditional rightwinger. He has pledged to end austerity and pour billions into the NHS, schools and infrastructure. As London mayor, he was consistently liberal on immigration, he proved his commitment to gay rights by attending the Pride march in a pink Stetson and he also campaigned for the introduction of a living wage.
Far from wanting to emulate Margaret Thatcher, he sees himself as a “One Nation” Tory, a “Brexity Hezza” as he once put it to the fury of the pro-European former deputy prime minister. He once told me in an interview for the Times that the Conservatives “should be the warriors of the dispossessed, the champions of the poor and the liberators of the disadvantaged. We should be the human battering rams breaking down doors for people who need someone to help them.” He railed against inequality, insisting it was “absolutely shameful that we have a situation in which companies whose boardroom members are remunerated in ever more dazzling style are paying their staff on the shop floor so little that they’re being topped up every week by benefit handouts.” It was not quite the message he was putting out during one of the Conservative leadership hustings last year when he boasted: “Can you think of anybody who stuck up for the bankers as much as I did? I defended them day in, day out, from those who frankly wanted to hang them from the nearest lamppost.”
The truth is that Johnson blows with the wind. He will do what it takes to win, or to keep, power and adjust his opinions to suit. Like Groucho Marx, his real position is: “These are my principles and if you don’t like them… well I have others.” That makes him open to manipulation, or persuasion by those around him, and also vulnerable to the impact of external events.
Where he ends up on the political spectrum as prime minister will depend on the balance of pressures he faces. During the trade talks with Brussels he will be urged by Tory right-wingers to diverge as much as possible from European rules and regulations to make it easier to secure a trade deal with America. That would, though, mean watering down the consumer protections and workers’ rights that are cherished by the Conservatives’ new voters in the north and the midlands.
It is unclear which side Johnson will take but it will be a political, rather than an ideological, calculation. His instincts may be those of Islington man, but he also needs to keep on side the residents of Workington. The cabinet reshuffle that he is planning for February will give a clue to the direction he wants the government to take but he will also be buffeted by external forces.
Ultimately Boris Unchained will have to take responsibility for the decisions he makes—freed from the constraints of a hung parliament, he will not be able to blame the MPs for forcing his hand.
In his biography of Winston Churchill, Johnson writes: “The beauty and riddle in studying the motives of any politician is in trying to decide what is idealism and what is self-interest; and often we are left to conclude that the answer is a mixture of the two.” In the prime minister’s case the there is an abundance of the latter. How much of the former there really is remains to be seen.
Rachel Sylvester is a political columnist for the Times