Few politicians are easier to misunderstand than Boris Johnson. People seize hold of one aspect of him, and persuade themselves they have grasped the whole.
So he is often portrayed as a rule-breaker. This is why he had to go: he had no respect for the rules, and expected to be allowed to get away with breaking them whenever he liked.
The most quoted words from my book about his early life are not by him or me, but by Martin Hammond, his housemaster at Eton, in a school report written on 10 April 1982, when his pupil was 17:
“Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of the School for next half): I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”
His critics say Johnson has not changed in the succeeding 40 years. Those responsible for upholding “the network of obligation” have found him a repeat offender.
Conservative MPs have wearied of such disgraceful behaviour, and have accordingly defenestrated him.
This account is true. The only difficulty, if one wishes to understand Johnson (which admittedly not everyone does), is that it is not the whole truth.
Johnson’s next school report, written by Hammond on 25th July 1982, began with a number of further criticisms:
“Efficiency and organisation have been constant problems (there was trouble this half with his running of the Political Society, and an unprecedented rebuke from the Provost).”
There followed an astonishing change of tack:
“It was perhaps a bit of a risk to make Boris Captain of the School: but he clearly has the personality and the respect necessary for the job, and it’s my hope that the imposition of a public responsibility will energise all else.”
Johnson at the second attempt has got to the top, and has done so pretty much on his own terms.
If one wishes, one can simply deplore this, and declare that he should never have been allowed to get away with it, any more than he should have been allowed in 2019, at the second attempt, to become Conservative Party leader, and to do so pretty much on his own terms.
It is possible to treat his career as a morality tale, in which bad consequences flow from tolerating bad behaviour, but eventually justice is done. “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily,” as Miss Prism puts it in The Importance of Being Earnest.
But her next words are: “That is what Fiction means.” Real life is more complicated. Johnson had, and has, good qualities as well as bad. Hammond recalled:
“He was passionately loyal to his House, his school. In an odd way, he likes an ordered world, not a random world. Boris was not a rebel at all. He was a fully signed up member of the tribe. He was jolly nearly the custodian of the ark. Everything that went into being at College Boris embraced whole-heartedly – Latin prayers, bellowed hymns.”
This aspect of Johnson tends to be overlooked by those who see him as a purely subversive figure. He loves the institutions to which he has belonged.
These include Eton, Balliol, The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator. He doesn’t want to overthrow them: he wants them to thrive.
So too the study of Latin and Greek: he loves ancient as well as modern languages. Johnson is in fact in many ways a reassuringly traditional figure, who appeals to other traditionalists.
Why then his disrespect for the rules? Because that too is part of our tradition.
Rules are made to be broken. Live and let live. Laugh to scorn the prigs, martinets and jacks in office who presume to tell us, in minute detail, how we should lead our lives.
Johnson has always been sceptical about rules. He tests them to see whether they are necessary, and often finds they are not.
On almost any question, he can be found changing his mind, trying out different opinions, some of which contradict each other.
But we live in an age when all sorts of questions of behaviour are regulated by codes.
The individual is not trusted to make up his or her mind, in the light of prevailing circumstances. Nothing is left to personal judgement. It is not supposed we might manage to work things out for ourselves.
We are instead at every turn invigilated. The Ministerial Code saps ministerial independence, and becomes a means for Downing Street to enforce its will across all departments.
Much of the media enters with enthusiasm into the discovery of occasions when offenders have been treated with undue indulgence.
What fun it is to be a moralist, shaking one’s head over some politician’s failure to uphold the letter of every petty rule.
This, palpably, was not Johnson’s style of politics. He went too far in the other direction, became too free and easy, and now he has been punished.
Judgement on him was pronounced by his fellow Conservatives, which is as it should be. They decided they had had enough, and out he went.
Our constitution worked as it should. A political judgement was arrived at by politicians. Johnson lost his majority in the House of Commons, a point brought home by the attacks on Wednesday on him from his own benches, and by the resignation of over 50 members of the Government.
What will become of Johnson? It is too early to say. But his overthrow does not mean the licentious, disrespectful, unofficial, 18th-century tradition in British politics has suffered a final defeat.
It is still there, beneath the surface, awaiting either the revival of Johnson, or the emergence of some new champion.