The conventional view of Boris Johnson at Westminster is that he is “a busted flush”, as John Rentoul put it in The Independent on Saturday.
By joining GB News, Rentoul contended, Johnson has “crossed back from politics into light entertainment”, but he will no longer be any good at making us laugh, for “the joke has worn thin” and the burden of former high office will weigh him down.
Added to which, according to George Osborne we shall this week learn at the Covid Inquiry about “disgusting language and misogynistic language” used in WhatsApp messages between Johnson and Dominic Cummings, which will show “what a complete nightmare” it was to work in Downing Street, and will “cause some real problems for individuals who were in charge at the time”.
The clown is no longer funny, and in any case his jokes always were disgusting, as we respectable people tried all along to tell you, but you were too busy laughing to hear us.
The conventional wisdom about Johnson has, however, quite often been wrong, for he has a remarkable ability to confound his critics by not doing what they expect him to do.
There were hints of this in the report in The Times of his appointment to GB News:
“Johnson will not host a regular show for the channel but will create and present a series showcasing the power of Britain around the world, as well as hosting special programmes around the country in front of live audiences.”
Johnson himself said in a short video clip that he will be giving his “unvarnished views on everything from Russia, China, the war in Ukraine…to the huge opportunities that lie ahead for us”, and will explain “why the people of the world want to see more global Britain, not less”.
It sounds from this as if Johnson will be making a series of special programmes about foreign affairs, and my guess is that he will get some remarkable people to appear on these programmes. While still at school he wanted to invite Ronald Reagan to address the Political Society.
And he will ask these people questions to which the answers will matter, and will be reported elsewhere. He will want to get as deep as possible into why a particular crisis has erupted and what we can now do to mend matters.
In other words, he will dare to be serious, and will draw on the knowledge and contacts he acquired during his two years as Foreign Secretary and three as Prime Minister.
Johnson reached Downing Street, and won the 2019 general election, as an insurgent: the guerilla leader who defied the Remain Establishment, including Kenneth Clarke, Nicholas Soames, Rory Stewart, Oliver Letwin, Sir Keir Starmer, Hilary Benn, The Financial Times, the CBI and Goldman Sachs, and enchanted Leave voters in the Red Wall seats.
He was then faced, as Disraeli was on winning the general election of 1874, by the need to turn himself from a rebel into a leader of regular troops.
That is an extraordinarily difficult transition to make. No longer can one thrive by descending at unpredictable moments to carry out hit-and-run raids on one’s flat-footed enemies, and melt away into the hills before they can get their act together.
The Whitehall machine requires, for its successful operation, a high degree of predictability. Officials have to know what it is they are expected to do. But as one of Johnson’s staff who liked him greatly told me when I wrote my book about him as Prime Minister:
“He changes his mind an awful lot. Someone goes in and changes his mind. It does seem to be what sort of mood you catch him in. He will give multiple conflicting steers. The machine doesn’t really know what to do. The machine gets into a horrible muddle.”
Downing Street became a mass of warring factions briefing against each other, and in the summer of last year Johnson’s own MPs lost confidence in him and threw him overboard.
If he is ever to be given a second chance as Prime Minister (and although this at present looks unlikely, British politics is full of such implausibilities), he will have to demonstrate, and presumably knows he will have to demonstrate, that he has learned from the errors which marred his first term in office.
The role of elder statesman beckons. In an ideal world it would be exercised from the back benches of the House of Commons, but our world is not ideal, and Johnson is not by temperament a backbencher.
He will instead seek to demonstrate in a GB News studio that he is serious, well-informed, well-connected and creative about foreign affairs.
This is not so complete a metamorphosis as those who deride him suppose. While researching my book, I read with care various speeches, some given while he was Mayor of London, in which he expounded his ideas about such matters as equality, economics, Thatcherism and Europe.
These speeches mostly went unreported, were indeed unreportable, for they did not fit a news editor’s conception of what the news is, and were adorned with so many amusing flourishes that these distracted attention from, indeed seemed to deny the possibility of, anything so dull and sober as a message lurking behind the jokes.
Johnson can, however, be highly disciplined when he accepts the need. He demonstrated this during the 2019 election campaign, when the Conservative Party’s message was contained in a prudent, professional, comprehensible manifesto, deliberately designed, as such a document should be, to be reassuring.
Foreign affairs are a lifelong study (see for example Palmerston’s career), but five years in high office is more than most of those who pronounce on them can draw on. Johnson now has the opportunity to come before us as an elder statesman, but one whose services are still, as it happens, available, should his nation and party ever again require them.