DAN HODGES: Forget boozy bust ups. BoJo’s REAL problem is his mojo has gone missing
Forget the midnight melodrama and the Stasi-like attentiveness of his curtain-twitching, Remain-supporting neighbours.
Boris Johnson has bigger problems than his tempestuous private life. Despite the lurid headlines, the smart money still says that in four weeks, he will become Prime Minister.
And unless he gets a grip – or somebody in the Conservative Party gets a grip on him – shortly after that, he will lose a General Election and be replaced by Jeremy Corbyn.
His biggest blunder has been to prioritise cut taxes for those hard-pressed Britons struggling to get by on a meagre income of between £50,000 and £80,000 a year. Yet no sooner had the gaffe occurred than his team was spinning it to his advantage
Last week Tory MPs opted – virtually by acclamation – to propel him towards Downing Street.
They did so not because of anything he had said in their closed leadership hustings, or behind the locked door of his Portcullis House office, but on the basis of a memory.
An increasingly distant recollection of the man who once took a nation and its capital by storm with his unique brand of vibrant, modern Conservatism.
This morning that man is missing in action. Boris has been sequestered from the media and wider public. His few public appearances have been flat or faltering.
His only significant policy announcement – tax cuts for the well-off – has blown up in his face. His Brexit strategy bears the imprint of the last person who sat on it.
The Tory leadership election has been under way for just under a month. But three things are already painfully apparent. The first is that Boris Johnson is running scared. He should have seized this contest by the scruff of the neck
His heavy-handed parliamentary campaign team has angered supporters and opponents alike.
And any criticism of this approach is rebuffed with the arrogant assertion that none of it matters because the only constituency that counts is Tory MPs and members, and they worship the ground he walks on.
But it does matter. It matters an awful lot. Because like it or not, Boris Johnson represents Britain’s final chance. He is the last person standing in the way of a neo-Marxist, anti-Semitic armageddon. And if the Boris we have seen over the few weeks comes up against Corbyn and his army of fanatical followers, he will be crushed.
The Tory leadership election has been under way for just under a month. But three things are already painfully apparent. The first is that Boris Johnson is running scared.
He should have seized this contest by the scruff of the neck. His place in the final run-off was secured after the first ballot. The influential ConHome survey of Tory activists showed him almost 50 points ahead of his rivals.
Boris Johnson visited a bakery in Oxfordshire as part of his campaign. The fight to replace Theresa May might be only a month old, but Boris has been preparing and agitating for this moment for years
Even after the dramas of the past 24 hours, he remains at 10-1 on to defeat Jeremy Hunt. But he has been acting like a rabbit caught in Rory Stewart’s headlights.
For some reason, he allowed the International Development Secretary’s energetic but ephemeral campaign to rattle him. His own campaign launch was stilted and vacuous.
His performance in Tuesday’s shambolic and shameful BBC debate was defensive and unconvincing. Where is the bold, buccaneering Boris of the mayoralty? ‘He just doesn’t want to take any unnecessary risks at this stage,’ an ally claims.
But this stage is the easy bit. The leadership election represents a safe space. At the moment he is cocooned by allies, acolytes, supporters and sycophants.
An increasingly distant recollection of the man who once took a nation and its capital by storm with his unique brand of vibrant, modern Conservatism. This morning that man is missing in action
It’s the moment he crosses the threshold of No 10 that things get real. When is he planning on cutting loose and throwing caution to the wind?
When he’s writing orders to the Trident submarine commanders? In the midst of an Election campaign where the future of the country is at stake? If he allows himself to be spooked by Stewart, what happens when he comes face to face with Vladimir Putin?
The second glaringly obvious fact is that Boris is not deploying obfuscation and evasion because he wants to keep his powder dry. It’s because he hasn’t got any powder.
His biggest blunder has been to prioritise cut taxes for those hard-pressed Britons struggling to get by on a meagre income of between £50,000 and £80,000 a year.
Yet no sooner had the gaffe occurred than his team was spinning it to his advantage. ‘That’s why we’re keeping him on a tight leash,’ they explained to disconcerted MPs. ‘Don’t worry, it won’t happen again.’ Which managed to pre-empt the basic question: ‘How the hell did it happen in the first place?’
The fight to replace Theresa May might be only a month old, but Boris has been preparing and agitating for this moment for years.
The fact he could make such a glaring mistake on an issue as fundamental as tax shows the basic foundations of his policies have yet to be constructed.
Which leads us to a third – even more dangerous – truth. Boris has consistently failed to articulate his strategy for the issue that will define his premiership – Brexit. And the reason he’s failed to articulate his strategy is because he doesn’t have one.
Last week I spoke to two Tory MPs from different sides of the Brexit debate.
The first – a senior ERG member – had spoken to Boris, and been convinced he was planning to leave the European Union on October 31 with No Deal.
‘He understands that if he doesn’t it will start to fall apart for him just like it did for Theresa. Only much more quickly,’ he said.
The second MP – a close Johnson ally – told me the opposite. ‘Boris will get concessions and a deal from the EU. They know he can drive something through the Commons. He’s also got enough credibility with the ERG to get them to make some concession too.’
Even after the dramas of the past 24 hours, he remains at 10-1 on to defeat Jeremy Hunt. But he has been acting like a rabbit caught in Rory Stewart’s headlights. For some reason, he allowed the International Development Secretary’s energetic but ephemeral campaign to rattle him
Which is a fantasy. But one many Tory MPs are prepared to indulge. They calculate – correctly – that Boris is the only person who can entice Tory defectors from the Brexit Party, while convincing the rest of the country to give their party one final chance.
But the nation’s future cannot rest on a blind hope that at some indeterminate point in the future the real Boris will turn up. Tory MPs and activists must demand he turns up. Now, before it’s too late.
The cocoon around Boris must be removed. If he cannot take a question from a journalist, or attend a debate, or allow any form of interrogation other than a friendly leadership hustings for fear of ‘imploding’, he has no business putting himself forward for the highest office in the land.
He also needs to provide more, not less, detail about what he intends to do with power. A policy moratorium is not evidence of fitness for the premiership – it’s evidence of a lack of preparedness for the premiership. This is not a moment in our history where we can afford a PM who makes it up on the hoof.
Not least when it comes to Brexit. In this area, more than any other, Boris must now speak with honesty and clarity. The commitment he has given to leave on October 31 is not a red line, it is a 20ft-high political razor wire.
There is no prospect of Boris or anyone else wringing sufficient concessions from the EU by October 31 to placate Brexit Party defectors. So there is now only one option – call an Election and win a majority and mandate for a No Deal departure.
The real Boris Johnson can win that Election. Labour remain deeply divided on Brexit. Corbyn continues to give the impression he cares more for the people of Tehran and Gaza than the people of Swindon or Sunderland. The combined Brexit Party and Conservative poll ratings dwarf those of their opponents.
But only the real Boris can win – not the current impostor.
There is only one person who can save the country from the nightmare of Corbynism.
And the British people cannot be asked to place their trust in Boris Johnson if he will not trust himself.
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