Last week, Boris Johnson gave the third annual Margaret Thatcher lecture, organised by the Centre for Policy Studies. Most of the spluttering that followed has focused on what the Mayor of London is supposed to have said about the impossibility of equality, his remarks about IQ, and his comparisons between people and cornflakes.
Nick Clegg said: ‘I think these comments reveal a fairly unpleasant, careless elitism that suggests we should somehow give up on a whole swathe of our fellow citizens.’ On Sunday, George Osborne said of the equality/IQ point: ‘I wouldn’t have put it like that and I don’t agree with everything he said.’ When a reporter asked David Cameron, in Beijing, if Johnson ‘was speaking for the Conservative party when he mocked people with low IQs’, the prime minister replied: ‘I will let Boris speak for himself.’
This Wednesday, Boris Johnson spoke in public for the first time in a week. The presenter of the radio show he was on threw a few questions from IQ tests at him. He played for time with a trademark ‘Gah!’ and ‘It’s not about me!’ before naturally not being able to answer.
To potential sponsors, the Centre for Policy Studies describes the Margaret Thatcher lecture as its flagship event. Until recently, that spot belonged to the annual lecture in memory of the CPS’s founder, Keith Joseph. Michael Gove gave this year’s lecture in May, a month after Thatcher’s funeral. In his hour-long eulogy to the intellectual father of Thatcherism, Gove spoke about the achievements of the current Conservative government (no mention of the coalition), and how much Keith Joseph would have approved of its policies. The colleagues he praised by name and at length included Jeremy Hunt, Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa May, Chris Grayling, Eric Pickles, Greg Clark, Nick Boles and David Cameron. Last Wednesday, Johnson mentioned Gove very briefly, and wasted even less breath on Cameron (for being right to want to delay EU nationals claiming benefits).
Johnson isn’t a member of the government, but he wasn’t speaking as the mayor of London either. He was talking to the only electorate that matters to him: current and future Conservative members of parliament, and he used last week’s speech to present himself as Thatcher’s direct heir. To this end, he recalled the ‘paralysed’ 1970s and the fall of the Heath government, with mentions of ‘Red Robbo’ and Jack Jones, but not a word for the current chancellor. He was speaking to a mythic collective memory that not even he actually possesses; in a cutesy aside he spoke of a painting he had produced in 1975, when he was nine, titled: ‘Welcome to England, home of the economic crisis.’
The Conservative leadership election is the only contest Johnson will ever face (possibly against Gove, though he’s also worried about Osborne) in which he can be certain that the entire electorate – only Tory MPs in the first round – will vote. His problem is that he has no idea when or how this is going to happen, and he can’t be seen to be wishing for an outright Labour victory in 2015, though he undoubtedly is. The sidebar of the Telegraph’s politics pages is filled by a YouGov poll forecasting a Labour majority of 84 in 2015. There are 27 Lib Dem ministers, depriving backbench Conservatives of jobs they were expecting in 2010. It’s no wonder that the ministers quickest to condemn Boris for talking about IQ are those most identified with the coalition, who have the greatest interest in seeing him out of parliamentary politics.
Speaking in Edgbaston in 1974, Keith Joseph notoriously talked about the undesirability of children being born to ‘mothers who were first pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5’; Johnson is too calculating not to know that people would make the connection, but he’s safe on the actual words in context, as Joseph was not. As ever, when Johnson sets out to offend – from piccaninnies to the people of Liverpool – he aims for people who can’t hurt or will never vote for him. Since the chancellor has taken pains to deny he ever described one of his colleagues as ‘just not clever enough’, Johnson knows he’s on safe ground as far as arrogance goes.
Disgruntled, underemployed, precarious Conservative MPs have another problem, too. The party’s membership has halved since Cameron became leader. Grant Shapps, the party chairman, recently wrote to MPs to say that they should aim to convert 3 per cent of their voters into party members; only three Conservative Associations meet that target at the moment. Rich individuals and corporate donations pay for the party now. Last month, Johnson included the super-rich in his list of ‘put-upon’ minorities. And in the same radio interview in which he fluffed the IQ questions (it would have been rather worse if he’d aced them), he revealed that in six years of being mayor, he has never met Bob Crow, the leader of the RMT. Transport for London and the mayor recently announced plans for the tube to run 24 hours on a few lines at the weekend in 2015; at the same time, every single ticket office on the network will close. It was a clever announcement, which sets the interests of different Londoners and workers against each other, and Johnson will have many opportunities to pose as a union breaker, at very little cost. It’s no coincidence that the third union leader from the past he chose to mention was (the rather moderate) Jimmy Knapp of the RMT.
It’s hard to see why Johnson would risk standing as an MP at the next election, when the result for him is so unpredictable. There’s a curious ambiguity in the rules for Conservative leadership elections. They’re clear about the process and who can vote, but nowhere explicitly state that you have to be an MP to be nominated. Party leaders have been elected since 1965; before that they ‘emerged’ after discussions among the grandees. The more open system was introduced by Alec Douglas-Home following his own not entirely popular emergence. Douglas-Home was leader without a seat in Parliament for three weeks between resigning his peerage and winning the Kinross and West Perthshire by-election. If Johnson were elected leader of the party without a seat in the Commons, one obliging supporter or another could no doubt be prevailed on to shuffle over to make room for him.