The political media like to converge on a consensus of events and to do so very quickly after something has taken place. Yesterday’s Boris Johnson rambling into a microphone for six minutes is no exception. What had been briefed heavily beforehand was that unless MPs give up on their quest to get legislation through the House stopping no deal from happening on October 31st, or unless that legislation fails to pass for whatever reason, Johnson will seek a general election to take place on October 14th. Every key journalist in the bubble was briefed the exact same message, so this was consciously put out for public consumption by Downing Street.
Then, Johnson came out of Number 10 and said, well, nothing at all. That he was going to fight to get Brexit done, come what may, blah, blah, blah. The one thing of substance he did mention was that he would never seek an extension from the EU. This implies a general election is coming – yet Johnson shied away from saying so, even though it was everywhere already because Downing Street had briefed the bloody date of this prospective election to the press. Did he get cold feet? I think he did.
Johnson is a brilliant orator, whatever you think of him in any other respect. He uses a lot of different techniques, akin to shots in a cricketing batsman’s arsenal, from the “I’m so confused all of a sudden, let’s move on” manoeuvre, to the “make a joke to change the subject” shtick. As a result, whenever Johnson speaks, political journalists make the automatic assumption that whatever he’s doing, even if it seems chaotic and off-piste, is a deliberate tactic. So, we get the press saying that Johnson was trying to make it seem like he was the one who didn’t want an election and he was being forced into it. Ah, brilliant Boris stuff again, they all say. Except, I don’t think so. What I saw last night was a very rattled Boris Johnson who is ever so slightly cacking it at present. And I don’t really blame him.
I think the fact that Stewart and Hammond are holding firm must be scary for him. The deselection threat was clearly meant to dispel the rebellion and it hasn’t worked. Trying to deselect someone like Hammond is tricky, not just politically, but practically as well. The Conservative party is much less centralised than is often assumed by casual observers of politics, and trying to get an MP deselected over the wishes of his association would require changing the way the party runs on a fundamental level. The blow back from that is hard to gauge, but could be monumentally damaging in the medium to long term for the Tories.
What I saw last night was a scared Boris Johnson, whatever the newspapers say. Again, I can hardly blame him. While he could still come out smelling of roses from all this, majority in hand, that is a very long way from certain. I recall another guy who went to Eton who rode his luck again and again to become prime minister. Everything always worked out for him in the end, just like it does for Boris.
His name is David Cameron.