David Leask: Who is to blame for Boris Johnson?

We were warned. We knew that Boris Johnson was bad news long before he made it in to No. 10, long before the chaos and calamity of Covid.

Remember, way back in 2013, how the now prime minister and then mayor of London was grilled on his character, on his integrity, by the broadcaster Eddie Mair?

Live on Sunday morning TV, Mr Johnson was asked about why he was sacked from The Times for making up a quote, why he had lied to a former leader of his party about having an affair and why he had – to use his own words – “humoured” a friend who asked for the address of a reporter he wanted to have beaten up.

Many of us recall Mr Mair’s killer question: “You are a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?”, he asked the future leader of Britain. But it was Mr Johnson’s response that sticks in my mind, even now: the wry smile, the dismissive headshake, the bumbling demands to change the subject. The then mayor knew he would get away with it. Probably because he always had.

Scroll forward eight years and the Johnson administration limps on, mired in what we reporters coyly refer to as “sleaze”, and reeking of incompetence. “Boris” is getting the blame. But nobody seems to be asking: who is to blame for Boris?

He was after all, “unfit for national office”, according to one of his old editors. Why? Because, the former Telegraph chief Max Hastings wrote, Mr Johnson “cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification”.

So how did he get to govern?

There were several points at which he could have been stopped. Ultimately, voters could have binned him in December 2019. A good few in England obviously thought even less of Jeremy Corbyn, a man with a truly spectacular history of making the wrong call and who only this month voted against some Mr Johnson’s modest Covid restrictions.

Had voters south of the border put their crosses in a different box two years ago this column might well have been about who to blame for Jeremy, not Boris.

In Scotland, a fair segment of pro-UK Scottish opinion was obviously also willing to overlook concerns about Mr Johnson’s character to back the Tories and, they hoped, shore up the union. In retrospect, maybe not their smartest move: the Johnson premiership has been a gift for Scottish nationalism, even if it has resisted a second referendum.

Of course, before that election Conservatives could have stopped Mr Johnson. Other candidates for leadership were available when Theresa May stepped down. Rory Stewart, one of the now PM’s opponents for the party leadership, gave them the reasons to vote otherwise. He has called Mr Johnson “the most accomplished liar in public life”. But Tories did not seem worried, not enough of them anyway.

There are lots of potential culprits for somebody like Mr Johnson even getting close to power. I understand Mr Hastings’ regret. But he tolerated the now PM as a “flamboyant Brussels correspondent”. Why? I can think of a lot of qualities I would want in a reporter covering the often complex, layered world of the EU. Flamboyance would not be an obvious one.

Can we then pin some of the “blame for Boris” on the strain of less-than-serious contrarianism that has infected, maybe even toxified parts – but far from all – of the right-wing media? Maybe.

As a journalist, what I am about to write makes me uncomfortable. Mr Johnson may represent the worst of our trade but he has emerged from it and that is not to our credit.

Others have pointed the finger for “Boris” at an unserious culture they see running through independent schooling or Oxbridge, where politics is seen as a game whose players never really lose; the rest of us do. Consequences, as they say, are for other people.

It is easy to parody Mr Johnson as an overconfident Etonian toff. Is it fair? Perhaps not. Still, there are grounds for some uncomfortable reflection in private education about the calibre and character of some of the high-profile public schoolboys now in power.

There is plenty of blame to be apportioned for Mr Johnson’s elevation to high public office. But I keep thinking of the Eddie Mair interview back in 2013. It was two years before the future PM was re-elected to the House of Commons as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

So I have this question: how did he become an approved candidate? Me? I would have thought a track record of lying, according to many of his own colleagues, would have been – should have been – a problem. Apparently not.

Only last week the former speaker of the house, John Bercow – using language that he would have considered unparliamentary in his old job – referred to Mr Johnson as an “habitual liar”.

It is not like this character trait was unknown a decade ago, before he got selected to stand for Uxbridge.

And that leaves us with a question. Is the entire hopeless Johnson premiership – with its botched Brexit and scandals over lockdown parties, Owen Paterson and PPE contracts – the result of a straightforward vetting failure?

Let us not pretend that it is just one party that sometimes allows inadequate candidates to stand for public office.

All political hues occasionally throw up terrible candidates, including people who might have what it takes to be elected, but certainly are not good enough to govern.

There is a whole political machinery for finding, vetting and selecting candidates. For Conservatives, there is even a cottage industry of consultants who, for the right payment, will groom those who wish to get on to the Tory approved list.

This is not a perfect system. But party vetting and discipline can and does stop unsuitable, inadequate people getting their faces on leaflets that are shoved through our doors at election time.

Cynics will no doubt read this and wonder how some of our elected members got approved to run.

We are rough on our politicians, we think little of them. But most of them are not liars, or cranks, or creeps. In fact, in my experience, most are, well, nice. Why? Like-ability is a core skill.

Vetting will not catch all the wrong ’uns. There are always those, like former First Minister Alex Salmond, who will emerge as “inappropriate” only during or after office.

But is it really that much to ask parties not to put up candidates like Boris Johnson who have already disqualified themselves? Liars, for example.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Herald.

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