Our generation’s Winston Churchill or the jester representing a party facing imminent electoral oblivion? Two distinct possibilities that could turn out to be the way in which Boris Johnson is remembered. And it all depends on how he faces down the greatest political question this country has faced since the second world war. Sadly, Johnson’s history gives a significant hint that it will be the latter rather than the former. It may mean that many Brexiteers who rally against a betrayal by the “establishment” may be forced to endure a betrayal by their own man.
Our new prime minister faces a stark choice: deliver Brexit or be condemned to a generation in opposition. With such a choice, Conservative party members concluded, overwhelmingly, that he was the man to defeat the terror of Jeremy Corbyn, deliver on Brexit, and supposedly unite the country.
His support reached such a fever pitch that little attention was afforded to the lack of a tangible plan to remove the UK from the EU. Indeed, Boris’s plan only appears to cover him being crowned king – and nothing more. A man of humour and potentially even passion he may be, but a man of ideology he is not.
Our new leader will, of course, champion the idea of a no-deal Brexit, but he will always be the first to blink in a contest with the EU. Their officials have far better and more experiences poker faces than Boris does. They know that, deep down, he believes that he has more to lose than them.
In a contest between a European Union which cannot allow Britain to be a successful example of how to leave the EU’s grip, and Boris Johnson whose very support for Brexit is doubtful, Boris will blink first.
He was, after all, a man who was largely undecided when it came to campaigning for remain or leave, as underlined by his penning of two contradicting articles on the matter.
This is the man who, of course, wrote: “I am a raving Euro-federalist … a pro-European of the most violent dyspeptic and incurable disposition”. It is as Homer wrote in the Iliad, “hateful to me as the gates of Hades is that man who hides one thing in the heart and speaks another.”
Despite the ongoing political confusion, certain political facts remain clear. Boris will not be able to prorogue Parliament because there is no majority to do so. Conservatives who believe that staunchly remain MPs led by Ken Clarke would choose no deal over a Corbyn government are widely mistaken. Mr Clarke and his ilk are the same MPs who brought down Margaret Thatcher, one of the west’s most electorally successful leaders in living memory. They will have no issue over confronting Mr Johnson.
This is the conundrum that the Conservative party faces: they cannot deliver Brexit without a general election, but they cannot win a general election without delivering Brexit.
Boris’s only remaining option will be to unleash the chaos of a general election to change the parliamentary arithmetic. And another election means another extension from the EU, with each one eroding the party’s pledge to both take the UK out of the EU and to provide a “strong and stable” government.
In 2015, the party’s majority was obtained through capturing votes from both the Liberal Democrats and Ukip. This time, the Brexit party led by Nigel Farage’s populist rhetoric of an establishment betrayal will steal votes across the spectrum, while Remainers will be hoovered up by the Liberal Democrats reinvigorated under their new leader Jo Swinson.
The result of such an election could be that just enough Labour voters deliver Corbyn a minority Government, as witnessed by the Peterborough by-election. And we would then not only have one constitutional crisis, but also the potential break-up of the British union if Corbyn grants the SNP another independence referendum in return for support in the house.
The other result could be that we end up in the same situation with another minority Conservative government. Johnson will have used his ace cards and the only option left will be to pass a similar version of Theresa May’s deal or a second referendum.
And there is still a strong chance that Mr Johnson will push for some version of Theresa May’s deal. He will give it a different name, and there would be a few tweaks. Such a deal could find a majority with numerous Labour MPs stating that they would have voted for Theresa May’s deal if it had come to the house a fourth time.
Similarly, the ERG would face disowning “one of their own” and the accusation that no Brexit deal is good enough for them if they refused to support it. Given the support that the ERG has lent to Mr Johnson, it would be a long ladder to climb down now to claim that he is one of the Brexit betrayers.
The alternative is vastly more uncertain. Nobody knows what a second referendum might bring. It is entirely likely that it could produce a second Brexit vote from a public all too aware of the nefarious attempt to overrule their previous vote.
However, the previous referendum was largely won by three million people voting to leave who had never voted before. Many of these people previously believed that voting didn’t make a difference, but saw a vote to leave as their one chance to have their voices heard. There is a strong likelihood that many of these voters will fail to turn out a second time.
Similarly, many centrist voters despise overbearing EU regulations and the EU’s political agenda but find themselves unable to weather the ongoing political instability. With everything from housing sales to investment slowing down, many may be forced to begrudgingly vote to remain or spoil their ballots.
Far from being the saviour of the Conservative party, there is a strong possibility that Boris Johnson may end up betraying the very promises he made to get elected. Brexiteers who have only known the hand of betrayal should be wary of assuming Mr Johnson a friend.