Richard North, 14/06/2019  

Now would be a good time to remind ourselves how awful Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson really is. But we've already been there, pace Max Hastings and his 2012 article headed: "Boris Johnson: brilliant, warm, funny – and totally unfit to be PM".

Nothing has changed since then, but nothing is going to. We're currently engulfed in a psychic epidemic and people have stopped thinking. The fever must work its way through the system and until it has broken there is no hope of any rationality.

Yet, despite the first round results, where Mr Johnson is showing a solid lead with 114 votes - while Jeremy Hunt is trailing in a distant second place with a mere 43 votes – it ain't quite over yet. According to the Guardian, his rivals are in talks about joining forces to mount a "stop Boris" coalition.

Theoretically, it is possible that saner voices will prevail as Johnson still doesn't have half the MPs behind him, but he already has enough votes to make the final cut. This guarantees that his name is put in front of the membership – unless some of his current supporters drop out. And the received wisdom is that the members will go for their boy.

The push-back, therefore, is probably a forlorn hope but I suspect the Guardian will doubtless keep trying right up to the time that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and his ghastly entourage moves into Number 10.

Possibly, the only thing that will stop this is if Johnson himself puts his foot in it, which is on the cards – hence his minders' concern to keep him out of the spotlight, even to the extent of avoiding television debates with other candidates.

His refusal so far to agree is creating a degree of adverse publicity and may backfire on him. His advisors have to calculate whether the downside of keeping Johnson gaffe-free is greater than allowing him into a position of vulnerability, where he can blow his entire campaign in a few ill-considered minutes.

That, of course, should tell his potential supporters something – a potential prime minister who has to be kept out of the public eye in case he makes a fatal mistake which keeps him from reaching his goal. And how do we keep him out of the public eye when (if) he is prime minister?

For the moment though, we will have to wait for the next ballot of MPs. This will be on Tuesday, with further rounds on Wednesday and possibly Thursday, until only two candidates are left. But it is a sign of the nervousness of Johnson's supporters that they are trying to pressure what they are calling "vanity" candidates to drop out, in order to cut the contest short.

Obviously, the shorter the time, the less chance there is for Johnson to make a terminal gaffe. But if it is a bit of a stretch to expect him to keep on the straight and narrow until 22 July, when the members' vote result is in, how long do they expect him to remain gaffe-free if he actually gets into Number 10?

That said, I'm already bored sick with the soap opera. I would sooner be debating Brexit except that, as already pointed out, there's not much point. Rather than taking back control, we're largely in the hands of the "colleagues" and a no-deal scenario is going to make us dependent on the goodwill of Member States and the EU institutions.

But, if there is no intention (or ability) to reactivate the Withdrawal Agreement – and there is no intention to mount another referendum or revoke the Article 50 notification, then the direction of travel leads us inexorably to a no-deal Brexit. Parliamentary shenanigans and brave talk about blocking a no-deal is of no avail. All Johnson has to do is sit on his hands – or fail to secure talks and a linked extension – and we're automatically out of the EU.

After all this time, it still hasn't really dawned on the MP collective – or the generality of the leadership candidates – that a no-deal exit is the default position. Johnson – or anyone else for that matter – doesn't have to "force through" a no-deal. They just have to do nothing and let events take their course.

A showman such as Johnson might dress it up a little, or even stage a heroic failure. Playing to the gallery, it would be very easy to set up a round of shuttle diplomacy, with the "gallant" new prime minister dashing through the European capitals with his very own proposal to break the impasse.

When the initiative fails, as indeed it would have to, he could then attribute the failure to the obduracy of the EU, and invoke the Dunkirk spirit. Anyone stupid enough to vote for Johnson would probably be stupid enough to be taken in by that pitch. Dumping the blame on the EU would have obvious tactical advantages.

But, if the only real outcome of the leadership race is a no-deal Brexit, one might perhaps question whether it even makes any difference who actually wins. In effect, we will not be looking for someone with great negotiating skills – it takes no skill at all to allow a default position to kick in.

What will be at a premium is management skills under crisis conditions, managing the consequences of us leaving without a formal agreement in place. And it is here that Johnson can be expected to be uniquely unqualified, other than to intensify the problems and make a glorious mess even messier.

The thing is, though, that the one thing virtually everyone can agree upon about Johnson is, as Peter Oborne puts it, that he is not to be trusted. Oborne himself argues that Johnson has "a great brain" – of which there is little evidence – but the real issue is that, whatever Johnson might claim as a Brexit strategy cannot be relied upon.

Such is his star quality, says Oborne, that he commands blind devotion among many voters, including even old-fashioned Labour types who are otherwise contemptuous of politicians. But, he adds, "Mr Johnson is distrusted and even detested. Big questions still surround him, and they weren't dispelled in the course of yesterday's press conference".

Already, we see the man veering between embracing the no-deal as the optimum scenario, to reluctantly accepting it in the event of a failure to renegotiate. But now we're even seeing him stealing the clothes of his rival Michael Gove, suggesting that he "may delay Brexit by a few weeks" if he becomes prime minister.

This drives a cart and horse through his declaration that we must leave on 31 October, come what may, asserting that "if we kick the can we kick the bucket". But, when we're dealing with a serial liar, another lie is par for the course. The only time one can ever be certain what Johnson will do is after he has done it. And even then, it may be an accident.

Necessarily, any extension will depend on the approval of the European Council and, at this stage, we cannot know whether an application for more time would be favourably treated, especially as the new Commission will not be in place when an application comes in. Arguably, with Johnson in place, the Council might be even less likely to approve than it might otherwise be.

The worst of it all, however, is that in the madness of this current climate, such calculations are irrelevant. If the Tory party membership remains besotted with Johnson, and is thinking selfishly about electoral survival, then it is a matter of inevitability that we end up with him as prime minister.

The only thing one really wonders about is whether we will see any less resort to the claim that European Commission officials are unelected. With an unelected prime minister – and one who is by any measure unfit for office – the UK will somehow have lost any moral authority to cast aspersions about democracy.

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