Boris Johnson does not like losing. John Bercow, the former House of Commons Speaker, recalls how he once played tennis against the prime minister. Mr Bercow turned up with new balls that would bounce normally but Mr Johnson threw in some balls he had discovered in the undergrowth “without any fur on them that hadn’t been used for probably 100 years”.
“It was a sort of trick at my expense,” Mr Bercow says with heavy irony. “But he was a good sport. He took his 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 defeat with grace and equanimity.”
Mr Johnson is not contemplating any such defeat in Britain’s general election on December 12. He is deploying in the campaign the kind of cold-eyed focus that saw him purge 21 Tory MPs from his party this year after they tried to frustrate his Brexit policy.
“One thing you have seen since he became prime minister is how ruthless he is,” says one member of the Johnson campaign team. “It has surprised me.” Mr Johnson knows the election is his to lose and he has become almost a campaign automaton, following instructions from his Australian adviser Isaac Levido to stick to a tight “get Brexit done” message, look serious and avoid jokes at all cost.
“It’s clear what the strategy is,” says one person close to Mr Johnson’s highly disciplined campaign. “Keep him out of tough debates, keep him away from the public, stick to the message, make him look prime ministerial.” Carrie Symonds, the prime minister’s partner, is credited with smartening him up: his hair is less disheveled, his suits marginally less baggy, the shirts crisp, the ties expensive.
Mr Johnson, speaking on a visit to Salisbury, denies he has been dodging scrutiny and in the Tory-voting cathedral city he engages in a rare public walkabout. He argues he has appeared on numerous debates and phone-ins, although he has ducked out of an interview with the BBC’s most feared interrogator, Andrew Neil. Mr Johnson insists: “As Socrates said: ‘The unscrutinised life is not the life of the man.’”
The prime minister has stopped drinking “until Brexit is done”, cutting back on his previous habit of enjoying red wine and eating cheese after a day’s campaigning. “I’m like a steel spring; I’m as fit as a butcher’s dog,” he boasts. To relax in the evening he claims that he “does a few quadratic equations and reads Presocratic philosophy”.
Katie Perrior, who worked with Mr Johnson on his first 2008 London mayoral campaign, recognises the changes in the candidate: “His patience, control and performance have improved considerably. He shows more sympathy and doesn’t get frustrated.” Jo Tanner, who also worked on the successful 2008 campaign, notes that Mr Johnson has cut out the “eye roll” that used to denote his annoyance or boredom with a line of questioning. “He has a poker face now,” she says.
In short, Mr Johnson is running a tight — some would say tepid — campaign. But so far it seems to be working. The Conservatives have enjoyed a 10-point lead over the Labour opposition for most of the campaign and the prime minister’s YouGov approval rating of minus 12, while not exactly stellar, is considerably better than the hard-left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s rating of minus 40.
Mr Johnson is lucky with his enemies. Mr Corbyn’s 1970s-style socialism is not just repellent to many voters browsing for gifts in wealthy Salisbury’s Christmas market, it is also turning away traditional Brexit-supporting Labour voters in the north.
Watching Mr Johnson on the campaign trail, weaving amid the stalls selling gingerbread and candles, it is easy to see that he wants power and senses it is within his grasp. The question is: what does he want to do with it?
There is a void at the heart of Mr Johnson’s campaign where one might have expected to find policy. After Theresa May’s ambitious 2017 manifesto blew up in spectacular style, Mr Johnson’s team deliberately scaled back policy commitments. Lynton Crosby, the Australian campaign guru who has long advised Mr Johnson and is still in regular contact, regards policies as a big distraction: “Barnacles on the boat.”
Jo Johnson, the prime minister’s younger brother, noted that if a manifesto was still being discussed 48 hours after its publication, you were in trouble. The Conservative manifesto at the heart of the 2019 campaign was so lifeless it was barely being discussed on the train home from the launch event in Telford, a Tory marginal seat in the West Midlands.
But Mr Johnson is vulnerable to the charge that people do not know what they are getting with him. He has been sacked twice in his career for lying: once as a journalist for making up a quote, and once as a Tory shadow minister for lying to his leader over an extramarital affair. “It is a question of trust,” said the BBC’s Mr Neil, challenging Mr Johnson to face his questions.
While the manifesto contained “retail offers” including a big increase in NHS funding, 20,000 additional police officers, a £20bn increase in infrastructure funding and a paltry £2-a-week tax cut for workers, it signally failed to provide any overarching vision of the country that Mr Johnson wanted to build.
On some of the biggest issues, there was a blank. Mr Johnson failed to honour his promise to set out detailed plans to tackle the country’s social care crisis, he refuses to say whether he would go ahead with the controversial High Speed 2 rail route from London to the north of England, and also dodged issues such as higher education funding.
There is also a vague, but threatening, reference to the “need to look at broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the government, parliament and the courts”. It suggests that Mr Johnson may want to take revenge against the Supreme Court after justices outlawed his attempt to suspend parliament ahead of the previous Brexit deadline on October 31.
The biggest hole of all lies behind Mr Johnson’s highly effective “get Brexit done” message. It was brought to the campaign by the prime minister’s allies from the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, who devised the equally punchy three-word “take back control” message. But it is a slogan, not a policy.
Mr Johnson and fellow ministers give the impression that Britain’s Brexit agony will end on January 31, by which point MPs will have enacted his “oven ready” withdrawal agreement, agreed with the EU in October. But that is just the divorce: Mr Johnson does not like discussing details of what are likely to be fraught negotiations with the EU on a future relationship. Mr Bercow, speaking at an FT banking summit, said the idea that Mr Johnson could complete Brexit quickly was “utter nonsense”.
Mr Johnson insists a “comprehensive” trade deal will be negotiated and ratified in months and that he will not extend the transition deal with the EU, which allows Britain to stay in a standstill arrangement until December 2020. Few trade experts agree that such a deal is possible on that timetable, especially given that Mr Johnson wants to diverge from the EU rule book. They also warn that even if it were possible, Brussels would have Britain over a barrel and that any “thin” trade deal agreed at breakneck speed would be very much to the EU27’s advantage.
Ivan Rogers, Britain’s former ambassador to the EU, says a “quick and dirty” trade deal focused on removing tariffs and quotas would delight the EU27, which enjoyed a £96bn surplus in trade in goods with the UK in 2018. Services, Britain’s biggest export strength, would barely be covered. The EU would insist on “level playing field” provisions to prevent the UK undercutting its neighbours with aggressive deregulation and — in a highly sensitive political battle to come — it would demand access to Britain’s fisheries.
“The EU is already well advanced in preparing to seize this glorious opportunity,” Sir Ivan says, arguing that Brussels will take full advantage of Mr Johnson’s desperation to secure a trade deal before his self-imposed December 2020 deadline. “It’s not that hard to score open goals.” Mr Johnson refuses to say what he would do if the deadline is missed, although the default setting is World Trade Organization rules, with tariffs and numerous other trade barriers going up overnight.
Sajid Javid, the chancellor, last week even suggested the agreement in October of a non-binding political declaration by the UK and EU on the principles of a deal meant that a deal was already in the bag: “We have agreed a fantastic new trade deal with the EU,” he told the BBC.
If this heroic optimism is misplaced, Mr Johnson could face a crisis: if no acceptable deal was in place he could either seek an extension to the transition deal and risk the wrath of Conservative Eurosceptics, or leave without a trade deal and fall over an economic cliff-edge. Or, as Sir Ivan predicts, Mr Johnson could be forced to grab a substandard deal from the UK perspective and try to sell it.
If the details of Mr Johnson’s policies on trade and many other issues remain obscure, the prime minister insists he will run a moderate Conservative administration, reminiscent of his approach in London’s City Hall from 2008-2016 when he built houses, improved public transport and offered amnesties to illegal immigrants. “We must go forward as a One Nation Conservative government,” he said in Salisbury.
“The Tory party after this election will look, sound and act very differently to the one we have known before,” says one adviser to Mr Johnson, pointing out that an election victory would entail Conservative MPs being returned by working class areas of the Midlands and north that were previously regarded as solidly Labour. “I think next time he will try to rebalance the cabinet, bring back some of the One Nation people.”
Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson and one of those Tory Europhile MPs booted out of the parliamentary party by the prime minister over Brexit — temporarily in his case — agrees: “Boris Johnson is by nature absolutely a One Nation Tory. Look at him as mayor of London. I’ve every confidence he will govern as one.”
There are signs in the manifesto that Mr Johnson is moving in that direction. His promise to build new roads and railways is an effort to spread prosperity beyond London and the south-east, while he is prioritising tax cuts for the low paid over his earlier proposal of a big tax cut for higher earners.
But in trying to secure a Tory coalition that includes new voters recruited in Britain’s poorer regions, Mr Johnson is also promising policies that smack more of Donald Trump-style populism than the liberal, pro-European policies traditionally favoured by One Nation Conservatives.
This month Mr Johnson said he wanted to revoke EU state aid rules to make it easier to bail out failing industries, while simultaneously proposing a “buy British” approach to public procurement. Many of the new “red Tories” of the north will favour a bigger state, tough restrictions on immigration and a robust approach to trade talks with the EU.
Chris Patten, former Tory chairman and chancellor of Oxford university, says he is unconvinced about Mr Johnson’s claim that he will lead a moderate government, not least because he has driven out of the party many pro-European MPs from the centrist tradition.
“What really outrages me is the idea that someone who has just pushed more than 20 really good One Nation Conservatives out of politics could then conceive of being a One Nation Conservative afterwards,” he says. Could the prime minister shift to the centre nevertheless? “The fact is, his principles are so flexible he could do almost anything. He’s surrounded himself with the Vote Leave campaign, so he’d have to leave quite a few corpses on the ground.”
As the election campaign enters its final few days, the British public, according to the opinion polls, seem willing to give Mr Johnson a chance. An Opinium survey last month found that Mr Johnson had a trustworthy rating of minus 14 per cent, but in an era when many voters do not trust politicians this may be less problematic than in the past. Crucially, 68 per cent of Leave voters do trust him on one thing: that he will deliver Brexit.
“The election is going to go down to the wire,” Mr Johnson said on his visit to Salisbury. But while the prime minister and his allies fret the public are fickle, there is a quiet confidence that Mr Johnson is heading back to Number 10 with a working majority. Once there he insists he will deliver Brexit and then govern for the whole country, bringing the nation back together.
Lord Patten says the country is being asked to take an awful lot on trust. “He’s not interested in governing — he’s interested in getting to the top,” he says. “That’s the long and the short of it. He’s capable of anything. He doesn’t believe in anything except Boris Johnson.”