The Mail Online had a feature on Boris Johnson campaigning in Walsall for Thursday’s local elections. It’s the kind of thing Johnson does well, the kind of thing he does best indeed. There he was being photographed, being kissed by admiring women, chatting to pensioners, patting a big dog, pouring and drinking a pint in a pub, making a butcher at the farmer’s market laugh. Johnson is better at this sort of stuff than any other Tory. He’s better at it than anyone in British politics today – except perhaps Farage. He’s as good at it as Alex Salmond used to be in Scotland.
On his best days, doing this sort of thing, he reminds me of Denry Machin, hero of Arnold Bennett’s novel “The Card”, played by Alec Guinness in the excellent 1952 film (scripted by Eric Ambler). Denry is a poor boy on the make. When he has indeed made it, a pompous or stuffy councillor asks indignantly to what worthy cause he has ever committed himself. “Why”, replies the Countess of Chell (played by Valerie Hobson, the future Mrs Jack Profumo) “to the great cause of cheering us all up”.
Well, yes, and Johnson at his best cheers up the Party Faithful. There’s no doubt about that. So it’s quite likely that a majority of the loyal, if dwindling, band of Conservative Party members will vote for him in a leadership election, should he be one of the two candidates to emerge from the rounds of voting by Tory MPs. Some of these, a good many probably, will have their doubts about Johnson, but even the doubters may opt for him if they listen to the members of a constituency association. Johnson is not only a card in the sense in Arnold Bennett’s use of the word; he may seem the last card the Tories have to play. Yet the doubts are real. Bennett’s Denry Machin wasn’t only a card; he was a bit of a twister, unscrupulous about money, and two-timed his girl-friends.