Conservative politician and former London Mayor Boris Johnson's seemingly unstoppable rise through the ranks of British society has finally been halted. His chances of reaching 10 Downing Street, the realization of a life-long dream, have been denied by Michael Gove—a man who once slipped on a banana on his way to that very address. Just hours after Gove launched his campaign in the race to be Prime Minister, Johnson said of his own prospects: "I have concluded that person cannot be me."
Things were never meant to turn out this way. Teflon Boris—so called because of his inexplicable ability to climb the political ladder despite an ongoing series of fuck-ups that would have sunk any of his colleagues—seemed destined for the top job. It is ironic that the EU referendum campaign, an opportunity which Johnson grasped with both hands, was the point at which the dream began to unravel. So how did it all go so wrong?
In the hours after the EU referendum results were announced, Johnson took time out to write his regular column for the Telegraph. Four months earlier, he had joined the Leave campaign in a transparent attempt to boost his leadership credentials among the Eurosceptic Tory ranks. Now, David Cameron had resigned as Prime Minister and the time had come for Johnson to demonstrate his statesman-like qualities. Having successfully campaigned to secure an end to Britain's 43-year membership of the European project, he wrote: "I cannot stress too much that Britain is part of Europe, and always will be."
We all have coping strategies, and it appeared Johnson's was denial.
Most of us suspected Johnson never really wanted to leave the EU. Having unexpectedly secured victory for the Leave campaign, he now seemed to be pretending it hadn't happened. Unfortunately for Johnson, his claim that Britain's relationship with Europe will be business as usual has been swiftly refuted by Brussels. His own team has since acknowledged that the column was a cock-up, with a senior member briefing the Times that it had sent mixed messages and was "written too quickly" when he was tired.
This was the man now seen by some as Britain's leader-in-waiting. Michael Gove was widely expected to be supporting his bid. Instead, Gove announced his own challenge this morning—essentially destroying Johnson's chances and opening the contest up to a field of candidates. "I respect and admire all the candidates running for the leadership," he said. "In particular, I wanted to help build a team behind Boris Johnson so that a politician who argued for leaving the European Union could lead us to a better future. But I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead."
Looking at Johnson's recent record, it is hard to disagree.
Were Johnson to win the leadership battle, one of his greatest challenges would have been to steer the economy through the troubling times ahead. He seemed unfazed by the prospect. On May 22, he wrote a Telegraph column in which he imagined a page from a history book written a few decades in the future, about post-Brexit Britain. "Project Fear turned out to be a gigantic hoax," he wrote. "The markets were calm. The pound did not collapse." It is a view he reiterated this week, but unfortunately one that had already been proven to be completely false. In the wake of the referendum result, the pound plummeted. Markets were rocked, and ratings agency Standard & Poor's stripped the UK of its coveted AAA credit rating. Johnson's policy was to Keep Calm & Carry On in the face of mounting evidence that we are facing economic meltdown.
On perhaps the biggest issue of the referendum campaign, Johnson was out of step with those who backed his calls to leave the EU. In 2013, he described himself as "probably about the only politician I know of who is actually willing to stand up and say that he's pro-immigration" and as London mayor he praised the contribution made by immigrants to the UK. In a leadership bid he would have been forced to reconcile that stance with the fact that many Leave supporters voted for greater controls over immigration—and the more worrying development that the referendum result has led to a reported increase in hate crimes.
Much of the public opposition to immigration has emerged from perceived pressure on public services, such as GP waiting lists and housing. This is not an area in which Johnson has a good record. During eight years as mayor, he spectacularly failed to tackle any of London's most pressing problems—an unprecedented housing crisis, the spiraling cost of living, and increasing inequality between rich and poor. Instead, he left behind a trail of broken promises, on Tube ticket offices, homelessness, and transport fares. We can already see the same approach being taken by the Leave campaign, which since the referendum result has removed all its campaign pledges from its website, including a promise to provide the NHS with the £350 million [$464 million] each week which it claimed was being paid to the EU. Boris's time as mayor would have given his opponents ample ammunition to throw at him.
Then there is Britain's place in the wider world. In the run-up to the referendum, Johnson displayed his error of judgement with comments about Barack Obama's "part-Kenyan" heritage. At times, he has displayed levels of tact and cultural awareness resembling those of Prince Philip at a bachelor party. The referendum campaign dented his image as a lovable buffoon as he appealed to the nastier instincts of the Leave campaign.
One of Johnson's most memorable political moments came during the London Olympics in 2012, when he became stuck halfway down a zipwire. Those images of Johnson, helpless but enthusiastically waving two Union Jacks, were oddly reminiscent of the situation we found ourselves in post-Brexit. Britain's current crisis is another high-wire act that Johnson was unfit to tackle. Now, more than ever, the country desperately needs a leader. We have narrowly escaped being given a clown.
Follow Mark Wilding on Twitter.