Until yesterday, David Cameron and Boris Johnson shared an unbeaten record in big political contests.
No longer. Cameron — the Tories’ biggest political winner in a quarter of a century — has finally lost to the biggest political character of the age. The Prime Minister announced his resignation today.
Before the European referendum, Cameron had four victories under his belt: the Tory leadership contest, the Coalition election win, the Scottish referendum and last year’s overall majority win. Boris only had his two mayoral election wins.
Now the political tectonic plates have shifted. The age of Cameron and Osborne is giving way to the age of Johnson alone. For all his affability, charm and jokes, Boris is essentially a loner — as I learned from five years working with him at the Daily Telegraph.
He is also an adventurous risk-taker. And now the biggest gamble in his life has come off. The long march to No 10 — which Boris has been planning since childhood — is nearly over.
The Brexit gamble was typical of him. The odds were against victory for most of the campaign — Boris himself was saying yesterday that Brexit would lose. But never underestimate Boris.
He knew that it would have been political suicide to launch a leadership coup against Cameron. Instead, he did the next best thing — he hitched his wagon to Brexit, the only movement that could conceivably shift Cameron from Downing Street. Boris’s gambling, risk-loving spirit was also fitted to the anti-authoritarian, anti-politician spirit of the age.
It was typical of Boris that he said this week he’d be happy to end his career over the referendum and yet it was not his career that was lost. The moment Boris came out for Brexit, he knew the chances of winning were limited. He would never have thrown away his lifetime’s goal — to become Prime Minister — on a single spectacular gamble.
Even if he had lost yesterday, the rules of a Tory leadership election were in his favour, but he would have had to wait three or four years for David Cameron to stand down of his own accord. Now, Boris is just heading for Downing Street much more quickly.
In that leadership election, Tory MPs vote for two members to stand, before a ballot of the Conservative membership. Boris is almost certain to be one of those two members; and the membership, which is 75 per cent Eurosceptic, will vote for him in their droves.
Before the referendum Boris pledged loyalty to the Prime Minister in the case of a Brexit.
But it is was not in Boris’s gift to save Dave. Before the referendum, Cameron had said he wanted to stay on after a Brexit vote but, as he put it today, he fought the campaign head, heart and soul. The British people rejected him and this morning they embarked on their different paths.
And so, once again, the political dice have fallen Boris’s way — he can pledge loyalty, and still book the removal vans to take him from Islington to Downing Street.
Boris has dreamt of becoming Prime Minister ever since his schooldays at Eton, alongside one David Cameron. People like to think the two men have similar characters because of that shared Eton and Oxford education. But are you the same as the people you went to school with?
Boris’s character could hardly be more different from David Cameron’s. And it is through the prism of their different characters that you can see why these two Conservatives — who share so many political views — were divided by Europe. And why, in the end, the gambling outsider beat the patrician, safe pair of hands.
As Boris’s sister, Rachel Johnson, told me: “Brexit attracts rebels with the light of distant horizons in their eyes who hate being told what to do, who probably had dominant fathers or bullying headmasters. Bremainers are risk-averse, keep-a-hold-of-nurse prefects.”
Boris is certainly an unbiddable rebel, his eyes illuminated by the not-so-distant horizon of Downing Street. That rebellious spirit was partly forged by his peripatetic childhood. He was born in New York and spent much of his childhood in Brussels.
His Turkish background adds to the unconventional mix of his character — he should really be called Boris Kemal. His paternal great-grandfather was Ali Kemal, an Ottoman journalist and minister of justice, murdered in 1922 in the Turkish War of Independence. Throw in the divorce of Boris’s parents when he was a teenager and you build a fuller picture of his character: independent, tough, driven, risk-taking.
These things explain why Boris — for all the hyper-English, Wodehousian quotes and the Churchill and Shakespeare biographies — is something of an outsider.
Meanwhile, Cameron’s childhood was rooted in the happy marriage of his parents and a never-changing home — his mother and older brother still live in Peasemore, Berkshire, where the Camerons grew up.
Cameron is by no means a wallflower — his confidence is considerable. But that safe-as-houses background and his extremely strong marriage have forged his steady-as-she-goes, pragmatic, undogmatic, dutiful politics.
They have served him well, making him the greatest Tory election winner since Margaret Thatcher was turfed out of office 26 years ago. (I must declare an interest here; Cameron is my second cousin.) And yet in the end I voted for Boris’s Brexit.
But even Cameron’s impressive record could not withstand two irresistible forces: the referendum loss and the blond Exocet missile now aimed at the front door of No 10.