The spectacular collapse of Boris Johnson’s Prime Ministerial hopes earlier today have a striking historical parallel. Boris is not – and never has been – the Donald Trump or Winston Churchill of contemporary British politics, or even the Falstaff or Dennis the Menace. Johnson’s career, and its apparent demise, now bear an uncanny resemblance to a half-forgotten giant of Conservative politics: Quintin Hogg, Viscount Hailsham (1907-2001).
The similarities between Quintin and Boris – both politicians who were almost always known by their first name only – are manifold. Not only are they both Etonians, they both studied Classics at Oxford (Hogg went to Christ Church, Johnson to Balliol), and they both served as president of the Oxford Union (57 years apart: Hogg in 1929, Johnson in 1986).
While still in their thirties, they both then became Conservative MPs for Oxfordshire seats (Johnson for Henley, Hogg for Oxford itself) and both soon acquired a reputation for changing their minds on matters of national importance. Hogg had been elected as a Chamberlainite, pro-appeasement candidate in the Oxford by-election of 1938, but later turned against Chamberlain and backed Churchill’s coup in 1940. Similarly Johnson has repeatedly changed his mind on the Iraq war, the European Union (and Turkey’s accession to it), and immigration over his 15-year political career.
Both Hogg and Johnson had American, or partly American, mothers. Both had a strong political pedigree: Hogg’s father had been Lord Chancellor under Stanley Baldwin; Johnson’s father Stanley is a former Tory MEP. Both had a big hinterland: mountain-climbing and the Bar for Hogg; adultery and journalism for Johnson. Behind the buffonery both were serious intellects and prolific authors: in 1945 Hogg wrote The Left was Never Right, a fierce response to Guilty Men by Frank Owen and Michael Foot, in 1947 The Case for Conservatism, and later two autobiographies (The Door Wherein I Went and A Sparrow’s Flight). Both had childless first marriages: Hogg to Natalie Sullivan (1931-43), Johnson to Allegra Mostyn-Owen (1987–93), before they both quickly remarried and had lots of children (Hogg had five, Johnson has four).
Both were known for their robust rhetoric, theatrical gestures, and barnstorming conference speeches (Hogg’s addresses were remembered for decades afterwards, as Johnson’s may well be). At the 1957 conference Hogg, then Conservative chairman, frantically rang a hand-bell on the stage to energise the party faithful, starting an annual party trick that you could easily imagine Johnson indulging in.
Both were slightly overweight political chameleons. Both craved publicity, controversial soundbites and robust arguments with hecklers (when a Labour Party supporter waved a Harold Wilson placard in front of him in the 1964 election campaign, Hogg smacked it with his walking stick). Crucially, both were narcissists who wanted to be adored, and were privately horrified whenever they weren’t.
Both were junior ministers before taking a break from the House of Commons in their mid-40s (Hogg succeeded to his father’s Viscountcy in 1950 so had to resign as an MP; Johnson became mayor of London in 2008 and gave up his Henley seat). Both Hogg and Johnson then pursued their political careers outside the Commons: Johnson in City Hall and TV studios; Hogg in the upper House, where he served as First Lord of the Admiralty and then as Leader of the Lords (he also served as Rector of Glasgow University). Neither shone during this mid-career period: Hogg had to try to defend Eden’s handling of the Suez crisis, while Johnson was a mediocre mayor of London whose election and re-election said more about the weakness of his opponent, Ken Livingstone, than about his own strength.
Like Johnson (who returned to parliament in 2015 as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, in west London) Hogg realised that he would have to return to the House of Commons to stand a chance of becoming Leader: in 1963 he announced that he would use the newly enacted Peerage Act to renounce his title and fight a by-election in his father’s old constituency of St Marylebone, also in west London. They were both in their early fifties when they challenged for the Conservative leadership (in both cases, aiming to succeed an Etonian incumbent who had entered Number Ten six years earlier).
And both were regarded as frontrunners. In 1963 Hogg, or Viscount Hailsham as he was then formally known, was at first Harold Macmillan’s preferred successor, just as Johnson was until he disagreed with David Cameron over Europe. But both Johnson and Hogg were then undone by vulgar publicity-seeking. Hogg’s antics at the 1963 party conference in Blackpool – feeding his baby daughter in public and allowing his supporters to distribute “Q” (for Quintin) badges – appalled Macmillan, who began to discourage party grandees from anointing Hogg as his successor. Lord Home, who soon renounced his title and returned to the Commons as Alec Douglas-Home, “emerged” as Conservative party leader instead.
One can easily imagine that if there had been an anti-European bandwagon at the time, Hogg would have jumped on it, noisily (ironically, in late 1963 the Tory government was furious with De Gaulle for having blocked Britain’s bid to join the Common Market earlier that year).
Hogg never became Tory leader but he did have the last laugh, rapidly becoming an elder statesman (he served on the shadow cabinet for the rest of the 1960s) and eerily predicting his future tenure as Lord Chancellor. In 1963 he remarked to a journalist “After all, I am only 55. Perhaps about 1970 if there was a Tory government some ass might make me Lord Chancellor” (in 1970 Edward Heath did indeed make him Lord Chancellor and Thatcher reappointed him in the 1980s: Hogg finally retired in 1987, aged 80). Far from falling into obscurity Hogg continued as a top-flight politician for the next quarter-century: a similar role for Boris Johnson – who is still only 52 – could well now follow.
There is one crucial difference between Hogg and Johnson (other than Hogg’s peerage and Johnson’s London mayoralty): Hogg’s leadership bid went down to the wire in 1963, while Johnson has decided to fall on his sword just before the contest formally started. But there was no official contest in 1963, only a series of discussions in smoke-filled rooms until Macmillan suggested that the Queen invite Douglas-Home to the palace to ask him to form a government; had today’s procedures applied in 1963 it is easy to imagine Hogg calling a press conference and dramatically announcing at its end that he would not be a candidate after all.
Johnson’s abandonment of his leadership bid is a historical turning point, as well as being eerily familiar. Johnson is an archetypally self-confident Balliol man, a graduate of an Oxford college which produced three of the last 19 prime ministers (Asquith, Macmillan and Heath), and several men who nearly made it to Number Ten in the twentieth century (Edward Grey, George Curzon, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Chris Patten). When I was a student at Balliol in the mid 1990s Jenkins, Healey and Heath were still alive and visited the college regularly, and the college still prided itself on being a cradle of political leaders.
But since 1974 no Prime Minister has been a Balliol alumnus. Although several MPs of the 2010 and 2015 intake are Balliol men and women (Charlotte Leslie, Robin Walker, Rory Stewart and Helen Hayes), most living Balliol-educated politicians are failed leadership contenders (Yvette Cooper) or those whose political careers peaked, or ended, before they got anywhere near the leadership of their party (Damien Green, Kitty Ussher, Jim Purnell and Stephen Twigg).
It remains to be seen if Jo Johnson (Boris younger brother, who studied at Balliol in the early 1990s and is now Tory MP for Orpington) will succeed where his brother has failed, but the college seems to have lost its knack of producing future Prime Ministers. Balliol men and women are supposedly renowned for their “effortless superiority”: an irritating moniker that often disguises the college’s stuffiness, smugness and pettiness, about which I blogged in 2015. But in Johnson’s case the effortlessness long ago conquered the superiority. Being a Balliol graduate does not automatically ensure political success these days: bizarrely, Johnson has even been praised for overcoming the “handicap” of an Eton and Balliol education, as I discussed after his re-election as London mayor in 2008. Like Quintin Hogg before him charisma, showmanship and pedigree were enough to secure cabinet office, and the London mayoralty, but not enough to get either man to the very top. With the technocrat Theresa May now being tipped as front-runner, effortful understatement has overtaken effortless superiority.