How Boris pulled a Nixon, and nobody realised

As the local election campaign enters its final days, Matt Snape argues that Boris Johnson is winning the shadow campaign for the Tory leadership by following tactics straight out of the Richard Nixon Playbook.

by Matt Snape on 30 April 2019 20:27

It is no secret Boris Johnson wants to be Prime Minister. Following Cameron’s cowardly departure in 2016, he was one of the first Conservative MPs to put his name forward for leader and Prime Minister. But then he was betrayed by Michael Gove, who declared his own ambitions after pledging to campaign for Mr. Johnson.

It is apparent that in every election Boris plays a central role in, he wins. He is the only Tory who has proved capable of winning in London, not once, but twice. And without his support for Vote Leave, the 2016 EU Referendum result might never have happened.

Days into May’s administration, Mr. Johnson was awarded with the post of Foreign Secretary. He then resigned when the Prime Minister announced her dreadful Withdrawal Agreement. Some could argue Boris is doing this because he is genuinely on the side of the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit. Others claim it is because he goes where the wind blows. Nonetheless, Boris knows how to win because he believes in what is popular- and any politician on the side of Brexiteers is on course to win an election right now.

There is no doubt resigning as Foreign Secretary must have knocked his ambitions back as he lost one of the roles that would have edged him closer to Number Ten, but Boris knows he has the support of the mostly Eurosceptic grassroots Tory members. If he can make it into the leadership contest, he is aware many activists will vote for him to become the next Conservative Party leader.

The recent local elections have acted as a reminder to the press and the party that Boris is a vote-winner. Many council candidates throughout the country have posted selfies with the former London Mayor on their social media profiles and scored dozens of likes and retweets. Love him or hate him, Boris is the politician many councillors and candidates know they need to be seen with. Also, with many predicting the Conservatives are likely to be slaughtered in these local elections, the former Foreign Secretary may save certain candidates from defeat. Rolling him out is the Tories’ smartest move recently.

This tale is all too familiar to those who are knowledgeable about American politics. Richard Nixon also embarked on a similar journey. Unlike Boris in 2016, when Nixon first declared his leadership ambitions, he secured the Republican Party nomination for the 1960 presidential election. Unfortunately, his 1960 campaign against John F. Kennedy was an utter disaster. Nixon injured his knee twice. The first time he did it, he ended up in hospital. And the second accident could not have come at a worse time, which was when he banged his knee on a car door before his televised debate with Kennedy. Throughout the debate, Nixon sweated and agreed with Kennedy on so many points, rather like when Gordon Brown kept saying ‘I agree with Nick’ in the first 2010 general election debate. Considering Nixon was friends with Dr Martin Luther King, he was outmanoeuvred by his Democrat opponent after Kennedy influenced the NAACP leader’s release from prison, which won him the 1960 presidential election. It was a bitter pill for Nixon to swallow, but like Boris, he did not abandon his dream.

Following the Democrats’ demise under President Johnson when his Great Society collapsed, Nixon sensed a second opportunity to win in 1968. Prior to that, he campaigned for congressional candidates who invited him to campaign with them in the mid-term elections that year, rather like Boris has done this year in the local elections. This helped Nixon establish his credibility as a potential presidential candidate. In 1968, he secured the Republican nomination again and went on to defeat his Democrat rival, Vice President Herbert Humphrey, as President Johnson decided not to contest the presidency that year.

If Boris is deliberately copying the Nixon playbook, he is doing it well. 2016 was as painful a setback as 1960 was for the former Republican president. But in Theresa May, Boris senses an opportunity to remove an unpopular and incompetent Prime Minister and win the next general election for the Conservatives. This is what Nixon did with President Johnson. Mr. Johnson is aware he can appeal to voters many Tories cannot. The game is not up for Boris, and with Brexit making him popular, he knows if he goes for leader again, he has a good chance of securing the nomination after a second attempt and follow in Nixon’s footsteps. Unlike the former US president, Boris has a parliamentary party mostly opposed to his candidacy, but if he can overcome that hurdle, the party membership is his for the taking. Boris could be about to pull a Nixon, and nobody has realised, yet.


Matt Snape is a freelance journalist whose stories have been featured in numerous national, local and specialist publications

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