By Charles E.P. Murphy
Duncan Brack and Iain Dale’s recurring collections of That Never Happened articles are some of the more ‘mainstream’ AH anthologies. They’re a mix of academic counterfactual essays (some by politicians with axes to grind) and narrative stories, with the usual mix of quality and plausibility as any anthology will have, and your humble author freely nicked their format and naming convention for Chamberlain Resigns, and Other Things That Didn’t Happen. And the thing that stands out about them, the big theme, the thing that makes perfect commercial sense, is that each one has a famous person who was never Prime Minister or is unlikely to be being Prime Minister being a Prime Minister on the cover.
One of these books was 2011’s Prime Minister Boris: and other things that never happened.
It gets better. In 2016, Prime Minister Corbyn: and other things that never happened asked what if Johnson became PM specifically after the EU referendum. So we have two stories in the same series asking the same question about the same figure!
As we’re now over two years into Johnson’s reign and it’s highly possible he won’t be seeing a third year, it’s interesting to look back at what people thought a Prime Minister Boris would be like in the past. How do they look now, what did they get right and wrong?
In the case of this 2011 essay, written by Sam Macrory (then the political editor of The House Magazine), Johnson is still in his first term as Mayor of London. This means any prediction has to explain how he becomes an MP and runs for leader. A series of events – starting with the Lib Dems leaving the coalition government in 2012 over terrorism laws and ending with Ed Miliband as PM – sees Johnson resign as mayor to become an MP in a by-election, all with the intention of immediately running for leader and toppling a weakened Cameron. By 2016, “Boris… had lost his clownish reputation” and is an unstoppable with at PMQ’s while Miliband dooms himself to an early election by joining a war against Iran (?) with President Mitt Romney (?!).
Johnson wins by a whopping 53-seat majority, helped by Miliband’s Lib-Lab coalition replacing first-past-the-post with the AMS (additional member system) voting method; Johnson gets lots of second choice votes, and he especially wins over Labour seats angry about Miliband’s war policy. In 2011, all of this would have been an implausible series of events but in 2019, it turns out an implausible series of events was indeed how Johnson became a Prime Minister.
The election manifesto promises “national Boris Bike roll-out, nationwide crime-mapping, the revival of Green Line buses, and the creation of a wave of so-called ‘Boris’ Grammars [schools]”. Once in, Johnson stalls “the controversial High Speed 2 rail project” and instead focuses on completing Crossrail and backing air travel. A referendum on EU membership is started. Council tax reforms cause a rebellion where rural MPs join UKIP MPs; Johnson calls an early election to undo them and wins again. In a scene set in 2019, Johnson is building the “Boris Island” airport in the Thames Estuary.
Johnson’s Cabinet includes Ken Clarke as party chairman, Iain Duncan Smith as Home Secretary, “old schoolmate Rory Stewart” as Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond as Chancellor, Zac Goldsmith at Energy, Margot James as Business Secretary, Stephen Dorrell as Health Secretary, his brother Jo as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and “his uncompromising Chief Whip Mike Penning”. (He also makes his own dad a peer and then appoints Lord Johnson of Exmoor to the Cabinet)
This first story is mostly a breezy comedy story and focuses a lot on Johnson being a bouncy popular blokey-bloke that nothing sticks to – one with a notoriously London-centric leadership team, one devoid of the ‘Red Wall’ focus of OTL. It’s very much guessing that Johnson’s premiership would be his mayoralty (or rather the perception of it) but bigger. What else could someone in 2011 guess? Of course Johnson will govern like that. It’s a safe assumption, surely, that Johnson would have the same sort of policies in both roles. In real life, none of this story’s policies are things Johnson will end up doing, and on HS2 Johnson ended up being the one to finally start building it!
The Cabinet ends up looking hilariously wrong too, especially Clarke (though he will leave the Cabinet over the EU referendum) and the presence of Rory Stewart, the man who would run against Johnson for party leadership. How do you get this so wrong? The answer is that at the time, Johnson’s not an MP and didn’t have any obvious mates in Commons he’d be expected to bring in. Macrory has to make a guess, and went with Johnson picking a “mixture of youth and experience”. You can also see how far back 2011 is from 2022; Mike Penning at the time was a rising MP who would keep rising until 2017, when he was relieved of duties, and now is unlikely to be someone you’d pick for a AH list.
What it does get right is that Johnson wins a stonking majority and that he wins Labour seats due to disgruntlement with the leader (though not how). This massive gain, however, is probably not intended to be right. Macrory likely assumed he was exaggerating for comic effect! Another thing that’s exaggerated is how feeble the opposition parties, as the Lib Dems and Labour both split into two parties each – except in 2019, even though they didn’t literally split, Johnson did indeed win in part due to a divided opposition. (He likely did believe Johnson would be a powerful force in PMQs, whereas in real life he’s often waffled)
The story also opens with a depressed David Cameron watching Boris Johnson being Prime Minister in 2019, which is a prediction worth of Cassandra.
Our 2016 tale was by Andy Mayer, a former head of pro-Europe Tory groups, and you can see how things have changed in just five years.
The first thing is that Mayer doesn’t need to come up with elaborate reasons Johnson is able to be PM, he just uses the recent leadership election that Boris Johnson tried to run in – the point of divergence is simply that Gove decides he wouldn’t win if he ran, and so doesn’t stab Johnson in the back. May comes off too dull compared to Boris and her immigration record (“missing targets and failing to deport criminals”) is used against her, as is her statement that EU citizens in the UK could be deported without a deal – now she’s Nasty May VS Nice Boris. Team Johnson bellow they will make the UK prosperous and get the best deal in Europe, as indeed he did in real life.
This Johnson Cabinet includes Andrea Leadsom as Chancellor, Gove as the Foreign Secretary and chief EU negotiator, and George Osborne secretly wooed to be Home Secretary; he later becomes Foreign Secretary and Priti Patel gets the Home Office. Dominic Cummings appears as someone made an ambassador to get rid of him, rather than anyone important to Johnson’s inner circle. These are again very ‘of their time’ picks, though it’s unlikely Johnson-hating Osborne would ever take such a job. Patel being Home Secretary is an impressive prediction by contrast, as she wasn’t in any similar role at the time!
When Johnson gets a chance to do personal policies, he will “bestride the centre ground: the white heat of technology, Boris buses on biofuels, Boris bikes with Boris batteries”. A Chinese trade deal is a key part of his post-Brexit plan, and Brexit is commemorated with a Bank Holiday. But what is Johnson’s Brexit withdrawal plan? We don’t know. It never really gets written about.
Mayer decides to split the story into two timelines ala Sliding Doors, one where Johnson fails and takes a Norway-style deal that leaves the UK in the European Free Trade Association – “the deal you explicitly told the British people could never happen” – to avoid financial service tariffs, and another where he secures a bilateral trade agreement as he has a strong hand due to “so many EU members running a trade surplus with Britain” (this includes a direct bribe to Poland). In that ‘Good Timeline’, he wins a 70-seat majority in 2020 and this includes seats in north England and is partly down to Corbyn still running Labour… all things Mayer likely thought were comic exaggerations but did happen! (He also successfully predicts Kier Starmer becomes Labour leader afterwards!)
Just like Macrory, Mayer is writing a comedy story but he’s writing a satirical one. He wears his influences on his sleeve by saying Johnson’s communications director is the estranged right-wing son of Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It. Among the satirical events Johnson is busy writing a book during important events (depressingly, this joke at Johnson’s expense is a thing he’d be accused of doing in 2020) and causes a war in Moldova with his terrible jokes.
Notably, here we get less on policy and government than under Macrory. Johnson’s Brexit plans are incredibly vague, likely because the real negotiations were yet to start and nobody knew what would happen. The closest you’ll get is that in the Bad Timeline, he says “we were always going to agree free movement [of workers] to secure access to the single market” which OTL UK did not and OTL Johnson would not have supported. His domestic policies are vaguer still, and you see the return of the Boris Bus and Boris Bike as the go-to ‘Boris’ plans.
But to a large extent, this isn’t about the specifics of what Boris Johnson would do. This is a satire that focuses on how Boris Johnson would do it, a story going ‘we dodged a bullet there’; while Macrory said hee’d lost a clownish reputation, Mayer has a lazy disorganised venal man who is either failing every challenge or, in the Good Timeline, being a sneeringly arrogant prick. It wants to homage satirical shows and considers Prime Minister Boris to be the best joke to do so.
This is the biggest change in the two stories. One thinks Johnson being PM is unlikely but assumes he’d be a superpopular, super-effective election winner and Prime Minister, and one that is conservative but not alienating the Labour and Lib Dem voters in the process. One thinks Johnson being PM is absurd because he tried and failed just a few months before; he would potentially fail everything if he got the job. One is a comedic fantasy about a rising star, the other an insult about a loser. Both accidentally get it right that Johnson would have big election results but only one is correct that he’d be seen as failing a lot in power.
How do they work as stories? Both are quite flawed. The 2011 take is a flimsy tale of a favoured political figure having a squash match against feeble opponents, with no real narrative: Johnson just wins, wins, and wins some more. It mostly feels a story about David Cameron and Nick Clegg losing, as they get the bulk of character-based scenes. Mayer’s tale works better as a story as it has characters interacting, a narrative arc in telling Johnson’s first term, and the rather interesting take of giving us two timelines. One flaw of this split effect is that Johnson isn’t just having more favourable conditions in the Good Timeline, he’s a more effective and canny person for no reason beyond ‘the story says so’. The homages to stories like The Thick of It also feel a little too much like an AU fanfic where Tucker works for Boris rather than its own thing. At the end of the day though, the Mayer story works better as a story.
While flawed and quite obviously wrong in their predictions, these are quite fascinating in what they accidentally get right and as time capsules into what people thought of Boris just a few years ago, I’d argue they’re extremely valuable. Which is a useful lesson for AH writers.
Very few AH predictions about specific people will ever get to be tested. Hilary Clinton’s never going to turn out to have won in 2016 after all and John Smith won’t pop up alive to lead Labour against John Major, but Boris Johnson did get to be Prime Minister. These stories are a lesson that every AH idea is based on what people did in the past and that we understand why they did it, but we can never truly know if that’s how people would have acted. As I write this sentence, I can see news stories about Boris Johnson proposing ever harsher measures on Channel migrants but I don’t see many Boris Bikes.
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.