BORIS Johnson loves a metaphor, particularly an inappropriate one, which is why he took great delight in saying that Theresa May’s Brexit plans have wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution. But, as Mr Johnson prepares to have a go at seizing the leadership of the Conservative Party, could I suggest a few metaphors of my own?

How about this one: the launch of Mr Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign (for that is what it is) is a bouncy castle with a leak; it’s a bed with broken springs; a bike with punctured wheels. Anyone who has read the history of the Tory party knows that Boris Johnson will need more than personal charisma (for that is what we’re told it is) and a few dashed-off newspaper columns to get to the top of the party. And, as Michael Heseltine and Michael Portillo can attest, you also need more than memorable hair.

The essential problem for Mr Johnson is that the Conservative grassroots love him but the taller plants in the party do not. In response to his comment about suicide vests at the weekend, his former colleague at the Foreign Office Sir Alan Duncan said the remark was one of the most disgusting in modern British politics and suggested it signalled the political end for Johnson. There was also a portentous hashtag: #notfittogovern.

That kind of reaction is a little po-faced I have to say – it’s just a metaphor after all, not an actual suicide vest – but it does point to a bigger problem for Johnson: the fact that much of the parliamentary party can’t stick him. He might, just might, be able to get together the 48 MPs that are needed to trigger a no-confidence vote in the Government, but it’s unlikely that he has the numbers needed to support him as leader.

A much more likely scenario is that Boris Johnson will kick off the chaos but will not benefit from it. This is what often happens in the Conservative Party: aspiring leaders sit and plot – and, in the pre-digital age, put phonelines into offices – but then someone else emerges through the middle. It’s why John Major won and not Michael Heseltine and why Iain Duncan Smith became leader and not Michael Portillo. You can also judge a potential leader by their supporters, as John Redwood discovered in 1995 when he launched his leadership bid surrounded by the cast of the Addams Family. Jacob Rees-Mogg declaring for Boris Johnson may represent a similar problem.

A far trickier question is what effect the revelations about Mr Johnson’s marriage, affairs and divorce will have on his long-held ambitions to be leader. One source in the Conservative Party who’s also apparently fond of metaphors said at the weekend that Mr Johnson’s announcement of the divorce was a clearing of the decks or a clearing of the barnacles off the boat. In other words, the idea is that you get the bad news about his marriage out the way, so it can’t come and bite you later.

This may work to some extent – most people do not care about other people’s divorces in the way they once did – although it is striking that, with one or two distant exceptions, a divorced man or woman has never been prime minister.

Much of the media coverage of, and reaction to, Boris Johnson’s announcement has also revealed a residual conservatism about marriage and divorce that persists in our society. Despite all the progress we’ve made on modernising the institution, and offering alternatives like civil partnerships, and convincing people that bringing up children does not mean you have to be married, an attitude still exists that being married, or staying married, is a better or more admirable status than getting divorced, or being single, or having relationships outside the marriage, whereas, in fact, getting divorced is simply something that happens every day to all kinds of people, including politicians.

It would help to get rid of these attitudes for good if we made it easier for people to end their marriages. Under the law in Scotland, a couple must go to a solicitor or a courtroom to slag each other off; alternatively, if they’re living apart, they have to wait for at least a year – all of which is designed to make it hard to end something that is easy to begin.
On top of all that, there are other legal and social structures designed to promote the idea being married is better than being unmarried – such as denying widowed parent’s allowance to unmarried mothers – and as long as they exist, it also encourages us to judge people, including former foreign secretaries, whose marriages come to an end.

The good news is that, in announcing a consultation on no-fault divorces last week, the UK Government appears to be clearing the way for change in England and Wales at least, although it may take a bit longer to change some of the deeper attitudes, such as the suggestion in some of the reaction to Boris Johnson that someone who has affairs does not have the right qualities to be prime minister. That must be wrong: whether someone has, or hasn’t, had affairs is utterly irrelevant to that job, or any job – unless perhaps your job is advising people on how to avoid having affairs.

What this means for Boris Johnson is that we should all show him some consideration on the marriage front, although it doesn’t mean he’s off the hook. A potential leader of a political party, or future prime minister, should be judged on their qualities as a politician and a minister and their proven track record in the job and, by those ground rules, Boris Johnson is a disastrous failure. As one of the leaders of the campaign to leave the European Union, he was self-serving and devious, and as foreign secretary he was reckless and dangerous. The hope now is that for those reasons – and not the details of his marriage and divorce – Conservative MPs will reject him once and for all.