There are words and phrases that do some heavy lifting in British politics – “populism”, “Brexit”, “legitimate concerns”, the ‘“red wall”. Watch out for them, as in the next few weeks they will be unsparingly deployed to explain how the hell someone like Boris Johnson ever came within sniffing distance of Downing Street.
An exercise in orphaning Johnson that has been afoot for a few months will now reach its sad conclusion. His failure will have no fathers and his success will be attributed to an abstract set of conditions that conspired to make his premiership inevitable. Like a monster released from enclosure in an iceberg as it is thawed by a warm weather front, Johnson arrived in Westminster to wreak havoc, until finally the Swat team of British democratic norms and institutions took him out. His critics will issue plaintive laments about the tragedy of a Brexit that carried him into No 10 with a huge majority, and say that he only has himself to blame for coming undone.
Johnson is simply a wrong ’un who was never fit to be prime minister, as the Tory MP David Gauke surmised. This is true, of course, but the problem is he’s the type of wrong that we sort of like. Because he had qualities that still, deep down in our national psyche, made him forgivable.
Here you need to watch out for what has become a national pastime – psychoanalysing Boris Johnson, almost dissecting him. What a grotesque creature, we will be told, as he is pinned on the slab and pored over again. How did this uniquely mendacious man come to so undermine the dignity of his post and “take us all for fools” – as the Spectator (yes, the Spectator) wrote?
That psychoanalysis is best directed at a political culture that has a deference to public schoolboys, to the entitled confidence of unearned privilege, and to the sort of upper-class persona that, as Oscar Wilde described, treats “all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality”. Johnson’s success in consciously leveraging these qualities – ruffling his hair, shaking hands with “everybody” in a hospital ward in the early days of Covid, and assuring us that Brexit was a piece of cake – was, you will also be told, an example of the perils of “populism”. He thrived because of his ability to charm, rather than because of Britain’s fondness for an aristocratic class that, with a glint in its eye, reassures us that it is entirely unflapped by the challenges of power.
Conditions matter, of course. Brexit, its irreconcilable goals, its complicated border protocols and its challenges to the very union of the United Kingdom, needed a figure that could rise above its vexatious details, not get bogged down in them like Theresa May did. Johnson’s battering ram approach to Brexit and his unlawful proroguing of parliament in the process was exactly the sort of behaviour he was elected for. But that hardly explains the glee with which large parts of the media received the prospect of a Boris Johnson premiership.
The 2019 election brought with it a “sense of slightly unfocused excitement”, of “zing”, of Johnson’s “whiz-bang, sparkle, fizz, gusto, passion – and fun”, wrote Matthew Parris in the Times. Sure, the paper’s editorial said before the 2019 election, Johnson does have “an on-off relationship with the truth” and often prefers “bluster to grasp of detail”, but unlike his opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, at least Johnson’s faults were “in plain sight”.
The subtext is clear – he’s a liar, but he’s our liar. And Brexit still doesn’t explain why, even after a damning report about his lies to parliament and his departure from political life, the Daily Mail anoints him again with a column and handsome remuneration for it. He then, with his supporters surely expecting an unfiltered account of the sabotaging of his political career, duly filed a half-arsed column about diet medication. Because it’s never really about the quality of what Johnson delivers, but the style in which he does it, the very flippant contempt for that quality that many still can’t wean themselves off.
It wasn’t the red wall, or Brexit, that handed Johnson a voice in a national newspaper, as his support leaches away and parliament prepares to vote on the Partygate report. It was an indulgence of the man and what he represents. Johnson embodies the useful spirit of a nihilistic Brexit, which was always about concentrating power in the hands of rightwing interests rather than divesting it to the “will of the people”. He serves as a bulwark against political institutions, civil service processes and the rules of law that, if allowed to take their course, would defenestrate, or at least challenge, the stock and trade of certain rightwing media interests – projecting fears of a shadowy cabal of woke progressive powers that, in the words of Rishi Sunak, seeks to “cancel our values, our history and our women”. As long as Johnson is in play, he is a useful tool in this campaign.
And what of Sunak, our grownup prime minister at last? “One of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met” is how he described Johnson in 2022. We simply cannot be expected to believe that it was only one specific and poorly timed lie about partying that finally revealed Johnson for what he is. Or that, as footage leaks of Tories dancing and mocking Covid-19 laws in December 2020, that Conservative party officials and MPs who behaved badly were simply channelling Johnson’s disdain for the public, rather than expressing their own.
This is not a call for a blame exercise, although God knows there’s enough to go round, but a plea for a self-reflection that takes stock of how we came to thrust a notoriously well-known charlatan into the country’s highest office, and then proceeded to blame him for that decision. One of the reasons British politics has a feel of unreality and triviality to it at the moment isn’t down to Brexit stripping it of seriousness and integrity. It is because with Johnson, as with the governmental debacle during the pandemic, we are constantly finding ever more elaborate ways to explain away what are structural weaknesses in our political culture.
We are stuck with a system that indulges useless, morally vacuous politicians as long as they don’t threaten to reshape the economy or political culture to the benefit of those who need a strong public sector, affordable housing, fairer distribution of income and the sort of compassion that would give refugees their internationally mandated human rights. If those politicians can maintain this merciless world with flair, even better. If they fail, away from the scene of the car crash we will speed.
As we do so, perhaps we can be diverted by the scenery of the many troubling but ultimately superficial outrages that now dominate our political life: peerages; Nadine Dorries; Sunak’s helicopters and heated swimming pool. Anything to stop us seeing the faults that, like Johnson’s, hide in plain sight. Never looking back, always racing headlong into the next disaster.
Published: 2023-06-19 06:00:06