This article was also published on Reaction and Agenda Publica
He’s finally gone – well, kind of going.
To the very end, and despite all the desperate chaos and mendacity, Boris Johnson’s personality still commands a grudging fascination.
Similar to what we all feel about our own vices and bad habits – rationally, we don’t like them, and yet somehow, emotionally, deep down, we do – and we persist.
Politics is a cruel sport. Despite his relative success in pulling Britain out of the European Union – as promised in the wake of the referendum result, a highly successful vaccination programme, and clear leadership over Ukraine, it is the endless train of missteps, scandals, casual disregard for both convention and written rules, and Johnson’s florid character flaws that will be remembered.
It will possibly make Boris Johnson’s legacy be that of one of the worst British Prime Ministers of all time. One who surrounded himself with a cabinet of individuals chosen primarily for their Brexit obsession, their loyalty to the Prime Minister and a degree of tolerance of his faults that beggars belief. Yet, he even managed to destroy all that.
The question now for the Conservative Party, and for Britain, is: what comes next?
The UK is beset by challenges many of which are not unique. The prospect of stagflation haunts much of the world. The war in Ukraine, its humanitarian impact and its effects on energy and food prices. The breakdown of globalisation and the prospect of ever-increasing geopolitical chaos. Unstoppable flows of refugees and asylum seekers. A natural environment nearing its catastrophic tipping point. An economic model that is well past its sell-by date. These are not UK-specific issues. And nobody has the answer.
The UK, like most other countries, also has its set of specific issues. Defining a successful model of political economy outside the European Union. Holding together its four component nations in a sustainable constitutional settlement. Finding a way out of the trap of an ever more prosperous London and the south east to spread opportunity across the four nations.
All these issues will tax any new prime Minister. So, what could a new leader look like?
It has been endlessly said that the UK moves between exciting and boring leadership in succession. Boring Callaghan was succeeded by anything-but-boring Margaret Thatcher who, in turn, was succeeded by John Major. The dour, if diligent, Gordon Brown followed the excitement of Tony Blair. Boris Johnson followed the earnest and hard-working Theresa May.
Is it now time for boring?
Yet, unlike some other countries like Germany or The Netherlands that have taken low key, steady-as-she-goes, no excitement politics to an art form, the British public does not tolerate boring politics for long.
At heart, they tolerate, maybe even enjoy, the Westminster show while not being fazed by it or taking it too seriously. They see it more as pantomime than serious drama. Knowing that any period – be it chaos or order – will pass.
They cannot bear to be represented on the world stage by a nondescript grey suit that is incapable of keeping the country punching above its weight. Above all, and unlike, say, the French, they dislike politicians who indulge in too much abstract thought, are excessively ideological, and end up taking themselves too seriously. They see such characteristics as almost inevitably spawning a government that ends up interfering too much in people’s lives.
Angela Merkel’s ‘Mutti’ could never work in the UK. Neither would Macron’s erudite Jupiterian delusions.
Which way will the Conservative party go? Maintain the exciting-boring swapping tradition or follow exciting (if flawed) with reasonably exciting and hopefully less flawed?
Absent some new catastrophe, the new Prime Minister will likely lead the party into the next general election. There, he or she may face Sir Keir Starmer – seemingly competent, not overflowing with charisma, and in danger of being seen as taking himself all too seriously.
He might well fit the moniker of ‘boring’ and it’s not clear that the British public will be able to summon up much enthusiasm for a Boring vs Boring election.
As Britain faces the challenges of the 21st century, it requires a leader who can summon up what George Orwell, writing at the start of the second world war, said of the British: “in moments of supreme crisis the whole nation can suddenly draw together and act upon a species of instinct, really a code of conduct which is understood by almost everyone, though never formulated.”
What is needed now is leadership that can summon up that spirit.
It is hard to see such capability as being obviously present in many of those likely to contest the leadership election. Besides being difficult to come by, such character is hard to predict. It usually only emerges (or doesn’t) once a leader is in post.
Among the names that have been floated, I have my own favourites. But I don’t get to vote. We can only hope that those who do make the right choice.
Stephen Gwynne says
Despite all his chumocracy faults, libertine instincts and in particular his irony, Boris Johnson has gallantly and valiantly steered Britain towards the goal of Great Realignment – a Third Way quest to fuse market economics and popular sovereignty.
This has endeared millions and has given them the confidence to deeply engage in political policy which all the better for holding politicians to democratic account.
This popularisation of British Democracy was wholeheartedly rejected by British Establishment elites as was vindicated by their wholesale rejection and misrepresentation of irony.
An ironic Leader is what we need in order to navigate the treacherous waters of expectations management as We as a country slowly but surely understand that We as a country are one of the most unsustainable on Earth with the likelihood of real economic growth diminishing as the availability of cheap hydrocarbons diminishes.
Thus, the task of any British Leader is how to create and maintain a steady state economy when class based interests are still so competitive and prevalent. For this, Boris was emasculated by the Progressive and Conservative middle class who despite capturing 63% of the national income are absolutely unwilling to share. Hence the need for someone like Boris Johnson who will willingly and ironically use “missteps, scandals and casual disregard for both convention and written rules” in order to force the selfish middle class to share.
There is only one argument that supports your selfishly driven critique and that is your absolute willingness to levy taxes upon yourself in order to better share a steady state economic pie.
I am afraid to say, your utter unwillingness to share and accept a proportionate levelling down of your income in order to give the poor a decent wage and a decent standard of living is what singularly drives your self important critique but one that has a strong element of truth. Since what we need is an austere ironic middle class Leader and therefore one that is prepared to lead the way by material example.
British politics is tumultuous because it is deeply interwoven with a class system that is deeply unwilling to share when sharing and caring is the only way we can harmoniously reach national and global homeostasis.
Joe Zammit-Lucia says
Many thanks for sharing your perspective which I find interesting and well argued.
Just one question. When you say “Boris Johnson who will willingly and ironically use “missteps, scandals and casual disregard for both convention and written rules” in order to force the selfish middle class to share.”, might you explain how lying (including to his own cabinet) about what he knew about Pincher, spending 250k on wallpaper, trying to defend the indefensible around Owen Patterson, etc contribute to ‘sharing and caring’?
The battle of vested interests you describe is all too real. I doubt that one can claim that to be peculiarly British.
[email protected] says
Johnson has been seen as unconventional and a rule-breaker throughout his life.
However his speech outside Number 10 on 7 July 2022 has been accepted and seen as his resignation.
It seems to be widely assumed therefore that he has changed and accepted convention.
This may not be true.
He still has a popular following which although reduced may still be significant, and similarly some press support.
A possibility is that Johnson may be relying on the apparent fact that attitudes are significantly different among a population when that population is at war, compared to attitudes when at peace.
In the next few weeks the war in Ukraine may appear nearly lost and Russia to be threatening the West.
Ukraine will appeal for all assistance from the West to avoid being overwhelmed.
Britain via Johnson will offer full bloodied support – Britain, an industrial Western nuclear power will virtually declare war on Russia.
Jonson will meet world leaders and encourage them to join an allied force. In the US Trump will support Johnson.
Johnson will point out with relish the significance of our not being bound within the EU.
Johnson will lead a global coalition – “King of the world…”
It will be “Churchillian” – “we did it before…”
The splits in society which are currently complicated will become simple and the questionable ethics seen as trivial against a national call to “support the West or support Russia”.
The UK will not change the PM under these circumstances.
Paul Webster says
The article is incoherent. It’s nonsense, in as much that that the baseline assumptions fail to garner a plausible critique of the issues it refers to. Johnson is a failed PM and party leader – as judged by his Parliamentary Party. His pyrrhic big calls have been rejected by the general public across three bi-elections. His party, the most successful in history, continues in a post referendum identity crisis. For all of this BJ was an opportunistic symptom. Churchill, Orwell, Thatcher were first rate political authors who defined what followed. What’s coming next isn’t from the twin faces of political theatre – comedy and tragedy – but from the pool of sycophants. From there the dysfunction and chaos will compound. Business should be concerned.