Boris Johnson’s persona is part Psmith, part Flashman and part Tim Nice-But-Dim. Paul Demarty traces the rise and fall of the ‘Red Tory’
A little over three years ago, as Theresa May served out her notice period, Andrew Rawnsley - the ultra-Blairite parliamentary diarist for The Observer - quoted an anonymous senior Tory, who predicted an easy victory in the upcoming leadership election for one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Tory members, he said, “now want some entertainment and wickedness. So they will probably take a punt on Boris. It will be a wild ride on the tiger. Boris will be a hoot. The question is whether the country wants a hoot.”1
If nothing else, Boris’s downfall has been a “hoot” - a masterpiece in that subtle comic art of the delayed punchline. The clown survives a series of lethal obstacles, and then slips on a banana skin and knocks himself out. Given his humiliating ‘victory’ in the confidence vote, his next mistake was always likely to prove fatal, whether it was a fresh one or a newly unearthed piece of dirt. So, when the parliamentary standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, received the news that Johnson not only knew of Chris Pincher’s proclivities, but dismissed them breezily with a joke - “Pincher by name, pincher by nature” - and appointed him deputy chief whip regardless, the Conservative Party’s immune system ground belatedly into gear.
It was a very Johnsonian dénouement. A keen classicist like the PM will know the basic rules of classical tragedy - in particular the one that states that the hero’s downfall must stem necessarily from his or her essential character flaws, not by mere happenstance. Johnson has survived for so long behind the mask of ‘Bozza’ - a certain sort of public schoolboy with a Peter Pan complex, a bounder who gets away with it by self-deprecation and even self-satirisation. His staggeringly obvious amorality appears as the cheerful mischief-making of a ruddy-faced 13-year-old in full Eton uniform. It is, therefore, quite fitting that an end should be called to his reign over an essentially adolescent attitude to the professional mores of his trade.
He is, of course, not done yet. The Tory Party is not yet accustomed to switching horses mid-parliament, at least not while it is in government. But Johnson is not the first premier to be so ejected; his hero, Mrs Thatcher, and his predecessor, Mrs May, are the two pertinent examples. Yet the only way to get rid of him as PM before the protracted horror show of the leadership election to replace him is to side with a more-or-less inevitable vote of no confidence in parliament. To offload him, 80-plus Tory MPs would have to side with Labour and the rest, which is hardly an unachievable number, but we will have to wait and see. The government has procedurally fended off such a vote for the time being.
Most perhaps hoped that he would resign the premiership with the party leadership, and hot-foot it from No10 the same day. That wish unsurprisingly turned out not to come true. Among the thousands of notables live-tweeting the proceedings on Thursday was one Dominic Cummings, former Johnson flunky, but long since split from his old boss. Dom told his followers:
I know that guy and I’m telling you, he doesn’t think it’s over. He’s thinking, ‘There’s a war, weird shit happens in a war - play for time, play for time, I can still get out of this - I got a mandate, members love me. Get to September …’ If MPs leave him in situ there’ll be carnage.2
What kind of “carnage”? At the very least, attempts to steer the leadership election from the bully pulpit he still occupies. Johnson’s people have already been extensively briefing against Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove; no doubt they can hit others. Johnson has promised not to introduce major new legislation, but the manifesto he won on was - as they always are - wildly more ambitious than what he actually achieved in his four years in office. He has a cabinet, of a sort; several of its members are looking to replace him. He can pick a fight with any of them, to make them look bad. Or he can do what he promised: keep his nose clean, and let things play out ‘naturally’. Perhaps he really does, as various tell-all accounts suggest, hate the job, and just wants to have his belated wedding bash at Chequers and be gone. We should not assume anything about Johnson’s behaviour from here on out; we have long departed the economics professor’s domain of rational self-interest.
King of comedy
It is worth zooming out and asking what this all means for bourgeois politics in this country in its broader historical development. There have been no end of worthy editorials since the Partygate revelations began, castigating the moral void at the centre of the government. Johnson simply does not have the values, so it was said, to lead this great nation.
From this perspective, one could almost interpret the whole Boris era as a cosmic accident; but to do so would be an act of wilful blindness. Our interest of such ‘accidents’ is not in the lords of misrule whom they propel to power - Johnson or, a fortiori, Donald Trump - but in what they disclose about the political structures so vulnerable to shysters and unholy fools of this sort.
Johnson’s family background is not quite so resolutely blue-blooded as one might guess from his public image. His father is the descendant of minor branches of European nobility on the one side, and late-Ottoman officialdom on the other; his mother was a middle class painter of leftish political opinions, so far as they are known. Their children were upwardly mobile; Boris, famously, attended Eton, albeit on a scholarship; and from that moment he was on the yellow brick road to great things. He went on to Balliol College, Oxford, and became head of the Oxford Union; from university, he went into journalism and then, in a roundabout way, into politics.
On paper, this is not exactly an atypical road to travel. Not all Eton-Oxbridge products go on to be Tory prime ministers, of course; but an awful lot of Tory prime ministers have had that sort of provenance. The difference with Boris was precisely his detour into the world of the lovable celebrity. His journalism was hardly of the Woodward-Bernstein sort, but rather a matter of Psmith escaping the pages of PG Wodehouse. His most notorious innovation, the ‘Euromyth’ - the entirely fabricated story about nonsensical European Union regulations - was itself the closest possible approach of ‘serious’ political journalism to Bullingdon Club repartee (Johnson filed copy claiming that the perfidious mandarins wanted to regulate the size of condoms, on account of the Italians’ alleged under-endowment in the trouser department). His crossover into comedy was sealed by well-received appearances over many years on BBC shows like Have I got news for you and Room 101.
Having got a certain level of brand recognition, the time was right to move into politics proper, which he did as MP for true-blue Henley-on-Thames in 2001. The round of constituency surgeries bored him; but his ambition would not allow him to remain merely a sort of Tory Dennis Skinner, offering comic foil material from the back benches. As the New Labour era dragged on, he supposed a bigger stage might be on offer in London city hall: the directly elected mayoral office had revived the career of a Labour Party maverick and ‘big beast’, Ken Livingstone, so perhaps it could do the same job for Johnson. Astonishingly, it did - and not once, but twice. In the intervening years, London has solidified into the strongest base of Labour support; but back then it was quite difficult to see Johnson as any kind of threat. He certainly was not to London: his occasional follies (doomed projects like the Thames garden bridge and the proposed ‘Boris Island’ airport in the Thames estuary; the purchase of anti-riot water cannon that were illegal to use and quietly mothballed) were swamped by the endless process of business as usual, the sacrifice of the capital to rapacious developers and nihilistic speculation, its consolidation as a money laundry with ideas above its station. All these things were in full flow under ‘Red Ken’, and have continued under the ‘serious’ Labour machine politician, Sadiq Khan.
Johnson returned to parliament in 2015, towards the end of his second mayoral term. He found himself in an unexpected Tory majority government; David Cameron had expected a further coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and now had to deliver on a promise he regretted very rapidly, to give the British people a referendum on their continued membership of the European Union. The rest, as they say, is history. It is not clear what calculation led Johnson to side with the leavers in the end. Perhaps he assumed they would be defeated, but Tory members would remember his principled stand in future leadership elections; perhaps he detected a change in the mood music of politics in western liberal democracies. Either way, he found himself riding the wave of history. The hara-kiri of David Cameron after losing the vote gave Johnson his first sniff of the top job, but he was outmanoeuvred by Michael Gove, and it was Theresa May who succeeded as a unity candidate.
May’s disastrous showing in the 2017 snap election, however, losing the majority bequeathed her by Cameron, offered Johnson his real chance. As one humiliation followed another, Johnson followed a strategy of tension, strategically resigning and castigating her ‘soft’ Brexit plan from the sidelines. By the time May finally called it quits two years later, he was the clear frontrunner to replace her, and the party (and the country) were ready to ride the tiger. He purged the Tory parliamentary party, and pushed through a hard Brexit; his rhetoric switched from his conventional Thatcherism to the ‘one nation, Red Tory’ mould. We were reminded last week, amidst all the resignations, that there is even a ministerial portfolio for ‘levelling up’.
The post-Brexit uplands were never likely to be as sunlit as promised by Johnson and his allies. Even with that caveat, events rapidly overtook him. His reluctance to take stern measures in the very early days of the pandemic was a predictable failure from this scourge of the straight banana, and it was not a unique failure on the world stage. Still, Britain had a very bad pandemic until Johnson’s government caught on to the need for central state direction; it is some irony that one of the better recent illustrations of the power of mass social mobilisation was a state-run vaccination programme administered by a government whose hatred for socialised healthcare is barely concealed.
The scandals began around then, with rampant corruption in procurement, ‘fast lane’ sweetheart deals for Tory donors and ministers’ mates, and all the rest. Meanwhile, those bloody Downing Street parties began in earnest. Johnson’s government has generally careened from one crisis to the next - in Cummings’ memorable phrase, like a shopping trolley with a broken wheel. Some of the crises have been scandals, others have been ‘events, dear boy, events’. The upshot of it all is that - for all he may seek revenge against the people who did for him - Westminster rumours have abounded for a long time that he does not even really want the job.
How can things have been so different from his last major gig, in London? The mayor’s office offers a ‘big personality’ like Boris (or Ken) both more power than a ‘parliamentary’ system, and paradoxically greater ease of not exercising it; an executive bureaucracy can get on with administration, with basically no oversight, leaving the top man free for glad-handing and nonsensical pet projects. For a prime minister, everything is subject to parliamentary arithmetic. Though Boris should have been untouchable, with his huge majority and anaemic opposition, the pandemic was the cruellest blow, right on the natural fracture line between Tory ideology and that party’s historic commitment to Staatsraison. The need of the hour was a bonfire of Thatcherite verities. Every vote on every lockdown policy threatened a major backbench rebellion. The graft and corruption were assailed from all sides - from Labourites who viewed it as a verdict on Johnson’s character and from Tory hardliners for whom it was evidence of the failure of ‘pandemic socialism’.
The failure of the Johnson administration, then, presents us with an unflattering picture of British bourgeois politics. Britain’s world role could not, in the end, be defended. Its job as a US-paid saboteur within the EU demanded an endless kabuki theatre of Euroscepticism; there was always the danger that enough people would come actually to believe it to do something disastrous. This led, as the Brexiteer Tory, Daniel Hannan, put it, to an “unfrozen moment”, which coincided roughly with a global move towards vicious national chauvinism.
Johnson’s buttoned-up predecessor sounded similar notes to his about ‘levelling up’ and turning the Tories into a party of the working class. She, and advisors like Nick Timothy, failed. Boris failed too: the idea of ‘Red Toryism’ - the empty promise of it - works well enough as an electoral gambit. Yet it is a mirage, for the same reason as all versions of ‘socialism in one country’ are mirages - the economy just is globalised, and has been since the days of Venice and Genoa. The succession of attempts at making the mirage a reality have been a succession of attempts at re-articulating what is essentially a fantasy, or even a lie.
And so we ended up with … a clown, an embarrassing national stereotype - equal parts Psmith, Flashman and Tim Nice-But-Dim. When the sober and serious partisans of the ‘Red Tory’ phantasm were dispensed with, only the Bullingdon bounder was left to give it another go. His was not a mask that concealed a ruthless operator (or perhaps it concealed nothing other than a ruthless operator). He could win the war, but he could not win the peace - perhaps because there is no peace to be won.