Mistrust, disengagement and discord will be Boris Johnson’s shameful legacy | John Harris
AAs Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party anxiously tread the political waters while repeatedly being dragged down by conflict and disgrace, two plot lines unfold. One is for the immediate moment and will reach another key moment with the impending report from senior civil servant Sue Gray, which may finally focus wavering conservative minds on the impossibility of the prime ministership. Meanwhile, amid new blackmail allegations, rumors of even more illicit gatherings and Dominic Raab’s particularly clever insistence that his boss is “like a seasoned boxer” who’s “taken a few punches”, another story risks being lost: the disastrous consequences of Johnson’s antics for people’s faith in politics, and a rift between Westminster and the country that may now be wider than ever.
All of those Downing Street and Whitehall parties – along with the prime minister’s escapes, half-apologies and desperate attempts to consolidate – were reported in terms of shocking horror revelation. But for many voters, they will confirm long-held ideas about the type of people who lead the country or to whom they aspire.
In 1944 around a third of Britons approved of the idea that MPs and ministers were simply ‘beyond themselves’, but at the end of last year that figure was 63%. According to pollsters and academics, the first phase of the pandemic saw political distrust drop briefly before returning to pre-pandemic levels. They may have scrupulously followed government rules and restrictions, but millions of people obviously still have the same view of politics and power: either indifference or a tendency to outrage and a will – just or not – to assume the worst of politicians, whatever party they represent. The real tragedy of Johnson’s downfall is that it will skyrocket that alienation: when Sajid Javid recently conceded that all-party narratives have “damaged our democracy,” that’s probably what he meant.
In 12 years of political reporting, I have never had the impression that the reasons for such disaffection are so complicated. Any meaningful sense of a social contract is long gone; many people’s lives are so precarious and chaotic that politics sounds like white noise, and its practitioners inevitably seem pampered and privileged. Episodes such as the Iraq war, the crash of 2008 and the MP expenses scandal only accelerated this estrangement. To top it off, Facebook, Twitter and the like have fostered a bitterly angry and divisive public discourse, and created a spectrum of disengagement that runs from the far periphery to the heart of public opinion. At one end are people who think the world is run by a secret order of vampiric lizards or worse; Beyond this hard core lie various shades of the belief that politicians are a weird, hypocritical clique, and much of what governments do confirms this.
Some politicians said they wanted to prove it all wrong and restore the reputation of their profession and the state. Johnson, on the other hand, is one of those personalities who studied the ferment and saw the tantalizing possibilities. Despite his abortive first run for the Tory leadership, he quickly rose to the top of his party, thanks to the 2016 EU referendum and the success of a leave campaign that exploited the sense of remoteness from power of millions of people, raising their hopes with promises that everyone involved had to know would quickly turn to dust. His landslide victory in the 2019 election was at least partly based on selling to the public a politician who was supposedly not a politician, with a disregard for convention that held the key to the impossible puzzles of Brexit.
Since then, most of his behavior in power has apparently been based on the belief that if people’s trust in leaders and institutions were so low, old-fashioned “delivery” would hardly matter, and he would have the moral leeway to get away with just about anything. As the panic bag of policies he recently unleashed proves – attacking the BBC, sending the armed forces to the English Channel, somehow tackling NHS waiting lists – seeking consistency , or to imagine that many of his ideas are implemented, is to miss the point: his political approach is as chaotic and volatile as the public mood that sparked it, and is really about none other than him. As many have long known, we are essentially dealing with a political-psychological cousin of Trumpism, rooted in the playgrounds of Eton rather than the suburbs of New York – and it is about defying the demands of politics traditional using endless agitation, misinformation and performance. But this isn’t America — not yet — and Johnson has found that even if the public is jaded and cynical, some things remain irrelevant.
Perhaps, like an initial crack on a car windshield, partygate’s disgrace will shatter just about every aspect of its record. But here we touch on one of the most glaring consequences of his mismanagement: the fact that even if he is expelled, the ramifications of his tenure will spread far beyond him and those around him. Some of his Tory colleagues obviously believe that after he leaves, a new leader will be able to herald a whole new beginning. On this point, I would direct them to the opinion of a first-time Conservative voter in the newly Conservative constituency of Bolton North East, whose views were recently registered by former Downing Street pollster James Johnson: “They’re all up there supporting him, most of them. That’s my concern now, with the [Conservative] party: “Oh, he apologized, let’s get on with the job.” No – you lied about doing the job.
Even though they have kept their distance, whoever succeeds Johnson will face lingering anger over his rule-breaking and deception, and how spoiled he has been by his colleagues – not to mention the consequences of Brexit. , the fallout from its largely disastrous management. of Covid, and the cost of living crisis, that by increasing National Insurance and scrapping the £20-a-week rise in Universal Credit, his government has only managed to deepen.
There is a rather naïve view that as Johnson’s popularity drops, Labor’s will continue to rise and – by some as yet unexplained miracle – Keir Starmer and his party will eventually win enough seats to take power. But like all Labor leaders, he will depend on the public being open to his ideas and willing to believe the government can make a difference in their lives. His current leads in the polls aren’t bad, but you can find similar number in the history of many Labor leaders who have lost – perhaps suggesting that the disaffection and anger spread by Johnson’s misconduct and his broken promises may in part bypass Labor and fuel something much more insidious and dark.
It’s the prospect that should worry people of all political persuasions. Long before partygate, years of public disengagement gave us Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson and millions of people concluding that the system was broken and simply shut down. Under these circumstances, the first duty of anyone in high office should have been to try to repair the breach. But, having become prime minister amid a crisis of confidence, Johnson then escalated the situation, sometimes deliberately, with consequences that will last long after his time at the top. Each time he goes, it will be his most lasting legacy – which is surely the biggest shame of all.