British prime minister Boris Johnson and his agenda are now lame ducks


Since becoming leader of the Conservative Party in May 2019, the dissolute Bo Jo has struggled to transform himself into a statesman. – AP

IN Shakespeare’s cycle of plays on Henry IV and Henry V, the dissolute Prince Hal eventually transforms himself into a heroic patriot king. Since becoming leader of the Conservative Party in May 2019, the dissolute Bo Jo – a man who was sacked from his first job in journalism for making up a quote and who only recently acknowledged how many children he has (six) – has struggled to transform himself into a statesman only to fail at the last moment.

Boris Johnson put on smart suits but his hair was always in a mess. He delivered grave speeches but couldn’t resist making off-colour jokes (for example, describing the drive to increase the supply of ventilators as “operation last gasp”). It is only fitting, therefore, that his political career may be terminated by “partygate.”

Johnson has pleaded with everyone to suspend judgment until Sue Gray, the senior civil servant in charge of overseeing government ethics, delivers her report on several parties that took place in No 10 Downing Street during lockdown. Whether he can survive Gray’s report has always been an open question: There is no doubt that he attended a “bring your own booze” party in his garden on May 20, 2020, and that the party happened at a time when everyone was banned from social gatherings.

But subsequent revelations about another Downing Street party that occurred on the evening before Prince Philip’s funeral involving disco dancing and a late-night mission to bring in more booze in a suitcase have made his position even more tenuous.

And the fact that the source of these revelations seems to have been his former consiglieri, Dominic Cummings, is ominous for the prime minister: Cummings was at Johnson’s side at the height of the pandemic and almost certainly has more scuttlebutt that he can use in his campaign to avenge his sacking in November 2020.

Public opinion, his greatest friend hitherto, is turning against him: Three-quarters of Britons have a negative view of Johnson, according to YouGov, territory once occupied by Jeremy Corbyn; and Labour is leading the Tories by 10 points, 38% to 28%.

Anti-Boris feeling in the Tory Party is spreading from the usual suspects – Remainers, Scottish Tories and allies of his predecessor, Theresa May – to his core supporters, with Andrew Bridgen, a hard-line Brexiter, calling for him to go.

The chances rise by the day that the 15% of Tory MPs needed to precipitate a leadership election will write their letters to Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee. A man who delivered an 80-seat Tory majority is well on the way to becoming a lame duck.

Lame duck status inevitably creates big problems in Britain’s idiosyncratic part-parliamentary and part-presidential political system: The prime minister possesses few formal powers other than appointing ministers but, since Margaret Thatcher, the position has become increasingly presidential.

Under Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s, reform initiatives came from powerful ministers such as Roy Jenkins at the Home Office and Tony Crosland at education, while the prime minister balanced the factions (and eventually sank into paranoia). Today Downing Street drives policy and most Cabinet ministers are mere cyphers.

These problems will be compounded by the fact that Johnson was such a radical figure. He led a revolution within his own party – first against May and her attempt to produce a Brexit compromise and then against the party’s One Nation wing.

This revolution proved so bloody that he sacrificed his own majority by depriving 21 MPs, including Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, of the whip. He then tried to realign British politics by attaching pro-Brexit working class voters to the Tory Party through a combination of nationalism and big government.

This new Toryism depended on reconciling two very different constituencies: traditional Tory voters in the South, who wanted low taxes and small government, and new Tory voters in the north, who wanted bigger government and more intervention.

Johnson tried to pull off this trick with a combination of his personal charisma and a revolutionary political agenda that involved levelling up opportunities, particularly in the north, bashing the blob – as Cummings dubbed the liberal establishment – and pursuing global advantage (“global Britain”).

The problem with this agenda is that it can only work if the prime minister remains powerful and the opposition cowers. His power is draining away and the cowering being replaced by confidence.

In the short term, Johnson’s fate lies in the hands of a senior civil servant. In the longer term, it lies with a party that has fallen out of love with him.

The battle to succeed Johnson, if one indeed takes place, will throw the Conservative Party into turmoil for the third time in six years: David Cameron resigned after the Brexit vote in 2016; and Theresa May was kicked out of office in 2019.

The leading candidates are already openly manoeuvring, with Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, taking every opportunity to look like a reincarnation of Thatcher; and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, giving his next door neighbour on Downing Street less than full-throated support. But it will do more than that: It will expose the contradiction of the current Conservative project.

Sunak and Truss are both essentially Thatcherites. It is hard to see Johnson’s grand project of levelling up survive the reassertion of an older Conservative orthodoxy.

And if that project doesn’t survive, it’s hard to see former Labour voters who voted for Johnson in 2020 supporting the Tories again next time around, particularly given that Keir Starmer is doing a good job of de-Corbynising his party.

The surprising thing about Johnson is that, even though he couldn’t shake off his Prince Hal persona, he was engaged in a serious political project to reinvent the Tory Party for a populist age. That project will almost certainly disappear with him. – Bloomberg

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