‘Memoirs are made of this’, Encompass, 1 September 2022.

Contrary to what you might have read, Boris Johnson has not been entirely idle over the summer.  As well as taking his latest wife and children on a couple of foreign holidays and doing what he can to ensure that Rishi Sunak (who he seems to hold personally responsible for his downfall) didn’t succeed him, he has apparently been busy talking to publishers about a book based on diaries he claims to have been keeping for the last few years.

The fact that someone as preternaturally disorganised as Johnson has, amidst the political, economic and diplomatic chaos he has created since 2016, managed to summon up the daily self-discipline required to journal his innermost thoughts will come as a huge surprise to many.  But the fact that he’s aiming to negotiate a seven-figure book deal will not.  Johnson’s money problems, combined with his obsession with besting David Cameron (who was allegedly paid ‘only’ a six-figure sum for his memoirs), were always going to make such a deal inevitable.  Besides, Johnson, of all people, is familiar with his idol Winston Churchill’s quip that ‘History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.’

Johnson is not, of course, the first disappointed Tory prime minister to attempt to reinforce and/or rescue their legacy by effectively getting their retaliation in first. It’s just that less and less time seems to be elapsing between their defenestrations and the emergence of their occasionally dubious accounts of their rise to power and their time at Number Ten.  Getting on for a quarter of a century had passed before Ted Heath released The Course of My Life, but his successor, Margaret Thatcher, managed to publish The Downing Street Years less than 36 months after she was booted out (or, as she saw it, betrayed) by her colleagues.  Cameron achieved a similar feat with his For the Record.

As a keen student of the Conservative Party, I have been obliged (nay, keen) to read each of them from cover to cover.  Predictably enough, they are, all of them, at once illuminating and infuriating – at points genuinely self-aware while, at others, transparently self-justificatory.

Whether Johnson, by all accounts something of a narcissist and a sociopath, is really capable of much (indeed, any) halfway honest insight into his own character and motivations remains to be seen.  But we can pretty much guarantee that the money-spinner he produces will portray him, his motives and his actions in the best possible light while painting his rivals and opponents in altogether darker (or at least drearier) colours.

Certainly anyone naïve enough to believe Johnson might supply us with something that might conceivably pass for the truth on Brexit is bound to be disappointed.  In fact, if I’ve learned one thing from reading reams on Europe from Conservative politicians over the years, it’s that their party’s interminable infighting over the issue makes it virtually impossible for them to level with readers – not just when it comes to the inevitable trade-offs involved in Britain’s relationship with the EU but also when it comes to the reasons they themselves did what they did. 

Until Johnson’s effort emerges in due course, Cameron’s book, which came out almost exactly three years ago, will have to serve as the latest case in point.  Indeed, its attempt to effectively rewrite history when it came to why he called the 2016 in/out referendum (as well as his inevitably partial take on why he lost it) was one of the main reasons why I’ve just published my own slim volume on the issue.

While it might suit Cameron (and others) to suggest that by holding a vote he was somehow bowing to the inevitable and to the democratic demands of the British people, it won’t do. The referendum was, in effect, a war of choice – and one fought largely to manage his own party. Cameron also wanted to spike the guns of the populist radical right insurgency, UKIP, that had so spooked Tory MPs and whose rise was fuelled by his failure to fulfil his patently unrealistic promises on immigration.

When it comes to why Cameron lost the referendum, yes, he was let down by colleagues (most obviously Johnson himself) and by Corbyn.  But he could and should have predicted that. Moreover, he did  himself (and the country) no favours by fighting with what amounted to one hand tied behind his back for fear that, when he won (as, for the most part, he thought he would), he might otherwise find it tricky to put his party back together again.

And talking of putting the Conservative Party back together again, we are – thank goodness – finally about to find out who is to succeed Boris Johnson as its leader and as prime minister.  Given the perfect storm of problems with which he’s left whoever takes over, it seems unlikely that they will have much time to keep a diary.  We may well be reading their memoirs, however, rather sooner than they probably hope.

Originally published at https://encompass-europe.com/comment/memoirs-are-made-of-this

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘Wonder who Liz Truss will reward with a job or punish with exile? History can tell us’, Observer, 21 August 2022.

With Liz Truss apparently so far ahead in the Tory leadership contest, talk is inevitably turning to who she will appoint to her first cabinet. Kwasi Kwarteng, an ideological soulmate since he and Truss helped write the state-shrinkers’ bible, Britannia Unchained, is routinely tipped as her chancellor, while her old friend and karaoke partner, Thérèse Coffey, seems destined (depending on who you believe) to become home secretary or chief whip. Top jobs are also expected to go to former leadership contenders Suella Braverman, Penny Mordaunt and Tom Tugendhat, all of whom backed Truss after falling by the wayside. Kemi Badenoch may pay a price for not jumping on the Truss bandwagon but few expect her to miss out entirely.

Precisely what will happen to Rishi Sunak, who looks likely to end up being just another of Truss’s erstwhile rivals, is less certain. Given the bad blood that has developed between their respective campaigns over the contest, is Truss going to offer Sunak a job – and not just a job but a job he would actually be willing to accept?

Truss’s decision on Sunak’s future, as well as her other cabinet picks, should give us an invaluable insight into one of the most important questions facing any party leader who takes over as prime minister after their predecessor has resigned (more often than not as a result of being forced out by their colleagues). Namely, in trying to put the party (and the government) back together after it has fallen apart, is it best to preserve some sense of continuity or to signal regime change by replacing what have arguably become all-too-familiar faces? Should one aim to emphasise unity, believing the old saw that voters don’t like divided parties? Or, as some suggest, is a clear-out essential if a new direction is the order of the day?

A couple of supplementary questions arise. Which of the two approaches – continuity or clear-out – has been most commonly pursued by the Conservative party and which seems more likely to produce electoral success?

A glance back at postwar political history reveals a clear, if relatively recent, trend – at least when it comes to Tory leaders who have taken over at No 10 courtesy of their colleagues rather than the electorate. As for which strategy – clear-out or continuity – better delivers eventual victory, that’s a little harder to tell.

The simplest way of determining the trend over time is to compare the cabinets of the outgoing Conservative prime ministers with the cabinets first appointed by whoever took over from them. What proportion of those who sat around the table at the invitation of the ousted (or at least the ex-) PM retained their seats – even if they were appointed to a different post – under the new dispensation? Some of the churn will be accounted for by genuinely voluntary departures on the part of a few of those previously appointed as cabinet ministers. But that’s most easily controlled for simply by ignoring it in all six postwar handovers – 1955 (Winston Churchill to Anthony Eden), 1957 (Eden to Harold Macmillan), 1963 (Macmillan to Alec Douglas-Home), 1990 (Margaret Thatcher to John Major), 2016 (David Cameron to Theresa May) and 2019 (May to Boris Johnson).

What we can’t ignore is that “cabinets” have effectively got bigger because of the fashion (presumably arising from a desire to minimise disappointment and also the number of colleagues outside the tent who might otherwise be tempted to piss in) to allow those not formally appointed to the cabinet to attend it nevertheless. But we can allow for that and we can also note that this de facto increase in those “in the room”, if not sitting around the table, could make unity (assuming that’s the path that’s chosen) easier to achieve: after all, it makes more slots available to any new leader anxious to soothe bruised egos and/or reward personal loyalty at the outset of their premiership.

First things first, the trend is clear, but recent: whereas past Tory prime ministers who took over midstream tended to opt for continuity, their more contemporary counterparts have, for good or ill, opted for clear-outs. When Churchill was forced to make way for Eden in 1955, nearly 90% of his cabinet picks were kept on. Macmillan, in turn, retained three-quarters of Eden’s outgoing cabinet in 1957, while 80% of those serving in Macmillan’s last cabinet made it into Douglas-Home’s in 1963. True, after the brutal defenestration of Thatcher, in November 1990, her successor, Major, famously found room for Michael Heseltine, the man who did more than anyone else to bring her down. But – and this is all-too-easily forgotten – he also reappointed nearly 90% of those who’d served in her last cabinet.

Fast forward to 2016, when May took over from Cameron and a very different picture emerges: barely half of his picks kept their jobs when she put together her first cabinet. In 2019, when Johnson helped take out May in order to succeed her, fewer than a third of those in or attending her cabinet made the cut. In both cases, the number of new faces (some of whom were old faces who had previously been sacked or had resigned from cabinet) ran into double figures for the first time.

That big shift says something profound about how politics and the Tory party have changed. As regards politics, it’s another reminder that prime ministers, inasmuch as they ever were, are no longer primus inter pares but have become more presidential figures – not merely captain of the team but also its manager and hence more willing and able to part with those whose faces and playing styles don’t fit, in exchange for those who seem happier to do their bidding.

As regards the party itself, although it’s a simplification to suggest that the Conservatives had little or no ideology before Thatcher, it’s nevertheless the case that, ever since, and especially as Europe and culture wars have moved up in the mix, the party has become more of an arena, even a battleground, in that respect. Inevitably, and far more so than used to be the case, contested changes of leadership tend to revolve as much around principles (or what passes for principles) as around personality and practicalities. As a result, those who succeed to the premiership don’t merely want to stamp their authority on their party – they want to impose their worldview too.

Whether the clear-out that is the correlate of that desire is more likely to bear fruit than opting for continuity is more of a moot point. Certainly, the “huge great stonking mandate” Johnson claimed to have won in 2019 suggests it might. Even if May’s catastrophic loss of her majority when she ill-advisedly went to the country in 2017 suggests otherwise, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that, while she sacrificed seats, her commitment to Brexit and ending austerity increased the party’s vote share substantially, especially in the Midlands and the north, helping to set up her successor’s big win two years later.

But continuity can also work. Not for Douglas-Home admittedly: in 1964, a year after he took over, the Tories were out after 13 years in power. But others did better. In 1955, Eden increased the Tories’ overall majority from the mere 17 Churchill had managed four years earlier to 60 seats, and in 1959 Macmillan increased it to 100. Admittedly, the majority of just 21 that Major won in 1992 paled in comparison with the 102 Thatcher achieved in 1987. But, compared with the drubbing that appeared to be on the cards when he’d taken over 18 months earlier, it represented something of a triumph – and one achieved with the economy struggling to emerge from recession and with a startlingly similar vote share (42%) to the one the Iron Lady had realised five years earlier.

Nor does continuity of personnel necessarily preclude major changes of policy direction: Macmillan hastened the end of empire and began the UK’s move towards Europe – hardly minor adjustments. Meanwhile, clear-outs don’t always prefigure anything like a 180-degree turn: Johnson simply did Brexit harder than May and talked even more (even if he didn’t really do much more) than she had about investing in public services and in those parts of the country that had supposedly been ignored by previous governments.

In any case, clear-outs can disguise continuities of a more worrying kind. Truss might appoint a new-look cabinet but, if they, like their predecessors, end up spending most of their time denying reality in order to save their boss’s skin, will anything have changed?

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/aug/21/wonder-who-liz-truss-will-reward-with-a-job-or-punish-with-exile-history-can-tell-us

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘Boris Johnson is one of the least admirable – and successful – PM’s we’ve ever had’, Sunday Mirror, 10 July 2022.

Boris Johnson was sooner or later bound to crash and burn.

He was the salesman suddenly promoted to CEO by a firm desperate to avoid loss of market share to a disruptive rival – in the Conservatives’ case Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which finished so far ahead of them in the 2019 European elections that they literally feared for their survival.

In the short term, it seemed like a smart move.

Johnson won the ensuing general election on the promise (false, it turned out) that he had cooked up an “oven-ready” deal that would “get Brexit done” so that he could “level up” the country and repair the damage done to our public services by a decade of Tory austerity.

But it very soon became obvious that he had no talent for (nor, if truth be told, very much interest in) governing as opposed to campaigning.

As a result, Covid hit the country far, far harder than it needed to.

Indeed, no amount of Johnsonian boasting about Britain’s successful vaccine programme should be allowed to disguise his manifest failure to prevent so many people losing either their lives or their long-term wellbeing.

Meanwhile, instead of establishing a genuinely cooperative trading relationship with Europe, Johnson simply couldn’t let go of the Brussels-bashing that had become his trademark – with the result that Britain’s economy is growing more slowly than nearly all its major competitors while politics in Northern Ireland remains gridlocked.

The only bright spot has been our support for Ukraine. But does anyone seriously believe that another Prime Minister have behaved differently in that regard? I don’t think so.

So…throw in his lawbreaking, his lies, and his sheer disregard for the norms and conventions underpinning our parliamentary democracy, and you have, in Boris Johnson, one of the least admirable, as well as least successful, premiers this country has ever seen.

Originally published at https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/boris-johnson-one-least-admirable-27446006

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘Tories have been lurching further right for years. Boris Johnson was just the latest’, Observer, 10 July 2022.

Especially after the chaos of the last few days – and even, some would argue, the chaos of the last few years – it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Boris Johnson is somehow sui generis among Conservative leaders. That might be true with respect to his character – his flamboyance, his willingness to flout convention and break the rules, his narcissism. But it’s far from being the case when it comes to his policy emphases and his electoral strategy.

Johnson, in fact, is as much a culmination as he is an aberration. Ever since Margaret Thatcher took over as its leader in 1975, the Conservative party has been transforming itself – albeit not necessarily in linear fashion – from a conventional centre-right outfit into one that, in some crucial respects anyway, resembles the populist radical right. Johnson may have accelerated that transformation but he certainly didn’t kickstart it.

William Hague is now a venerable (and very perceptive) newspaper columnist. But between 1997 and 2001, when he was leading the Tories in opposition, he found himself caricatured as a skinheaded cabby – and not, his opponents argued, without reason.

Hague’s almost archetypally populist approach – one that counterposes “the people” against a metropolitan elite that doesn’t understand them, doesn’t cater to them and secretly looks down on them – was typified by his famous “foreign land” speech. Speaking at the Tories’ spring conference in Harrogate in 2001, he sought to identify the party, in tones that could easily be confused for Boris Johnson’s (or, for that matter, Nigel Farage’s), with “the decent, plain-speaking common sense of its people”, those who “believe in their country”, “take pride in what our country has achieved”, and who were fed up with their values being derided by Labour and those Johnson and his minions nowadays like to label “woke”.

“Talk about Europe,” Hague claimed, “and they call you extreme. Talk about tax and they call you greedy. Talk about crime and they call you reactionary. Talk about asylum and they call you racist. Talk about your nation and they call you Little Englanders.”

Then came the policy promises, not least: “We will welcome genuine refugees but we will be a safe haven not a soft touch. That is not bigotry. It’s plain common sense.” Eat your heart out, Johnson’s pick for home secretary, Priti Patel. The road to Rwanda, it seems, began not on the shingle beaches of Kent but the green hills of North Yorkshire.

Not everyone in the party was happy with Hague. Indeed, the Tories’ progress towards radical rightwing populism might have stalled slightly had Michael Portillo not failed in his bid to lead the party after Hague stepped down. Instead, we got Iain Duncan Smith, and then Michael Howard and his promise to cut taxes and the bureaucrats who had allowed political correctness to go mad, as well as the “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” immigration poster that featured in the 2005 election campaign masterminded by Johnson’s go-to guy, Lynton Crosby.

So when Johnson blew on the dog-whistle during the 2016 referendum with his talk of Turkey joining the EU, it was hardly something no Tory had ever done before. He just blew it harder and longer – and, naturally, lied about it afterwards.

Of course, the Tory leader most affected was David Cameron, for whom Brexit meant an early exit from Downing Street, albeit one made (in marked contrast to Johnson’s) voluntarily and with his dignity still intact. Indeed, if anyone (apart perhaps from John Major) could at least claim to be the aberration among recent Tory leaders, it is probably Cameron rather than Johnson. Cameron, after all, wanted to persuade his party to stop “banging on about Europe” and barely mentioned immigration in his first two years as leader.

To Cameron, the path to power lay not through “white-van man” (the prototypical “Red-Waller”) but through creating a Conservative party that, by selecting a new breed of candidate and softening its strident tones, looked and sounded more like contemporary Britain – and one that recouped the party’s recent losses among the rapidly expanding ranks of the graduate middle class.

But even Cameron soon succumbed to the gravitational pull of populism. Under pressure from his own restless rightwingers, and confident that his hoodie and husky-hugging had done enough to win him “permission to be heard” from more socially liberal voters, he reverted to the “Tebbit trinity” of Europe, tax and immigration, with a big dollop of “law n’ order” on the side, albeit still accompanied by serving after serving of “our NHS”.

As Cameron’s great rival, Boris Johnson may have been safely (or supposedly safely) out of the way in City Hall; but he was nonetheless watching as well as waiting – learning exactly what would go down well in all the small towns, suburbs, and rural communities outside liberal-lefty London.

Sadly for Johnson, having dished Cameron, his best-laid plans went awry when his pet snake, Michael Gove, unexpectedly turned on him, forcing him out of the 2016 contest. But the winner was another supposed moderniser turned martinet, Theresa May, who had set aside her earlier worries about the Tories looking like “the nasty party” as she pursued her mission to create a “hostile environment” for unwanted migrants.

Even more importantly, it was she and Nick Timothy (her Dominic Cummings) who effectively moved the party toward the uber-patriotic, rhetorically more interventionist and anti-austerity Conservatism that, notwithstanding her losing her parliamentary majority in 2017, put the Tories within touching distance of so many of the seats that Johnson – with the same kind of approach, just more effectively and charismatically executed – was able to win two years later.

Nothing comes from nothing – and nor did Boris Johnson. True, he’s shown himself to have less regard than his predecessors for liberal democratic norms, as well as for the feelings of the business community (although even that difference can be overdone). However, he is not a Tory like no other. Johnson is merely the latest representative of a tradition whose worrying trend towards radical rightwing populism his successor will find hard to reverse – always assuming, of course, that he or she even wants to.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jul/10/tories-have-been-lurching-further-right-for-years-boris-johnson-was-just-the-latest

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘Boris Johnson faces a war on two fronts’, Sunday Mirror, 25 June 2022.

No army trying to defend territory wants to fight on two fronts. But the by-elections in Tiverton and Honiton and Wakefield suggest that’s exactly the challenge the Conservatives are facing.

Boris Johnson won in 2019 precisely because, by promising to ‘Get Brexit Done’, invest in public services and ‘level up’ the country, he managed to bring together traditionally Tory voters in the South and former Labour voters in the North and the Midlands.

Keeping both sets of voters onside is now proving very tricky.

It’s not just that, no matter where they live, they’ve realised that many of the PM’s promises meant nothing. It’s also that they want different things.

If the Tories try to win back voters the so-called ‘Blue Wall’ with tax cuts, where will that leave voters in ‘Red Wall’ areas who were promised more government spending?

Turns out Boris can’t have his cake and eat it after all.

Originally published at https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/60-target-seats-boris-johnson-27326809

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘Lessons for Conservatives from the double by-election blow’, FT, 24 June 20

Anyone who’s ever encountered a level crossing in France may have seen a sign reading Un train peut en cacher un autre — one train can hide another. That warning also applies to the two by-election defeats for the Conservative party this week. So spectacular was the Liberal Democrats’ win in Tiverton and Honiton that it risks obscuring the significance of Labour’s supposedly so-so win in Wakefield. Yet, inasmuch as by-elections can be harbingers of a general election to come, the latter matters just as much — if not more — than the former.

That’s not, of course, to deny the import of what happened in Devon on Thursday — and not just because it joins the list of iconic victories by Britain’s third party, going all the way back to Orpington in 1962. Following on from Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire, it completes a hat-trick of huge wins in traditionally true-blue seats for Ed Davey’s party over the past year.

True, if the experience of the 1980s and 1990s is anything to go by, then all three of those seats may well return to the Tories at the next general election — especially if the sheer scale of their defeat in Devon persuades Boris Johnson’s MPs to ditch him. The loss of Eastbourne to the Lib Dems in 1990 persuaded their predecessors to ditch Margaret Thatcher and John Major, her successor, held on in 1992.

But that should come as no comfort at all to the Conservatives. There are somewhere between 20 and 30 seats (recent boundary changes make it difficult to be more precise) that the Lib Dems could take from them on a 10-point swing at a general election. And the swing in Tiverton and Honiton was a truly terrifying 30 points.

Moreover, what was particularly encouraging for the opposition about the result there, and certainly for the Lib Dems, was the seeming willingness of Labour voters to vote tactically, setting aside any lingering resentment at the party going into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yes, Richard Foord is the constituency’s new MP mainly because the Tory vote fell by 22 points while the Lib Dem vote rose by 38. But the fact that Labour’s vote-share collapsed from 19.5 per cent to just 3.7 per cent came in very handy too.

That collapse matters because there were 17 seats where the Lib Dems came second to the Tories in 2019 and where the number of votes won by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens put together exceeded not only the Tory majority but the combined total for the Tories and the Brexit party. If, at the next general election, the Lib Dems can squeeze the Labour (and Green) vote in anything like the way that they’ve managed to do in these recent by-elections, those seats are ripe for the taking.

Sadly, for Keir Starmer’s party, there are actually relatively few seats in which they finished a decent second last time round and where Lib Dem voters returning the favour and voting tactically for Labour is likely to make that much of a difference.

Obviously, were Liberal Democrats to win a fair number of Conservative seats at the next general election, it wouldn’t harm Starmer’s chances of becoming prime minister, albeit, perhaps, as the leader of the largest party rather than one with an overall majority. But his main task is persuading people who voted Tory in 2019 to switch directly over (and, in many cases, back) to Labour.

And that’s why we shouldn’t ignore Wakefield.

Admittedly, the result there was hardly a ringing endorsement of Starmer and the Labour party, relying more, perhaps, on the Conservative vote dropping by 17 points than Labour’s rising by 9. Labour might also be a tad concerned that some former Tory voters may have plumped for minor parties rather than coming over to them.

But a 13-point swing in a so-called Red Wall seat still shouldn’t be sniffed at. For Conservatives, the Lib Dems are clearly a worry. But, even after Thursday, they simply aren’t their main competitor. That’s Labour, and a swing on the scale of the one Labour achieved in Wakefield would be more than enough to kick the Tories out of office at the next election.

Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/92685858-90cf-42b5-8f63-ae882114fad5

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘Tories should take a tip from Macbeth and be bold. But the party itself is infirm of purpose’, Observer, 5 June 2022.

“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly,” argues one of literature’s most famous regicides, Macbeth. Conservative MPs wanting rid of Boris Johnson, however, don’t seem so sure.

Some Westminster watchers, having convinced themselves that a vote of no confidence would be triggered as early as this week, are now picking up signs that even some of the prime minister’s most determined detractors would prefer to delay things, believing that byelection defeats in Wakefield and in Tiverton and Honiton will convince more MPs to vote to oust him.

Their hesitation is understandable but mistaken, based as it is on the assumption that, should Johnson survive such a vote, he is safe for another year. Yet, thanks to those who sought to defenestrate his predecessor, we know that this is not in fact the case. Should the 1922 Committee’s executive decide that another vote should be held, no matter how soon after the first one, then, if its chairman receives enough letters demanding one, it can go ahead.

The would-be assassins on the Tory backbenches, then, should be (to borrow from Macbeth again) “bloody, bold, and resolute”, “screw [their] courage to the sticking place” and just get on with it.

Yes, they’re right to worry that the PM might see off an attempt to unseat him this week, although the idea that every single one of the 160 or so Conservative MPs who form part of the government’s “payroll vote” would vote to hang on to him is for the birds. But were the number of MPs voting against Johnson to run into three figures, he would be badly wounded – so badly wounded that he might find it very hard to survive a byelection double whammy on 23 June.

At that point, some of the more realistic members of the cabinet might eventually summon up the courage to tell Johnson the game’s up. And, if they prove too cowardly to do so, there’s nothing to stop all those who voted no confidence in him first time round immediately writing to 1922 Committee chair, Graham Brady, to demand another vote, something he and his colleagues would find it tough to deny on a technicality, especially when that technicality (as we’ve already noted) doesn’t really exist.

None of this is to say, of course, that replacing Johnson will solve the Conservative party’s problems at a stroke, thus guaranteeing it a win at the next general election. True, it is unlikely to do it any harm: all in all, the historical precedents are pretty encouraging – think Macmillan replacing Eden, Major replacing Thatcher, and Johnson replacing May. But even if we accept, as students of politics are now routinely taught, that British politics has become ever more “presidentialised”, the salesman isn’t yet the be-all and end-all. The product – what a party thinks and says it’s for, as well as what it actually does when in government – still counts for something.

Unfortunately for the Tories, as others have pointed out, they are struggling to define their purpose and to point to much by way of concrete achievements.

In some ways, this is an inevitable consequence of being in office for over a decade: nearly all governing parties begin to run out of steam and ideas after a while. But it’s also the result of a glaring mismatch. On the one hand, there’s what the zeitgeist seems to demand, namely a more engaged and enabling state willing to accept both that the present needs to be paid for and the future needs to be planned. On the other is a party obsessed with restoring what many of its parliamentary and grassroots members regard as the eternal verities of its glorious Thatcherite past: low tax, low spend, deregulation and as little welfare state as the electorate will let the government get away with.

Since this is a dilemma that cannot easily be solved, the Conservatives (unless, of course, you’re naive enough to take their talk of “levelling up” half way seriously) have effectively condemned themselves to a pathetic politics of distraction, boasting about almost singlehandedly helping Ukraine to win its war against Russia, binning off desperate migrants to Rwanda, returning to imperial weights and measures and that hardy perennial, creating new grammar schools.

The delicious irony is that, while this risible rubbish is the stuff of a thousand wet dreams for the party in the media – the proprietors, editors and columnists of rightwing newspapers who are every bit as important a component of the Conservative party as its MPs and its rank and file – it has rendered voters so cynical that they appear to have dismissed the government’s recent, relatively generous cost of living package as just another gimmick designed to save Johnson’s skin.

It may, just about, come as some comfort to those Tories who still take an interest in the domestic politics of other European countries that they aren’t the only ones struggling. Looking across the continent, there are few countries where the Christian democratic, market liberal and conservative parties that make up the European mainstream right seem to be doing particularly well.

In part, that’s because, as many social democratic parties found a decade or so ago, it’s simply bad luck if you happen to find yourself in government when an economic (or some other) crisis hits. Moreover, as German Christian democrats can testify, even when you’re lucky enough to avoid that fate, governing parties in other countries are just as prone to exhaustion and the swing of the political pendulum as in the UK. Yet the difficulties faced by mainstream right parties in Europe are also a reflection of a more profound socio-cultural, as well as political, predicament.

Partly as a result of expanded higher education, the middle-class voters who were traditionally the mainstream right’s most loyal voters grew culturally more liberal from the 1970s onwards. Meanwhile, partly as a result of a backlash against mass migration in the 1990s, a fair few working-class voters who might have been expected to vote for the left were now up for grabs.

Attempting to ensure that they didn’t gravitate to the populist-radical right involved mainstream-right politicians feeling they had to talk tougher (particularly on immigration and in more nationalistic terms) than their more liberal, cosmopolitan voters felt comfortable with. That has led some of those voters to desert, leaving those politicians relying on often less well-heeled voters who tend to expect more from the state than mainstream right parties are inclined to provide.

For a while, the Conservative party, not least because it has always been happier than its continental counterparts to indulge in a spot of nationalism, to flirt with populism and to play the immigration card, managed this predicament better than some of its supposed sister parties. But, in going ahead with an in-out referendum and then backing a “hard” withdrawal from the EU, it badly overshot.

Ending free movement in order to “take back control of our borders”, for instance, appears to have contributed to a significant decline in the salience of immigration. That may, for the moment anyway, have helped see off Nigel Farage, but it may also have robbed the Tories of a stick with which they’ve traditionally been able to beat Labour. It also robs them of an excuse should the public come to worry excessively about numbers in the future, let alone about small boats crossing the Channel in the here and now.

Even more seriously, the UK’s withdrawal from the single market (without which a definitive end to free movement could probably not have been achieved) and the customs union is, most experts agree, bound to lead to slower economic growth for years to come.

For a party whose main appeal to the electorate has been its claim to deliver a higher standard of living and a reasonable level of public services, this is hugely self-defeating. Sadly, however, as Tobias Ellwood proved last week, for a Tory MP even to discuss the matter openly is to invite ridicule, most obviously from Johnson’s supporters keen to characterise those hoping to force the PM out as embittered Remoaners.

Their reaction points to a final paradox at the heart of their party’s current troubles: it is led by a politician renowned for his lack of principles but whose continued presence obliges so many of his colleagues not just to humiliate themselves but to close their minds as well.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jun/05/tories-take-tip-from-macbeth-be-bold-party-itself-infirm-in-purpose

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘Why “partygate” likely won’t be Boris Johnson’s undoing’, NBC, 25 May 2022.

It’s not so much that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has run into trouble recently as that he is trouble, and always has been. Anyone who has followed the ups and downs of his roller coaster career can produce a list as long as their arm of the scrapes he’s gotten himself into and, just as importantly, out of — most often as a result of his willingness to say and do whatever it takes to get him what he wants, regardless of the consequences for others, relying heavily on his charm and his chutzpah to see him through.  

The fact that, so often, his strategy has paid off has helped foster the impression that the prime minister is somehow superhuman, convincing his supporters that he will always be able to recover from reverses from which no mortal politician could possibly hope to bounce back. 

Yet even they could be forgiven for wondering whether “partygate” — the discovery that, at the height of the pandemic in 2020, lawbreaking social gatherings had taken place in his home at No. 10 Downing St. — would finally see his preternatural luck run out. 

It had come as a shock to the public when journalists revealed that politicians and officials appeared to have been breaking Covid-19 rules big time by holding boozy parties with Johnson — revelations that proved all the more damaging since adhering to those rules had left many citizens unable to comfort sick and dying relatives, and even attend funerals of their loved ones

Johnson the loveable rogue was one thing. But there being one rule for him and his friends and another for everyone else was too much, even for some who had previously given him the benefit of the doubt. The revelations put him in the gravest political jeopardy of his career.

Yet Wednesday, the day a scathing report by a senior civil servant into the parties was made public, it looks as if that luck still holds. In spite of the findings and a police investigation that saw 126 fines issued to 83 different people — including one which went to the prime minister himself — Johnson, it seems, is going nowhere.

To understand why and how that might be, we need to take a look back at Johnson’s by no means straightforward climb to the top of what one 19th century prime minister purportedly called “the greasy pole.” Nothing illustrates better than his ascent the combination of guile, recklessness and sheer good fortune that continues to cast a spell on enough of his colleagues and countrymen to allow him to hold on to his job. 

Johnson’s career in Parliament began poorly after he was sacked by one of his predecessors as Conservative Party leader (for lying about an extramarital affair that resulted in an abortion). But Prime Minister David Cameron then reportedly begged Johnson to stand for Mayor of London, apparently believing the celebrity he’d earned as a guest on TV panels meant he had a better shot than any other Tory of wresting control of the city from the Labour Party.  

Despite Cameron’s backing, Johnson then reneged on a solemn promise not to return to parliament until his term in City Hall was over. Once there, he contributed hugely to the pro-Brexit victory in the 2016 E.U. referendum — thereby helping ensure Cameron’s premature departure soon after, as the Conservative leader had staked his position on keeping the U.K. in the E.U. 

Johnson next rewarded Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, for her desperately unwise decision to appoint him U.K. foreign secretary by undermining her attempts to get a deal that would facilitate a Brexit deal at virtually every turn — only to resign that post and fight a successful guerrilla campaign to get rid of her so he could finally fulfill his life’s ambition and move into No. 10 himself.  

In order to ensure that his premiership would last more than just a few months, however, Johnson had to get Brexit done. That involved, among other shenanigans, unlawfully suspending parliament to help him make the case for an early general election in December 2019, victory in which then enabled him to finally extract the U.K. from the E.U. And it saw him negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union that, it turned out, he reportedly had no intention of sticking to, even if that meant the government breaking international law by proposals to unilaterally renege on a treaty.  

And then came Covid. Johnson’s instinctive (and, in normal circumstances, not unreasonable) antipathy toward telling the public what to do meant that early on in the pandemic he delayed taking the kind of firm and timely action that may well have prevented tens of thousands of Brits dying unnecessarily. That he then ended up in the hospital himself with the disease may have garnered him some sympathy, but it had little or no effect on how he dealt with the crisis: Desperate to rid the U.K. of restrictions that were costing the Treasury billions in lost revenue, he opened the country up in 2020 just as a second wave of the coronavirus was starting and then refused to lock down again in time to prevent tens of thousands of additional deaths. 

Johnson himself, however, was saved by the unparalleled early success of the U.K.’s National Health Service’s vaccine program. By summer last year the link between cases, on the one hand, and hospitalizations and death, on the other, had been broken, allowing the prime minister to get back to doing what he does best — setting out an optimistic vision of a post-Brexit, post-Covid Britain that would “build back better” and help those parts of the country that globalization had left behind, at the same time conducting a “war on woke” that would keep on board those culturally conservative working class, non-college-educated voters who had switched to the Conservative Party under Johnson. 

And then, in November last year, came “partygate.” The revelations were bad enough in themselves, but Johnson only compounded the problem by insisting in the House of Commons, to widespread incredulity, that nothing untoward had gone on, even though misleading Parliament is, by convention, a resigning offense. Little wonder, then, that his opponents, buoyed by opinion polls that showed a majority of voters thought Johnson was lying through his teeth, reckoned that, at last, his days really were numbered. 

That they still don’t seem to be is down to the impossibility of shaming someone whose entire career shows him to be utterly shameless, as well as hesitation on the part of the only people who could force him out before his government’s mandate expires in 2024 — his own Conservative colleagues. 

Many of them don’t like him. Even more of them don’t trust him. Yet most of them are still under his spell, believing that he can once again rise from the dead and help them hold together the electoral coalition that saw the Conservatives win big in 2019. And, sadly — at least for anyone who holds that lawmakers shouldn’t be lawbreakers — unless and until he looks certain to cost them rather than win them the next general election, they will remain so.

Originally published at https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/boris-johnson-sue-gray-partygate-report-uk-covid-lockdown-rcna30550

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘What does history tell us about how close Boris could be to his voter sell-by date?’, Telegraph, 1 February 2022

Boris Johnson seems absolutely determined to resist calls for him to step down. He is in good company. British prime ministers – with the exception of Harold Wilson and David Cameron – don’t tend to “go gentle into that good night”, preferring instead to cling on, limpet-like until their party is removed from office at the ballot box or, like Johnson’s immediate predecessor Theresa May, they are effectively forced out by colleagues hoping (not altogether unreasonably, it turns out) that a change of leader may persuade the public to forget their failings and give them a second chance.

As post-war political history shows us, even serious ill health hasn’t been enough to prevent previous prime ministers trying hard to bag and then hang on to the top job for as long as they can – although it has, for at least a couple of them, eventually furnished a convenient excuse for bowing out earlier than they might have wished.

Winston Churchill , for instance, was already in pretty poor shape by the time he regained the premiership in 1951 at the age of 76, and many of his colleagues – not least his ambitious foreign secretary, Anthony Eden – hoped he would retire after a year or so. But, in spite of an array of medical problems and an increasingly evident decline in his powers, he refused to relinquish the prize. And such was the Conservative Party’s concern not to be seen to be ditching the country’s iconic wartime leader that, even after he suffered a massive stroke in June 1953 that left him incapacitated for months, his colleagues connived in keeping the full story from the public.

Things might have been different for Churchill had Eden, ironically enough, not been ill himself as the result of a botched operation earlier that year. So serious were its consequences, in fact, that by the time Churchill was prevailed upon to reluctantly call it a day in the spring of 1955, Eden, too, was already long past his best. Even though his premiership got off to a superb start – he called an election almost immediately after taking over and increased the Tories’ overall majority from 17 to 60 – he was soon driving his ministers to distraction with what many of them regarded as his unwarranted interference in the running of their departments.

Naturally, their irritation pales into insignificance with the cause of Eden’s eventual departure in early 1957 – his responsibility for the doomed attempt to snatch back the Suez Canal in the autumn of 1956 and the knowledge among his colleagues that he had misled Parliament in denying any collusion with Israel and France in the build-up to the operation.

The episode emphasises the role (one reprised half a century later under Tony Blair) that a major miscalculation in foreign and military affairs can play in bringing down a premiership, especially when combined with a prime minister being seen to have been less than honest with the public on the issue. But it also risks blinding us to the equally important role played by far more mundane domestic considerations.

Because Suez looms so large in the story of Eden’s undoing, we forget that soon after the election, his chancellor, Rab Butler was forced to introduce a humiliating emergency budget just months after he had helped win the 1955 election with something of a giveaway before it. We forget, too, that – partly as a result – less than a year into his premiership Eden was being called on (by a disappointed Daily Telegraph, no less) to demonstrate “the smack of firm government”.

Indeed, it was those domestic difficulties, even though they weren’t reflected in a particularly significant loss of support in the polls (which came out far less frequently in those days anyway), that led Eden to reshuffle both Butler and Macmillan, much to the chagrin of both – one reason, along with their transparent desire to succeed him, why they did little or nothing to help their boss out over Suez and its aftermath.

In the event, it was the 62-year-old Macmillan who, after Eden resigned (not altogether unreasonably) pleading ill health, “emerged” as his replacement following “soundings” of the parliamentary party taken by senior Conservatives. And like Eden, he began well, turning things around after Suez and aligning the political and economic cycle to ensure that voters had “never had it so good”, resulting not only in a third consecutive election victory for the Tories at the general election of 1959 but yet another substantial increase in their Commons majority.

Again, however, a combination of economic difficulties at home and policy controversy abroad (not least his embrace of the end of empire and his failed attempt to join the EEC), soon saw his government run into trouble. Moreover, the sharp increase in the commissioning of opinion polls made its unpopularity even more glaringly obvious for all to see, as did a series of stunning by-election reverses – probably the first time, but by no means the last time, that such defeats would play a role in putting a premature end to a premiership.

The same can be said for another key factor in Macmillan’s early departure (which, like Eden’s, was officially put down to ill health) – namely the appearance of an opposition leader who appears more in touch with the public’s mood and priorities and who they can imagine standing on the steps of No 10. The Profumo affair in 1963, along with 1962’s infamous Night of the Long Knives, during which a panicky Macmillan sacked half his Cabinet, may have confirmed voters’ suspicions that he was past it. But Wilson did a fair bit to help them toward that conclusion.

Whether Labour’s Neil Kinnock played as big a role in Margaret Thatcher’s departure in November 1990 is rather more doubtful. But, in truth, he didn’t really need to. All the other elements were there: major policy failures and controversies (the Poll Tax and Europe); economic difficulties (the return of inflation worries); alienated, ambitious and seriously worried colleagues (Howe, Heseltine and Major); the party’s declining support revealed in poll after poll and dramatised by one or two spectacular by-election defeats (most obviously Eastbourne); an obvious waning (possibly due to incipient illness) of the premier’s powers; and a sense, overall, that they had done the job the party had needed them to do and that, since they were no longer trusted by voters and had gone from being an electoral asset to an electoral liability, it was time to spin the wheel and move on.

A look at that list – and at the history books more generally – should surely worry Johnson, especially now that Labour (probably for the first time since Blair) can boast a leader of the opposition who, for all his lack of charisma, probably passes the proverbial ‘blink test’ as a potential prime minister. Just as they were under Theresa May, most, if not all, of the criteria for an early exit would appear to be met. And if Johnson does eventually go, then, unlike some of his predecessors, the current occupant of No 10 won’t be able to plead infirmity – except, his critics would say, moral infirmity – as even the flimsiest of excuses.

Originally published at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/02/01/does-history-tell-us-close-boris-could-voter-sell-by-date/

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘Just what exactly is continuing to keep Boris Johnson in power?’, Observer, 17 April 2022.

oris Johnson beware. Ever since Britain first became a democracy in 1928, its prime ministers have been booted, or winkled, out of Downing Street rather than departing purely of their own free will. The only clear exception to the rule is Stanley Baldwin, who in 1937 announced his retirement, having won a massive majority two years earlier and then ridding the country of its scandal-ridden, pro-German monarch.

Every one of Baldwin’s successors, apart from Macmillan (who quit owing to ill-health) and Wilson, who might have been able to hang on longer had he not quit before illness and exhaustion overwhelmed him, has resigned after losing a general election (Churchill, Attlee, Home, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Major and Brown) or losing the confidence, or at least testing the patience, of their parliamentary colleagues (Chamberlain, Churchill, Eden, Thatcher, Blair, Cameron and May).

Given, then, that ejection from within rather than from without is by no means uncommon, Johnson surely has cause for concern. Never as stunning as many imagine, his standing with the public is not only lower than it has ever been, it is lower than that enjoyed by many – indeed, quite possibly all – of his predecessors.

The PM is not widely trusted. He’s not considered competent. He’s not even that well-liked anymore. And we would find pretty much the same were we to scientifically survey Tory MPs at Westminster. They will be compulsively reading polls that, as the cost of living crisis really begins to bite, show Labour moving into a sustained lead not just on voting intention but on some of the key issues that help decide elections. Website ConservativeHome’s invaluable temperature-taking of the party’s grassroots suggests they are considerably less impressed with Johnson than they used to be and considerably more impressed with many of his colleagues.

Since so many of the underlying factors associated with a party getting shot of a prime minister would seem to be in play, one might have been forgiven for assuming that Johnson being issued with a fixed-penalty notice over partygate would have lit the blue touch paper.

And yet. And yet. Nothing to see here. At the last count, around 80 Tory MPs had voiced their support for the PM, apparently seeing nothing wrong with him breaking the laws he himself had made and misleading parliament about doing so. So far, only three MPs have called on him, in terms, to go since news of him and his chancellor being fined broke last Tuesday, while the only member of the government to quit in protest sits in the Lords not the Commons.

True, all that leaves well over 250 Tory MPs who have chosen to keep schtum, including many who, whether as junior ministers or lower-level bag-carriers, make up the “payroll vote” whose members are obliged to toe the party line. But anyone hoping that their silence is ominous, as opposed to simply spineless, is likely to be disappointed.

The reasons for this, according to the majority of Westminster-watchers, are mainly circumstantial. But is that the whole story? We’re informed, for instance, that even the most jaded of Johnson’s colleagues are having second thoughts after seeing him strutting the world stage once more, with Ukraine providing the party in the media (the columnists and the editors of the Tory-supporting press) with the “Don’t they know there’s a war on?” logic for keeping him in place. Yet, as others have pointed out with reference to two world wars and one Gulf war, that spurious logic hasn’t stayed MPs’ hands before now.

We’re also told that Rishi Sunak’s recent fall from grace, combined with lingering doubts about his keenest rival, Liz Truss, makes a leadership contest less likely since, the argument runs, there is no consensus as to who would take over. To which the obvious rejoinder is: when has such a consensus ever been required previously? If you’re stuck in a burning building with only one fire exit, you don’t wait to find out what’s on the other side before pushing open the door.

Then there’s the argument that, especially now that we’re fretting about our household finances, partygate is old news. It’s even suggested that we’ve all spent so long discussing whether or not the police would eventually fine Johnson, his breaking the law is effectively “priced in”, just as so many of his other fibs, flaws and foibles have been over the years. The problem with this argument is that for every survey cited to claim that the public wants to “move on”, one can find another that shows they’re still very angry about the whole thing and, by a substantial majority, want the PM gone.

And now there’s Rwanda. Apparently, only an out-and-out radical rightwing populist like Johnson could contemplate something so bold, all the more so if the liberal left falls headlong into such an obvious war-on-woke elephant trap. But is that the case? Take it from someone who’s spent far too long studying the issue: Tory governments have always stooped to conquer on immigration. It’s what they do.

We need, then, to look beyond pure contingency at the deeper reasons – some rational, others less so – behind Conservative MPs hanging on to Johnson in spite of what polling, their consciences, and some of the braver souls on their own side, might be telling them otherwise.

We could, for starters, look to “rational choice” approaches to politics. For example, one of those braver souls, the Tory peer Daniel Finkelstein, thinks Johnson should go but doubts he will, citing what he calls “a market failure in political coups” due to the fact that, although the majority of a party’s MPs might benefit from such a move, the costs, should it fail, are concentrated on the minority courageous enough to mount it.

Another explanation rooted in rational choice would focus on the fact that Johnson, since he has few, if any, fixed opinions and is now severely weakened, is relatively easy to push and pull in whatever direction most suits his colleagues and the media. Planning reform that might actually see enough houses built where they’re most needed? No thanks. Additional measures to combat Covid? I don’t think so. Net zero? Not so fast. Spending enough to really sort out social care or the NHS backlog or the chronic shortfall in local authority finances or the grave blow dealt by the pandemic to children’s education? Forget about it. Any new leader, by contrast, would, by dint of being given a fresh mandate, be far less easy to manipulate.

Then there’s the cognitive biases beloved of behavioural economists, in particular the sunk cost fallacy, which sees us carry on investing in projects (and people) into which we have already poured resources even when the possibility of a payback grows increasingly remote, a tendency exacerbated by the worry that giving the whole thing up as a bad job, especially if we’ve previously publicly defended our initial choice, would be tantamount to admitting we’ve been a bit of an idiot.

Perhaps, though, the explanation is even more psychological? Gratitude to Johnson for helping the Tories win a big majority back in 2019 is one thing, but gratitude is normally one of the most perishable quantities in party politics. “What have you done for me lately?” is normally the question to which leaders need to provide a persuasive answer. And in any case, does that gratitude really entitle the PM to exploit and abuse his supporters’ trust time and time again?

There is arguably, then, more than a whiff of co-dependency in the way that Johnson’s ministerial colleagues, by publicly defending him and prioritising his interests over their own dignity and conscience, effectively enable him to continue to behave in a manner that, from the outside anyway, would seem to be harmful to them. What’s more, keeping him there, whatever your politics, is surely trashing the idea that accountability needs to exist not only at elections but between them too. Ultimately, however, it seems to me that the ability of an utterly compromised prime minister to retain the confidence of his colleagues, in spite of his losing the support of the public and becoming a deadweight drag on his party’s popularity, must involve a degree of magical thinking.

Indeed, I would argue that like Churchill and Thatcher before him, Johnson has become what we might call a talismanic leader, one who, possessed by powers that sometimes seem superhuman, even supernatural, to his friends and foes alike will, whatever the current evidence to the contrary, supposedly see their party through the very worst of times and into the sunlit uplands.

A word of warning, however. As Churchill and Thatcher themselves learned the hard way, magic wears off. In an allusion that the prime minister himself may appreciate, talismanic amulets worn in Roman times occasionally bore the Latin inscription utere felix – “good luck to the user”. As we move towards local elections and a byelection in Wakefield, both of which could spell serious trouble for the Tories, Johnson and his parliamentary and media fan clubs are probably going to need it.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/apr/17/just-what-exactly-is-keeping-boris-johnson-in-power

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment