Photo by Stefan Rousseau
Artillery Row

Beyond a joke

Boris was fun once, but nobody’s laughing anymore

Mea culpa, mea culpa. I was one of those people who thought Boris Johnson would be a great Prime Minister. Please, no dog shits in the post. 

Of course, I was acutely aware of his failings. His lack of focus, his inability to distinguish fact from fiction, his sophomoric attitude to women and sex. He is, or at least was, a yellow haired Falstaffian confection; a glorified jester, who always wanted to entertain the court — and usurp the King. After Blair, Brown, Blair 2.0 and Mrs May, he seemed both a break from the immediate past and a return to a more colourful era of British Prime Ministers with bawdy, gutsy personalities, leading a bawdy, gutsy country. He blazed into a Parliament locked in crisis. He vanquished a Labour Party genuflecting before mad old men. But, now, the yellow hair, like the joke, has worn thin. The jester seized the crown, and everybody’s stopped laughing.

Johnson is the Tories’ most likely ticket to failure

Humour can be a great weapon for a politician: indeed, it can be a great weapon for anyone. The weedy schoolboy, humiliating his bullies. The dissembling film star, shrugging off his night with Miss Whiplash. Perhaps Ronald Reagan marshalled it best, deploying folksy charm and slick one liners to buttress and promote his administration’s very ideological approach to revitalising America. I assumed Johnson would follow a similar presentational model. He was never a details man, but details can be subcontracted. As a popular figurehead for a difficult project, he had obvious potential. “We need to bring spending under control.. Gosh, folks. Phwoaar, crumpet.”

What has Johnson achieved? A half-baked Brexit-on-paper, which he won’t embrace the logic of. Massive public spending increases: sometimes justified, but mostly frittered away on ego trips, white elephants and sinecures. The highest tax burden since the war. The few younger voters the Tories did enjoy turning away as they realise no meaningful house building will take place. Rocketing energy costs: partly the result of international issues, yes, but made far worse by Johnson’s refusal to budge on the eye-watering subsidies he’s imposing. Modish “public health” strategies which, again, penalise the average voter. An NHS that has never been more expensive, and never less efficient. Random “windfall” taxes on companies. Taxes on the poor; taxes on aspiration. Interference; incompetence; incoherence; plain stupidity. Perhaps worst of all, he’s demonstrated a weakness of character that makes it extremely difficult, in the wake of his endless bumbling, for businesses or individuals to plan and proceed.

“Ah, yes, but he’s a winner,” Johnson’s dwindling band of cultists tell us: “He wins.” But he doesn’t win. Not anymore. His personal poll ratings are lamentable, both amongst Conservative members and the public at large, and he’s dragging his party — and, much more importantly, the country — into the mire with him. He is not the Tories’ ticket to success, but their most likely ticket to failure. The idea he is the victim of some orchestrated coup is absurd.

Former Tory leader Michael Howard is not operating on behalf of Led By Donkeys. Paul Goodman, the editor of Conservative Home, has not suggested that the cabinet should step in because he wants to install Keir Starmer. Steve Baker does not spend his weekends planning our re-entrance into the European Union with Lord Adonis. Johnson was indeed the Heineken Tory. Now he’s the Heinekan’t Tory (I resisted the X-rated version of this pun).

I still don’t think there was any alternative in 2019

There are two years until the next general election. So much is wrong, and blaming it all on the pandemic, or trying to refight 2019, is not going to work. As these two by-election losses demonstrate, the public has made up its mind about Johnson — but it hasn’t embraced Starmer. Yet.

Endless column inches have been written by Conservative-leaning figures highlighting the need for change. But the government will not change whilst Johnson remains in charge. The writing has been on the wall for months now, and all we’ve had is obnoxious repeats of the chaotic strategy and behaviour that has crashed this administration.

I dread to think what ludicrous pronouncements will be made in the coming days, as Johnson tries to re-float his scuppered premiership. Another tax hike, perhaps. A “free” portable solar panel for every schoolchild. A giant statue of Carrie Symonds in Parliament Square — cradling Dilyn the dog, swathed in LGBTQI+ bunting. “You gotta dance with the one that brung ya,” Reagan once noted. Johnson in government tried to dance with his most vociferous opponents — and his heroically patient supporters have now snapped and dropped him.

Plenty of people on the left and right will smugly note that they told us so. I still don’t think there was any alternative in 2019. Jeremy Hunt was Mrs May with a sprung floor. Corbyn and McDonnell are nuts. But I wouldn’t even consider supporting the Conservatives again until Johnson is gone. Mea culpa, mea culpa. Emergimus in perpetuum mutati.

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