A cynical man without any plan

Boris Johnson was an opportunist Prime Minister whose gambler’s luck ran out


This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Μόνως φιλείν το εαυτώ συµβαίνον και συγκλωθόµενον. Τι γαρ αρµοδιώτερον; 

Love only what befalls thee and is spun for thee by fate. For what can be more befitting for thee?

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VII, 57

The loner will be alone. If not now, then soon enough. Boris ran out of friends to betray and followers to abandon about as soon as a man who started with so few of either could. 

He disappointed those who had hopes of him, but what of those who merely had expectations? Even then, his premiership contrived to end more miserably than Theresa May’s. For she at least was ground down by events. Whereas Boris Johnson was undone by the pettiest form of himself: the little man breaking free from the great man of history.

With his ear for a quip, this prime minister was fond of recalling Evelyn Waugh on Churchill (“simply a radio personality who outlived his time”) but now posterity claims the sometime Archie Rice of Downing Street: a man who will forever be associated with the moment he missed and the destiny he failed. The waters will close over him, and the idea of “Boris loyalists” will soon seem preposterous. There shall be no Borisites tending to his cult. 

It would be easy to go on in this vein, chiefly by virtue of it being true. As bourgeois morality tales go, few finer vindications will be found than in the public life of Boris Johnson. But none of this gets to what made him prime minister, or put him at the front of the campaign to leave the EU and the place in history that he is assured. Perhaps this will prove provoking to the worthy, responsible people whose mental equanimity he has done so much to disturb. We, however, should see him in his own time, for he was the politician we deserved.

In a presidential system, he would of course still be in place. Parliamentary politics was able to dispatch Boris in ways that a written constitution could not oust Donald Trump. 

So many similarities between the two great personalities of 2016 are asserted. Both were tribunes of causes they neither fully understood nor personally embodied (being effete children of privilege); both failed to get around the administrative state, or the permanent liberal hegemony. 

But this supposes that they were essentially the same thing, born out of a response to similar political environments where conventional politicians had failed to grasp what was necessary. This is balderdash.

Boris Johnson was an utterly familiar parliamentary figure: an adventurer who disliked his party bosses, and was disliked by them in turn. But with one great, Churchillian even, difference: he pulled it off. As, in truth, so few adventurers do.

Consider just his immediate predecessors as prime minister. A stolid party loyalist, whose career had been advanced from the earliest stages because of the imperative to promote women of whom there were too few; a stalwart party stooge who had actually worked for the party machine before getting a favoured seat, and who was propelled into the leadership by his immediate predecessor; an embittered heir who had fumed for a decade at the Treasury, having long since hacked his way into his party’s tribal belly; a gilded pet of self-styled modernisers who having failed with Kinnock spotted an opportunity upon John Smith’s death; an actual sometime whip and mistaken choice of dauphin by his predecessor. The previous British prime ministers going back to 1990 had a relatively commonplace path to office. 

Only Thatcher, by virtue of her sex and courage, and Churchill, 30 years into cabinet rank, buck the trend in the last century. Boris was a familiar thing, who did what people like him generally don’t: he won.

Observing Boris at close quarters dissolves the idea that great forces — and not contingency — put him in Downing Street. Take just two late steps in his eminently resistible rise: the Tories’ disastrous 2017 general election result; and the period between his 2018 cabinet resignation and the collapse of Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

No one thought Theresa May was going to lose the general election she called against Jeremy Corbyn. Yet she contrived to be the one person who struggled to beat him. She came close to resigning when the results were in. All eyes were on Boris. Her fate was in his hands. His response? A “Guys … ” WhatsApp message to Tory MPs urging them to rally round May. And, more importantly, a refusal to move against her himself. 

Had he done so, she could have fallen, in which eventuality he, most likely, would have become leader. He didn’t move. Nor did Boris move at May’s Chequers summit in July 2018. This was when she locked the cabinet into her doomed Brexit deal. No one resigned until David Davis got back to London. When he did, he obliged Boris to reluctantly and shambolically follow him out of the cabinet, in order to retain his standing as a Brexit champion. 

This was the nadir of Boris’s potential as leader. Commentators and colleagues alike wrote him off as a busted flush. Worse was to come.

May’s deal staggered on, into the political Somme of “meaningful votes” (MV1, MV2 and MV3). MV1 met with the heaviest defeat of any piece of government legislation in British parliamentary history. By this point, the Tory party was split every bit as badly as it was in the days of Joe Chamberlain and Tariff Reform. The final national election over which Theresa May presided as leader — the 2019 European parliament vote — brought the worst result in the Conservative Party’s existence. It came fifth, with an 8.8 per cent share of the vote.

May and her supporters argued that her deal was the only deal that could be got: get it, or get no Brexit at all. Moreover, reject it and get an election, no Brexit and probably Corbyn too. 

A majority of Conservative backbenchers, including Boris, dismissed this argument in MV1. But then Boris, and others, folded as the pressure mounted. It took the 28 “Spartans” of the European Research Group of Tory MPs to defeat the deal on MV3, triggering May’s resignation. 

Watching Boris at the ERG’s pre-vote meeting make the case for supporting May’s deal at MV2 would dispel any notion that he had a plan, let alone that his rise was inescapable. His speech was poor, his arguments ultimately unsuccessful. But his fate, like Churchill’s over the Norway debacle, was unimpaired. 

Ultimately, Johnson argued for May’s deal, and voted for it, despite the overwhelming likelihood that if the Tory Party had passed it in 2019, it would have gone into an election that year fatally split, facing a turbo-charged Brexit Party with the rallying cry that Brexit had been betrayed. Boris won because Boris lost. 

Just as Theresa May was the only politician who could fail to win a landslide against an IRA-cheerleading, institutional anti-Semtitism-enabling Marxist, she was also the only person who could make Boris Johnson prime minister. For it was her unique intransigence, and, at every step of her Brexit deal, her sublime political inability which forced the Tory party to turn to him. She worked extremely hard to paint them into this corner. Her central role in his rise should not be ignored.

Boris proved as empty as so much of his journalism. Never has anyone pronounced on so much public policy — Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy, the culture wars — with so little bearing on what they then proceeded to do in office. Even on Brexit, the shadow of the second column looms: for an ineluctable force, Boris all too plausibly could have eluded it as well. 

His pagan cynicism allowed him to break the third wall of politics and journalism, by knowingly winking at audiences high and low about the absurdity of the pantomime. Flattered, people and elites alike enabled him to get away with it. Yet so fundamentally rotten was his political position that the great sexual adventurer fell when he ventured to apologise for someone else’s misadventures in the Carlton Club. Catching Capone because someone else didn’t pay their taxes captures the triviality of it all. 

Embarrassingly sophomoric rhetoric about fantasies of state reconstruction vanished with advisors whose bluff was painfully called. But what was Boris supposed to do, other than win?

Overstating the brokenness of Britain was central to the 1997 electoral triumph of New Labour. Whether Labour wholly believed their critique, they wholeheartedly put their solutions into effect. Whatever Boris journalistically said at the time, for whatever popular effect, he didn’t believe the catastrophic Blairite diagnosis then and there’s no reason he can be thought of as sharing it now.

Casting Boris as the instrument of historical forces entirely fails his understanding of them. Intellectuals think Boris became prime minister because the country was broken; Boris knows he became PM because it was working, not least for him. 

Boris knew Brexit could be secured so long as there was a prime minister prepared to see it through — it was a restoration at most, and certainly not a revolution. This, more than anything else, explains his equivocal relationship with Brexit after it was done. He had no further use, or plan for it.

For, unlike so many other politicians of his era, Boris Johnson does not see what is not there. He was a prudent gambler who ran out of luck.

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