Boris Johnson wants the war in Ukraine to end. Of course he does. But if I were him — calculating, self-serving and narcissistic — I might secretly be hoping that it is not finished too soon because in some ways it has served his purposes well.
Yes, it has exposed his and the Conservative Party’s cosy dealings with unsavoury Russian oligarchs. Yes, his government has been lamentably slow to help Ukrainian refugees. And yes, his likening of Ukraine’s courageous resistance against Russia’s military might to Brexiteers opposing EU membership was crass.
But the war has also relieved the pressure on Johnson to resign for partying during the Covid lockdowns, and for lying about having done so, and has precluded any challenge to his leadership. It has enabled our wannabe Churchill to play the role of wartime leader — he is “desperate” to go to Kyiv, the Tory party chairman Oliver Dowden has admitted. It has allowed him to grandstand on the world stage, mingling at emergency summits and demonstrating that post-Brexit Britain is not yet a spent force. He has won praise from Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine, for his robust support and (less intentionally) from the Kremlin, which identified him as the most actively anti-Russian of Western leaders.
His opinion poll ratings have risen, albeit from abysmal levels, while Keir Starmer finds himself once again struggling for attention.
Beyond all that, the war has given Johnson a pretext for excusing, rising above, distracting attention from and generally avoiding direct responsibility for the relentless, unremitting litany of domestic woes that is now engulfing Britain. He is too busy saving the free world. Those woes include the steepest decline in living standards since records began in 1956-7; the highest tax burden since the 1940s; surging fuel and food prices, with inflation approaching its highest rate in 40 years; benefits heading for their lowest real levels since 1985, with 12.5 million people facing absolute poverty; a record six million people awaiting NHS treatment; Covid infection rates nearing record levels; a policing crisis; and a near-record backlog of court cases.
Johnson will seek to blame much of Britain’s dire state on the war in Ukraine, just as he managed to blame the hit to the British economy caused by Brexit on the Covid lockdowns. He will not be entirely wrong: the war is undoubtedly exacerbating Britain’s economic problems. But the truth is that we were in deep trouble on multiple fronts long before Russia invaded Ukraine, and that Johnson’s incompetent government had — and still has — not the faintest idea what to do about that.
Economically it is deeply divided between those favouring a low-tax, low-regulation Singapore-on-Thames model, and those favouring a high-spending, interventionist European-style social democratic model. It is split between spenders, borrowers, belt-tighteners and tax cutters at a time when we are already awash in a level of national debt not seen since the 1960s, and paying a stonking £83bn a year just to service it. It is caught between the conflicting demands of its traditional Home Counties base and new Red Wall constituencies. No wonder Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement on 23 March was so incoherent.
Johnson seeks to blame Britain’s energy dependence on previous governments, but chooses to overlook the fact his Conservative Party has now been in power for the past 12 years, and that he himself has been in high office for nearly half that time. The Tories are still split between supporters and opponents of net zero, between frackers, drillers, advocates of costly new nuclear power and those who would blanket the country with wind and solar farms. No wonder Johnson’s long-awaited energy strategy, due this week, has been delayed yet again.
The Prime Minister and his government have made no discernible progress on the supposedly core mission of “levelling up”. They have no comprehensive plan for alleviating the looming cost-of-living crunch, which will intensify with a 50 per cent rise in the energy price cap this Friday (1 April) to £1,971 and hit the poorest hardest.
They have no plausible plan for saving the NHS beyond pumping ever more money into it. They are nowhere near fulfilling Johnson’s promise to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all”. The advantages of Brexit remain elusive, to say the least. The “housing revolution” has been stymied by internal opposition to planning deregulation. For all Priti Patel’s best (or worst) efforts, asylum seekers continue to cross the Channel in near record numbers.
Will the war rescue Johnson? Will it serve to save him should Scotland Yard issue him with a fixed penalty notice for “partygate”, or the civil servant Sue Gray’s full, uncensored report on the matter be published? Will it give him enough of a boost to ease him past the next big danger point for his leadership — May’s local elections?
It may, but it certainly shouldn’t. Having “got Brexit done”, albeit by betraying Northern Ireland, his government has lost all purpose beyond crisis management and damage limitation. It has become almost entirely reactive, not proactive — winging it, busking it, making policies on the fly. It has no overarching strategy, no great programme of reform, no governing philosophy beyond its own survival. It is bereft of ideas.
Even the Daily Telegraph, formerly Johnson’s employer and sycophantic mouthpiece, has now rounded on the government, accusing it of “incoherence” and “intellectual chaos” in an editorial last Saturday that was headlined: “What does the Tory Party stand for?”
Johnson cannot defy political gravity forever. He cannot continue indefinitely to invoke Brexit to inflame his base, or to distract us with culture wars, or to blame everyone but himself for Britain’s problems. Sooner or later the gulf between his populist slogans, empty promises and mendacious boosterism on the one hand, and the grim reality of Britain’s social and economic collapse on the other, must become blindingly apparent. The point will come when not even Vladimir Putin can rescue Johnson any longer.