And so, the Johnson administration ends as it began, in absentia. Just as Boris Johnson started his election campaign ducking out of challenging interviews and into an emergency fridge, so it now ends: in the middle of a war, a climate crisis, a cost-of-living meltdown, an ongoing pandemic and a housing shortage, with him burrowed away in the countryside like a wounded badger. The Prime Minister who vowed to fight to the bitter end, left instead at the bitter beginning of the end.
Absence was also the defining state of his years in office, as more and more people left, resigned, got fired or ran away. From Dominic Cummings to ethics advisers, from junior ministers to chancellors, from Sajids to Javids, a hollowing out of government took place, with the PM convinced that his great office of state could still stand and function without them. Boris Johnson may be the first prime minister to have played Jenga with people’s lives.
The rules of the game now set, every participant has followed the lead. Priti Patel no longer turns up for Home Office scrutiny in the Commons, emergency Cobra meetings about the hot weather are practically phoned in from Sandals resorts across the Caribbean; our whole government has gone missing in action, though I use the term “action” very loosely here. In an act of mass desertion, secretaries of state who knew they weren’t going to end up in charge concluded there’s really no point showing up in demeaning posts like home secretary and deputy prime minister.
But then absence is what drives politics these days. Say nothing other than who you are not. Do nothing that may be used against you. Speak nothing when in front of a voting audience. Shut down hostile interrogation, get out of debates, delete Twitter posts from the past. In fact, pretend there has never been a past – and if there was, that you were never part of it, since the past is only there to taunt you.
Today, Nothing is the new Substance, and the winner shall be the one who says Nothing loudest. Costed policies, and thoughtful, stress-tested initiatives are replaced by biographical videos wrapped in flags and grandparents. It’s the evisceration of substance and the victory of emotion in contemporary political argument.
The message of each candidate is not so much “Here are the 20 things that need sorting right now, and this is how I would manage a team to sort them” as “I feel your pain and by getting me into office you’re sort of getting yourself into office too, if you see what I mean, and that’s a great thing”.
Hence the early stages of the Tory leadership debate resembled not so much a serious exchange of ideas and philosophies as a very bad episode of The Apprentice: a bunch of people mad enough to think they can hack it by cobbling together some marketing materials, even though their life skills are suboptimal, because they’ve groomed their voice, their clothes, their handshakes and their shoes to resemble a serious politician’s without actually being one. In this performative exercise, events from the past, the situation today and the crisis ahead are all irrelevant.
That’s for the boring bit after the election: for now, it’s all about who can stand in the room and most convincingly say, “I won’t let you down, Lord Sugar, I’m going to give it 300 per cent!” Or, if you’re Rishi Sunak, “Logically, Lord Sugar, you can’t commit to more than 100 per cent, but 90 to 100 is certainly what I’ll be aiming for.”
And of course, the two surviving leadership candidates make more of how they would perform the role of prime minister than what they would do in the post, since the party members to whom they appeal are looking for someone who reminds them of leaders past: the Thatchers and… er, well, just the Thatchers, actually. Like the Star Wars franchise, the Tory party really only has one story it wants to regurgitate again and again, and that’s the tale of Margaret Thatcher.
They think it would be great to have her back but, since the motion-capture avatar technology Abba have been using for their concerts hasn’t yet been tried out on dead people, that’s not going to happen soon. Instead, here the party is with the final two candidates: Rishi Sunak, who wants to be like Thatcher, and Liz Truss, who wants to look like her.
They’ve both arrived at this position by having practised being prime minister since they were six, and spending the past two years campaigning by Instagram, using fonts, flags and photo ops, saluting to a president here, giggling on top of a tank there. It’s all cosplay politics designed to make you think they look like they know what they’re doing.
In many ways, it doesn’t matter if they don’t; it’s beside the point. The point is that we won’t be freaked out when – as we’re engulfed by the flames of hell on Earth, as our infrastructure buckles, our airports melt into the sea, our food queues stretch to the horizon and we fall into the death cycle of global warming alternating with nuclear winters – we have someone in post who tells us that all of this will eventually be solved with tax cuts.
Which candidate will it be? You decide. If you’re a Tory member. If you’re not, then your voice will be exactly where it was during the previous two changes of prime minister: entirely absent.
[See also: Will Liz Truss’s tax cuts work?]
This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special