Lenin famously said that “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”. I wonder what he’d have said about weekends in British politics in the 2020s.
In the space of 72 hours Nicola Sturgeon was arrested and three Conservative MPs – Boris Johnson, Nadine Dorries and Nigel Adams – resigned. The latter for a curious combination of reasons. Part of the rationale is a fit of pique over not getting honours, a desire by Johnson to escape the consequences of his actions, and an attempt to destabilise Rishi Sunak. It’s questionable how effective the latter will be, though. Resigning from parliament would strengthen the Prime Minister’s standing within the Tory party, if not the chances of a majority in an election. Those MPs’ removal from the arena where leaders are chosen means Johnson and Dorries can wound but not kill; they’re losing the ability to shape events from within.
But this isn’t really about that, nor is it about shaping the party’s ideas. Johnson tried to pretend that it was: in his resignation statement on Friday (9 June), he said that Britain needs a “properly Conservative” government. Similarly, Nigel Farage appeared on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, arguing that the gap between Westminster and the public was even greater than during his zenith of influence when leader of Ukip – and that a realignment, a new political force, was necessary. Meanwhile, airwaves have been full of the former prime minister’s outriders describing Johnson’s genius, his alchemy and his unique loss to the Conservative Party.
So many of these claims are based on an entirely false set of assumptions. The gap that matters in British politics right now isn’t so much the one between the electorate and Westminster. It’s the gap between the Conservative right and the public and political reality. A gulf between the right’s ability to perceive the world as it is and as it would like it to be. Between the electorate they want and the one that is. For as long as it exists this gulf of reality poses an ongoing source of instability to Conservative politics, Sunak and any of his successors.
For Johnson and his followers, the following make up the architecture of their political understanding: that Boris Johnson is a political titan, a vote-winning machine, felled only by the establishment. That there remains a deep constituency for him even within the Conservative Party. That Rishi Sunak and his party are insufficiently conservative. That there is a Remain “blob” latent in all British institutions, and it is responsible for their failures.
It is largely nonsense. The political reality is as follows.
As all the polls now indicate, Johnson today is deeply disliked; his lustre, such as it was, blackened by how he governed and how he came to his demise. We often forget that during the partygate scandal Tory MPs moved not against the public, but with them.
That is why Johnson wouldn’t have been able to rely on their votes had he tried to contest the Privileges Committee’s recommendations in parliament. He wasn’t felled by an establishment, but by his unwillingness to defend his own actions in the Commons or to his constituents (a by-election would likely have been triggered if Johnson had not resigned). His standing, even with Conservative Party members, is not what it was.
Ironically, Sunak is, in many ways, more conservative than Johnson ever was. Many of the policies Johnson now rails against, such as high taxes, were his own, or the consequence of his own spending ambitions. Farage rails against Sunak’s policies without recognising that the Conservative Party has moved almost entirely in his direction over the course of the past decade in terms of policy, style and rhetoric. In so many ways, these people have already won.
The strange thing about the right is that its prejudices and lack of willingness to engage with political realities is shared by much of the most powerful players in the Westminster media. There is a ready audience for these assumptions. Parts of the Conservative right have inherited much of the thinking and style of the most doctrinaire elements of the old Labour left – in their dogma and inability to harbour challenge. But the crucial difference is that the media environment is far more hospitable to the Johnsonian right than it ever was to the fanatical left; the right has a huge echo chamber that amplifies and reflects its members’ thinking.
The treatment of Johnson exemplifies this. The entirely spurious claims in his resignation letter ought to have been rejected. But they were repeated without scrutiny in the country’s biggest newspapers. These papers in turn retain an outsized influence over broadcast coverage, which is even more influential on voters.
This situation is both a blessing and a curse. Though it gives the right influence, it denies them perspective. There is none of the introspection that the left must endure, in which every idea is pitilessly ground through the press mill. The metropolitan liberal elite may be somewhat unrepresentative, but at least it usually knows it. The (sometimes) metropolitan illiberal elites labour under the illusion they represent nearly everybody.
Much of this is displacement activity. For the first time, this section of the right has been in power, and power has disappointed them. Reality has not met their expectations. The politics of trade-offs and the hard grind of policymaking is less appealing than the politics of the hyperbolic, swashbuckling column or podium or tweet. Rather than confront some of these hard choices (as Brexiteers such as Sunak or Kemi Badenoch are doing), it is far better to pick fights over near-imaginary differences – and in so doing, create explanations for their own failure.
Whoever wins, the outlook feels bleak for the Conservatives. They’ve reached the stage of the electoral cycle at which many of the players, within the party and in the media, hate each other more than they hate or fear their opposition. Government, especially in the hothouse of British politics in the early 2020s, is exhausting – and these people are exhausted. Johnson seems destined to keep throwing bombs. Rishi Sunak, a supposedly decent man who prides himself on stability, will find himself continuing to sink.
[See also: Boris Johnson won’t be back]