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The fall of the unpopular populist

Boris Johnson refusal to face a potential by-election is a reflection of his diminished standing.

By New Statesman

Boris Johnson once specialised in defying political gravity. He was twice elected mayor of London, a Labour city. Under his leadership, at the 2019 general election the Conservatives won the ­highest share of the vote for any party since 1979.

He once aspired to a decade as prime minister but has since fallen to Earth. Having endured the indignity of being forced out of office by his own MPs after three years as prime minister, he has now chosen to leave ­parliament in disgrace.

Contrary to Mr Johnson’s self-pitying resignation statement, he was not “forced out” by a “kangaroo court”. The finding by the House of Commons Privileges Committee – a majority of whom are Conservative MPs – that he deliberately misled parliament over partygate was as damning as it was inevitable. Only those with a vested interest in Mr Johnson’s political survival believed his feeble protestations of innocence (or feigned to do so).

Even then, there was an escape route for the “greased piglet”, as David Cameron, his former patron, once referred to him: Mr Johnson could yet have chosen to stand in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election. That he decided instead to quit is evidence that he has become that most unfortunate creature: an unpopular populist. A YouGov poll found that 68 per cent of the public believed he should resign if found to have intentionally misled parliament, and he has a net approval rating of -45.

In this week’s cover story, on page 18, Andrew Marr writes that Mr Johnson’s fall is not evidence of an establishment putsch but of parliamentary democracy working as it should. But we should not forget that it was the same system that enabled the former prime minister’s ­malevolent advance. Mr Johnson did not seize Downing Street in a coup d’état; he was nominated by 160 Conservative MPs – who knew his character flaws – and then overwhelmingly elected by the party membership. At every turn, his survival has depended upon the compliance and indulgence of others. Even now, there are Johnson loyalists and he has the support of Brexit-supporting right-wing newspapers.

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[See also: It’s time for Rishi Sunak to get ruthless with Boris Johnson]

Conservative MPs stood by Mr Johnson as he illegally prorogued parliament, expelled 21 rebel Europhile backbenchers, threatened to break international law, ­ennobled Tory donor Peter Cruddas (in defiance of the House of Lords Appointments Commission), ennobled the Russian businessman Evgeny Lebedev (allegedly in defiance of the British intelligence services) and breached party funding rules through his profligate redecoration of the Downing Street flat.

The surprise is not that Mr Johnson has now left ­parliament but that he endured for so long. As the former Conservative cabinet minister David Gauke writes on page 22, Rishi Sunak – a far more popular politician than Mr Johnson – would be wise ruthlessly to distance himself from his former colleague.

Readers should resist the temptation to celebrate Mr Sunak’s technocratic ascent, however. The Tories’ 2019 victory was accompanied by the promise of a more ­communitarian, more interventionist conservatism. Mr Johnson vowed to confront regional inequalities, to invest in infrastructure projects and to “spread opportunity more widely and fairly”. He had a chance – had he shown greater skill and discipline – to lead a cross-class political realignment. It did not happen. It could never have happened, in retrospect.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Johnson’s resignation statement made no mention of “levelling up” or of state activism. Instead, Mr Johnson – a perpetual shape-shifter – reverted to banal Thatcherism, imploring Mr Sunak to “cut business and personal taxes”. His audience is no longer the country but the narrow free-market faction of Brexit ultras that elevated Liz Truss to Downing Street.

But the maladies that Mr Johnson, however opportunistically, identified in 2019 endure in Britain: regional inequality, dilapidated infrastructure, stretched ­public services and stagnant living standards. There is no prospect of them being solved by Mr Sunak, a US-style free-marketeer who is most animated when championing “freeports”.

The resultant political void creates a huge opportunity for Labour – both to win power and to create a new political economy for this troubling age of geopolitical competition and international disorder.

[See also: Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson’s other enablers should never be forgiven]

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out