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  1. Election 2024
25 September 2020

Why Boris Johnson’s voters will learn to despise him

This country is never kind to its prime ministers, but the manner of Johnson's ascent to power means he will have an especially hollow legacy.

By Jonn Elledge

It has always seemed to me that Boris Johnson has a very Roman approach to politics. In the last centuries of the Republic, one of the main measures of political success was the speed at which a man (yes, they were always men) progressed through the cursus honorum, the course of offices. The greatest plaudits of all went to one who managed it suo anno, “in his year” – who reached each rung of the ladder at the youngest age the rules allowed. To put it another way, a key measure of success in the politics of the Roman Republic was simply the speed at which one amassed power.

So it is with Boris Johnson. He’s never seemed concerned with nerdy stuff like policy, and has changed his beliefs whenever they became an inconvenience: the liberal, centrist mayor whose biggest concern seemed to be protecting the City in the wake of the financial crash has been superseded by a reactionary, nativist Prime Minister who couldn’t give a fig about the damage a hard Brexit will wreak on London’s financial services sector. All that has ever mattered is optimising his chances of climbing a little further up the greasy pole.

Well: now he’s reached the top. Having not only become Prime Minister, but delivered his party its first decent majority in over 30 years, there are no worlds left to conquer. So what now?

Another thread that runs through both late Roman Republican politics and the career of Boris Johnson is that of populism. In both cases, the ability to whip up a mob, to command support through sheer charisma, was another key factor in political success. It’s tempting to note that in neither Rome nor today’s Britain were all animals created equal – that just as the votes of the rich counted for more in the Republic, so older, whiter, more Brexit-y votes count for more in Britain today – but perhaps that would be overdoing the analogy.

Suffice it to say that, just as acquiring power in late Republican Rome was sometimes a matter of using the streets to showcase how much support you already had, so flattering press from client media was key to the ascent of Boris Johnson. The ability to command applause was not simply a result of climbing that greasy pole: it was the force that propelled men up it.

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So what happens when the applause stops?

What I suspect will happen to Boris Johnson is what has happened to every other Prime Minister in living memory: by the time he leaves office, this country will hate his guts. I don’t just mean the people who’ve hated him all along: there are plenty of those, and he’s clearly factored their loathing in. I mean enough people will hate him that it’ll become inescapable, the background hum of everyday life, and currently friendly papers will join the scorn.

It seems improbable now, but Tony Blair was once the most popular politician in Britain. In September 1997, as the way his voice broke for the recently deceased Princess Diana seemed to speak for a nation, his net personal popularity rating hit +90 per cent. By the time he left office, similar polls were giving him a rating of -40, and 13 years on his support for any cause still feels like a curse.

In 2017, Theresa May managed to undergo a similar turnaround in her polling in just a few short weeks. That was unusually dramatic – but it’s hard to think of a prime minister who hasn’t left office with an overwhelming majority of the British public delighted to see the back of them.

Already, in the talk of Tory frustration with their leader and the flood of praise for the mediocre work of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, there are signs that Johnson’s popularity is on the slide. But even if there weren’t, it seems a pretty safe bet, because this is how this country treats its leaders, even ones who deserve it a whole lot less than he does. Boris Johnson has risen through the ranks, propelled by no cause more noble more than his own hunger for power. As he’s done so, he’s shown repeatedly that he craves applause more than he cares about delivering on any particular policy agenda or ideological mission.

But soon enough, the applause will stop, because it always does, and his power will ebb away, and this time there is no next step on the ladder to think about.

Take this as some small consolation in the months and years of terrible government to come. One day, Boris Johnson is going to leave office, just as hated as every prime minister that came before him. The only things he ever cared about were power or popularity. Soon enough, in the scheme of things, he will have neither.

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