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12 January 2022

Boris Johnson’s rule-breaking and risk-taking have finally caught up with him

The loyalty of Leave voters had hitherto given Johnson cover for his style of leadership – but their fealty has begun to wane.

By Helen Thompson

Boris Johnson’s attitude to risk has shaped British politics for the past three years. It made him Prime Minister in July 2019 and then helped him overcome the parliamentary impasse over Brexit by the end of that year. But his risk-taking has now eroded his authority to such an extent that he might not lead the Conservatives into the next election. 

Even after the years of cultivating his “Boris” persona – as a journalist and as mayor of London – it was in 2019 that Johnson’s personality really started to have a serious bearing on British politics. Prior to the EU referendum, he behaved as any Eurosceptic Conservative MP ambitious to become PM might have done. Politically friendless, Johnson needed a grand cause to challenge the then chancellor George Osborne for the party leadership when David Cameron stepped down before the next general election: nothing was so obvious in the circumstances as advocating for Brexit. 

But, after aborting his campaign to win the Conservative leadership election in the summer of 2016, he shrank. With Theresa May’s ability to deliver Brexit always in doubt, Johnson did not spend any of his Brexit capital acquired during the referendum to improve his position for any future contest to replace her. Most notably, he remained in May’s cabinet when, in December 2017, the backstop provisions agreed with the EU on Northern Ireland made it clear that she was pursuing a withdrawal agreement with no chance of being passed in the House of Commons. By March 2019, Johnson was voting “yes” on a meaningful vote where “no” won a majority of 58.

The elections for the European Parliament in May 2019, when the Tories won just 9 per cent of the vote, rescued Johnson. An idea took hold in the party that only a chancer such as “Boris” might deal more effectively with the EU and the House of Commons and so save the Tories from permanent annihilation. Johnson delivered. He got the Irish government to move on Northern Ireland and shrewdly reckoned that the more resistance to Brexit he invited in parliament and the Supreme Court, the easier it would be to prevail in a general election. 

Having secured Brexit and resurrected the Conservatives, Johnson could not have confronted a turn of events less conducive to his temperament than Covid. The pandemic has been a reckoning: on his own confession, years of ill-discipline with his diet and lifestyle contributed to his near-death experience in 2020. With respect to public policy, he had little choice but to introduce the politics of rules in ways that have been more intrusive in daily life than anything ever seen in postwar Britain. 

The question of whether Johnson was temperamentally capable of keeping to the rules he enforced on the public has overshadowed his entire political future since the first lockdown in March 2020. It is not possible for national leaders to ask voters to sacrifice their normal lives – their relationships, jobs and the need to be with loved ones at the end of life – without them being willing to follow the rules too. At the end of 2021, this new reality finally damaged Johnson after stories emerged (and are still emerging) about parties and gatherings at No 10. When it did, Johnson’s reputation was especially vulnerable since the Queen, in her obvious loneliness at Prince Philip’s funeral, had demonstrated to the country what it meant to suffer in the name of respecting the rules.

The loyalty of Leave voters had hitherto given Johnson cover for his style of leadership – delegating the specifics of managing the pandemic to others. After all, it was the Leave voters’ anger in 2019 that made Johnson. He became the last hope that the referendum result would prevail. Like them, he too was cast as the villain for voting to leave the EU in 2016, which they did not wish to repent. Now, he appears just like any other politician who thinks he is more important than the voters. Unsurprisingly, Conservative support among Leavers has crashed, and Keir Starmer is enjoying his first set of regular Labour leads in the opinion polls. Nor does Johnson have any Leave cards left to play to win back those voters who have deserted him. Just as the future of Northern Ireland could not save Remain in the 2016 referendum, a crusade about whether the European Court of Justice should have authority in the province will not work with disaffected English Tory voters from 2019 in the next general election. 

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Whether Johnson’s luck is exhausted may be determined by the net zero target, which aims for a huge increase in green energy. He is a proponent of net-zero’s transformative possibilities, and appears indifferent to the extraordinary economic and political difficulties that realising it will entail. But here the “can-do regardless” spirit of “Boris” is aligned with the broader parliamentary consensus, the climate commitments of the EU and the Biden administration, as well as the financial institutions funding green investment.

Johnson’s weakness remains that sustaining net zero requires the kind of strategic thinking that can maximise the opportunities for levelling up while containing energy inflation, which he seems incapable of doing. But any plausible rival for the Conservative leadership will struggle to do much better. Johnson also still has an advantage: with the energy revolution, “Boris”-like displays of conviction that “there must be a way” are probably a necessary condition of getting very far at all.

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This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage