If you could extract, bottle and market the essence of Boris Johnson’s politics it would be the Rwanda refugee scheme. It has a distinctive acrid tang every voter’s nostril will react to. Indeed, it’s so distinctive it obliterates most other political controversies, perhaps even the police fines for No 10’s lockdown parties. It grabs almost every front page. Most pertinently and entirely intentionally, it drives liberal and leftish Britain, including almost all broadcasters, into a paroxysm of gibbering, disorientated rage.
Like other Johnson initiatives, it may not work (think Brexit/the Northern Ireland protocol) and may not happen (think the Thames Estuary airport, the bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland). Senior civil servants apparently think it’s illegal. It would likely lead to violent scenes as men are forced on to aircraft. It’s not about processing. It’s about mass deportation to an African autocracy with a brutal history.
But for students of Johnsonian politics, it’s a corker. It challenges the opposition to explain what they’d do instead, as the number of dinghy-travelling migrants rises month by month. Mainly, it ensures that everyone’s talking about what Johnson prefers them to talk about. It carries him through a tricky fortnight; and what else is a policy initiative for?
And yet, even if you take a cynical approach to politics, there is a problem with it.
You might think that, deep down, British voters want immigrants to be sent abroad. But already New Statesman polling tells us that this group is a minority. Everyone understands that the policy is about keeping Tory Britain loyal to Johnson. Even so, keep taunting liberal Britain and one day there comes a point when liberal Britain is bigger than you are. As this policy unravels, middle-class Tory moderates will recoil from it. Yes, Johnson is the great distractor who surfs cheerfully over maximum chaos. The trouble is that, by now, we know him. And once you know someone is a master of distraction, the distraction works less well.
There is an even bigger problem. If you think voters are essentially focused on their own interests, why would you think the cost-of-living crisis wouldn’t worry them more than migration? Distraction is a potent political tactic. But you can’t distract people for long from being broke.
Meanwhile, partygate isn’t over. Ministers might wish us to move on, but there are more fines to come and the full version of Sue Gray’s report to be published. On this, Johnson’s best argument is about proportion. Here is a war. Here is a birthday cake. Here is a devastated city. Here is a Tupperware box. Here is a world-changing event, to which any serious leader must give full attention. Here is a brief party, which hurt nobody directly and was rather a long time ago. Get real.
I lay out this, despite knowing that New Statesman readers will immediately have many “buts” popping into their minds, because this basic argument about absurdity and disproportion is a real one and will have affected many voters. It’s idle to suppose otherwise.
So, let’s look at it. It’s not distraction so much as deflection. It’s, “All right, I might have stolen your bicycle – but, to be fair, I didn’t burn down your house, and your house is more important than your bicycle.” It comes close to, “All right, I might have broken a law but there are more important things out there than puny local laws.”
But laws, the confirmed rules of national life, are non-negotiables for civilised societies. They are flinty bits of absolute scattered through a mush of compromise and second-rate behaviour. Or, at least, that is how they must be regarded by those who make the law.
This is especially important in modern Western societies that have developed vast inequalities of wealth and power. Everyone is aware of the super-entitled elites in their privileged networks, but, to the disappointment of the radical left, most of the time most people seem to vaguely accept it. Are they lobotomised? Victims of mainstream media propaganda? Insufficiently well read on the latest interesting bulletin from the Fourth International? Maybe. But maybe, rather, it was because life seemed to be generally improving.
And certainly, too, it is because this unfairness exists alongside a different value system, fairness before the law, which partially tames it. “Partially” because expensive lawyers, available to only a few, challenge legal fairness – as do juries’ class or racial prejudices. But the idea matters. Strip it away, show there’s one law for the political elite and one law for the rest, and you open the door to the politics of rage.
We know this. We saw it, in a small way, at the time of the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal. As people reflect on the funerals, missed goodbyes and destroyed family arrangements caused by the pandemic rules that Johnson and his friends then broke, we’ll feel it again.
A sense of unfairness isn’t an abstract problem. At some point, perhaps soon, Johnson and Rishi Sunak are going to have to tell the rest of us to do something we don’t much want to do – to make some sacrifice, to pay some price, to change the way we do this, or that. And we will think: but you didn’t pay the price. And… we won’t do what we’re told.
The horrible geopolitical situation makes this problem worse. Across the West, old conventions, old rules, old “normals”, are crumbling. From Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy”, to the continuing Trump insurgency, to the millions of French voters behind Marine Le Pen, the rebellion against the postwar liberal capitalist settlement is gathering pace.
Now that a real dictator is testing the West, is this the best moment to decide that modern Britain should be a bit less rules-based, a bit less “British”? Never has there been a time when it is more important to assert the detail and sanctity of the rule of law in this country.
Johnson has done well during the Ukraine war. Much of the UK’s performance might have been down to the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, rather than to Johnson. And now that the Prime Minister is Russia’s declared number-one enemy, some may be beginning to wonder whether the pair have put the UK in an abnormally vulnerable position. But, come what may, does anyone think that a Britain run by Jeremy Hunt, or Tom Tugendhat, or Tobias Ellwood would have been less enthusiastic about supporting Kyiv? Ludicrous.
I don’t think the distraction of the Rwanda scheme, or the argument that the response to partygate is disproportionate, or – for much longer – the Ukraine war puts the Prime Minister in a strong position. The question is: who is going to do anything about it?
There are big choices ahead for the parliamentary Conservative Party. Do MPs believe they were lied to by the Prime Minister? Will they hand the matter over to the Privileges Committee? As I write, it doesn’t seem likely that the Tories in parliament will act decisively. A few brave souls apart, they will, again, allow things to roll on.
Already the siren voices are saying: something must be done, not now but certainly… er, at some point… this summer. I see myself already standing at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this autumn, observing from the back of the hall the opening Boris Johnson film. It starts with images of huddled refugees at the Polish border. Very soon, we see Johnson, in his incongruous suit, striding through Kyiv with President Zelensky, hailed on all sides… The hall erupts.
No. There is only one court for this, a court the Conservative Party listens to even more intently than it does to the Prime Minister. It is time for the electorate to make our views known. It is time for the court of public opinion to pass down a verdict. Across the country there are local elections coming soon, some of the most significant we will ever have seen.
There is also Wakefield; a peach-perfect, ideally timed by-election. Oh joy. Will it matter? My first by-election as a young reporter was in Brecon and Radnor in 1985, and was won by Richard Livsey for the SDP-Liberal Alliance. I was shown the ropes by one of the most experienced political reporters around, the late Bob Carvel of the Evening Standard. He explained why it wouldn’t really matter. When, at the end of the campaign, I thanked him for his wily advice, he told me that he had been shown the by-election ropes by a reporter who had covered William Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign. (The dates work, just. Bob began as a reporter before the Second World War and Gladstone concluded his Midlothian campaign in 1880. So, a young Victorian hack who had carried on until his seventies could easily have passed on the baton.)
My point is that in all that long span, and into recent years, very few by-elections have been nearly as important as they seemed at the time. The great SDP by-elections, even in 1982 when Roy Jenkins returned to the Commons by winning Glasgow Hillhead, turned out not to have transformed British politics.
But some do land a real blow. The Tories lost Eastbourne in 1990 to the Liberal Democrats after the murder of the sitting MP Ian Gow by the IRA. Margaret Thatcher was already in deep trouble; the poll tax was eating away at Tory support and colleagues were tired of her style. This was a verdict, not an earthquake, but the vote in Eastbourne did contribute to the end of the Thatcher era.
Wakefield, a classic “Red Wall” Tory seat in West Yorkshire, might come to matter too. It voted for Brexit by 66 per cent. Imran Ahmad Khan’s majority there was a pretty decent 3,358 votes. And, remember, the Tories haven’t lost a by-election to Labour for a decade. This is exactly the kind of seat that is supposed to react enthusiastically to the Rwanda initiative. If the Tories lost, it would suggest that partygate and the cost-of-living crisis matter most. It would send a shiver of unease through the new Red Wall Tory MPs. Would it be decisive for Johnson? Who can tell.
Of course, the reverse is also the case. West Yorkshire must go Labour if the party is to return to government. If Keir Starmer fails to find the right candidate (the most interesting and imaginative thought might be Ed Balls) and win Wakefield, his leadership is in deep trouble. Either way, the next move in British politics is rightly for the voters, who gave Boris Johnson his authority in the first place.
Rwanda? Cake and lies? Rishi and the cost of living? Enough already. Hand it to the voters. That, after all, is what Kyiv believes in and Moscow doesn’t. If Boris Johnson clears these hurdles, then he has won the right to take his party into the next general election and continue in power. If.
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman, subscribe here.
This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder