The moral case against Boris Johnson scarcely needs to be made. Instead, let’s take him at his own estimation: that he’s intelligent, multi-talented and, above all, a born winner.
In his departure speech, Johnson stressed his electoral record in defeating Jeremy Corbyn. But winning in politics – which requires two victories, first gaining office, then the competent exercise of power – is more complex than in a sports match. An election win, though required to get you on to the pitch, is far from everything: the true final score takes time to be revealed.
And now we are seeing the real results come in. Everyone who backs Johnson ends up the loser. The Conservative Party and the country are just the latest victims. Anyone who buys shares in Johnson repents at leisure. Johnson’s legacy is usually the same: demeaning the office he’s just held. How is that being a winner? Johnson seduces organisations into making short-term decisions when they are in a state of need or desperation. Impatient pandering, via a populist showman, typically goes wrong in the end. In this instance, it went wrong sooner rather than later.
It is also questionable – or at least unsubstantiated – that Johnson is intelligent. The right term, surely, is “fluent”. Among the hundreds of thousands of words he has published, and millions he has spoken, can anyone recall a single insight? Intelligence always has a point. What’s Johnson’s? His academic record, if you’re interested in these things, is undistinguished. For someone who has bene-fited from every advantage that privilege can bestow (and that’s not a slight, but a fact), it is not much of an accomplishment to meander from Eton to a middling degree at Oxbridge. Given the lucky hand he was dealt, he achieved a baseline of routine competence.
That’s why Johnson’s deliberately arcane vocabulary, deployed as though he’s still trying to win the classics prize at prep school, is a tactical game. It created space for him, among those who don’t know any better, to play out his preferred fraud: that he is so intelligent that he doesn’t have to bother to be serious. The reverse looks increasingly likely. He is not intelligent enough to attempt sustained intelligence, so he daren’t try.
Beyond self-promotion, where are his supposed talents? I concede one. On stage and in person – though less so on television – he has real presence. He can pitch his voice in tune with a room’s vibrations. He understands the mob, and can find and tickle its baser instincts. Give him a sleepy, boozy post-dinner banqueting suite and he’ll momentarily stiffen them up with a dose of dubious patriotism and vainglorious swagger. A bit of lead in the pencil. A bit of bully-boy banter. They’ll swell and lean in optimistically. But only for a moment or two – before they forget all about it, loosen yet another button on the bulging dinner jacket as they slip off guiltily into the night, before making their apologies back home. That’s how the British will remember the Johnson premiership. A night out that took a wrong turn. A bit of fun that wasn’t funny.
No wonder the bitterest critics of Johnson’s leadership are the people who have enough in common with him to be tainted by association. Let’s list some of them.
Classical liberals (who find a cautious home among Conservatives) despair that this highly educated and metropolitan “liberal conservative” earned his power by riding the wave of Brexit’s coarser rhythms. Liberals are used to holding their nose and voting Tory. But ticking the Johnson box, so he could “get Brexit done”, brought a different order of anguish. Will they ever do something similar again?
A distinct category of decent conservatives fear something different: that even that phrase and concept, “decent conservative”, has been tested to breaking point. On the day Johnson became Prime Minister, I received this message from a non-ideological Conservative voter:“I am ashamed. I’ve had 15 prime ministers in my life and I’ve never felt shame or embarrassment before. In a way I can’t quite explain,it makes me want to hide my face.”
For this type of conservative, what a contrast Johnson’s fall makes with the spring of 1997, when John Major was defeated at the polls. With Major, on the wrong side of historical forces that made him powerless against Tony Blair, it was inevitable that time would restore his personal reputation (as it has). Major the Conservative politician was consumed by a tidal wave; Major the conservative individual held up very well. He served his ideals by embodying them, a shrewd kind of political long-termism. The electorate judged Major too harshly, and time set things straight eventually.
With Johnson, in contrast, the guilty shudder will quicken over time, like a half-remembered nightmare. Real Conservative leaders leave behind an impression of their values and beliefs, even if it’s incompletely articulated. With Margaret Thatcher, obviously so; Major, too, in quieter way. Though they were before my time, I have a sense of Edward Heath and Harold Macmillan. In all these cases, you have an inkling of how they’d approach a problem, a sense of their instincts and mooring. (Perhaps that quality amounts to the best of conservatism.) With Johnson? Nothing. Just blankness – truly unique.
[See also: The Tories’ new nightmare – by Andrew Marr]
In the wake of the 2016 EU referendum I wrote for the New Statesman on the subject of “The Brexit plague”, about Brexit’s capacity to destroy politicians, especially those who initially appeared to have exploited it. In a follow-up article, published in the 30 June 2017 issue of the magazine – two years before Johnson became prime minister – I wrote:
“The most apposite outcome – even if it is unappealing, especially for the long-term health of the nation – is that Brexit should be delivered by those who initially won the popular argument. When the mood turns, however, the same movement that craved a populist hero will need a panto villain. Step forward, Boris Johnson.”
Disappointing certain constituencies is a political inevitability. But Johnson leaves the people and communities who shaped him feeling actively betrayed. There is a good reason why it was those who know him best who turned against him hardest: they accurately anticipated the damage.
In exploiting the persona of a public school maverick – and one who always lets you down – Johnson has greatly advanced the cause of a popular English pastime: class resentment. He’s presented anyone who dislikes independent schools with a huge stick engraved with the words, “Look, they’re all the same.” They aren’t, of course, but who cares right now?
No wonder there was a note of panic in the letter of his schoolteacher Martin Hammond (Penguin’s translator of Homer and a shy intellectual) to Johnson’s father: “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.” Hammond, the real thing, could see where the imposter’s road ahead would lead.
Like all caricatures, Johnson, with his lumpen rugby jerseys and beefy tug-of-war antics, located his cartoonish personal brand one generation before his own. He aped the kind of public school boy he’d heard about when he was at public school. (In contrast, his more socially assured contemporaries had long ditched the gentry get-up, and slipped into Converse trainers and jeans.)
There will be more serious consequences, but among Johnson’s legacies will be the decline of the institutions that he trampled through, and the undeserved guilt by association suffered by people who seem, at first glance, to have emerged from the same social world – in other words, the fortunate but serious. Johnson’s persona was powered by brand recognition about the surface traits of born-to-rule self-confidence. But underneath there was none of the sense of restraint or duty.
As a consequence, Johnson accelerated the collapsing reputation of what used to be called (before the term was expanded to the point of incoherence) “the establishment” – a more subtly porous concept than a gilded educational caste.
In one respect, Johnson has left a real mark on public life: in bringing the concept of English elites to new levels of disrepute.
For those tempted to raise a glass to this unintended outcome, a note of caution. With tech leviathans holding unchecked power (and data); with the political landscape looking increasingly ungovernable (not just badly governed); with incautious social media cancellations on the rise; with declining free speech in universities; with the UK’s leading police force in “special measures” – given all of that background chaos, a world without functioning and respected elites of some kind is looking more and more problematic. “They’re all like that” is a self-perpetuating vortex: the talent drawn to life inside the “establishment” diminishes as people of ability and character eschew public life. Believing “they’re all like that” may not lead to a new, better establishment. It’s more likely to create a shrunken, less talented version of the old one.
All of which makes me wonder. If Johnson was really as clever as we’ve been told he is, he could only be an underground agent trying to sabotage the schools, universities and political institutions that he mangled into caricature and demeaned through his exercise of authority. If he was trying to bring down the structures that nurtured and empowered him, he couldn’t have done a better job.
I write all this while still holding that there is plenty of room for fun and mischief in public life, that good people make mistakes, that politicians can be slammed too readily, and that we shouldn’t become too solemn and over-professional even within serious pursuits.
But Johnson easily defeated my usual reluctance to invoke the old cliché “a failure of leadership”. Because there has got to be some higher purpose – even if it’s only part of the story – beyond power, above ambition. And for Boris Johnson, so far as we could see, beyond his cunning but shallow brand there lay absolutely nothing at all.
Ed Smith’s new book, “Making Decisions: Putting the Human Back in the Machine”, is published by William Collins on 15 September
This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant