Early on a warm summer afternoon the day after Boris Johnson said he would be standing down from parliament, the village of Brightwell-cum-Sotwell in the Upper Thames Valley appeared to be apocalyptically deserted. The pub was closed. So was the tiny garage. I saw a figure scurry away into the shadows, before hearing the gunshot sound of a slammed door. I walked along the empty, silent main street, past the hollyhocks and roses and foxgloves in the cottages’ burgeoning front gardens, until I saw them by the war memorial. Photographers, dressed in black, half-dozing on camping chairs. They embodied all the residents’ fears that something had gone very wrong in this part of south Oxfordshire.
To reach Brightwell-cum-Sotwell you pass along billowing fields and manicured golfing lawns, then the road turns slightly, and drops towards a tastefully decrepit village. The lanes, garlanded with powerful German cars, follow an older topography than nearby towns like Didcot. They are narrow, even nonsensical, and memorialise an era before planning laws. Along them, leaning into each other like conspiratorial friends, are several crooked Tudor houses. EU flags flapped against the blue sky.
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The photographers were here because he was here. Several weeks ago, Boris Johnson bought a Grade II listed property in the village. The Georgian mansion was at the end of a lane that began near the memorial. It was barely hidden, not far from the road, and viewed with ease from the shaded graveyard of St Agatha’s, the local church, named after a long dead (and possibly rueful) Sicilian virgin.
The nine-bedroom, six-reception-room, five-bathroom house was not a country retreat. The property was bigger and wider and more bullishly Georgian than anything else in Brightwell-cum-Sotwell. It looked like it would shake your hand too eagerly. Though it had a three-sided moat – and was built where a siege castle belonging to King Stephen used to stand – Johnson’s manor seemed wide open. There were no high walls. Any photographer would be able to peer into its abundant reception rooms.
It turned out that the entire population of Brightwell-cum-Sotwell, Johnson clan aside, had decamped to a field for the annual charity music festival. I dreaded Morris dancing, but it was not to be. Brightwell took on Sotwell (they used to be two separate villages, before the stroke of a planner’s pen wed them in the 1940s) in a tug-of-war. The queue for the beer tent outstretched the queue for the tea tent. Expensive Labradors licked the hot air. Even more expensive children toppled over and screamed. A man on the stage, dreaming of being Thom Yorke, shouted: “They can hear us in Wallingford!” This was rich faux-rural England at play.
But not at ease with itself. The EU flags were the first sign of a peevish local resistance to Johnson. Others emerged in conversation. Brightwell-cum-Sotwell is in Wantage, a constituency that is so Tory it has never been won by another party. Yet the presence of an election-winning Conservative prime minister in the area was not welcomed by the village.
“Thoroughly disgusted” was how one woman described the local reaction to their new neighbour. By what, I asked, with faked innocence. “Press intrusion,” grumbled her husband. Earlier the photographers, who all looked as if they would rather be anywhere else, had said that their presence was met with barely veiled scowls and under-the-breath comments from aggrieved Sotwellites.
Johnson’s arrival in the village had disturbed the privacy these people had paid good money to enjoy. The average price of a detached home is over £800,000. Peering at the crowd, where the women had been uniformly doused in Oliver Bonas, and the men wore those hideously patterned, gimpy Hawaiian shirts only those insulated by vast material comfort can get away with, I realised I was not surrounded by yokels. “Landowners” was how the woman described them. I saw a man wearing an absurd straw hat who looked like a City wealth manager. I asked him what he did. “I’m a wealth manager,” he replied.
These people should be partisan Tories. The story of Johnson’s downfall, at least in part, is the story of how they turned against his Conservative Party. They did not like Brexit, but they did not care for Jeremy Corbyn. But when you take Corbyn away and add Johnson’s behaviour (or lack of it) during partygate, plus his disrespect for British institutions like parliament and the BBC, not to mention his amoral, freewheeling, bohemian private life, to the political mathematics of posh rural England – places where decency and fair play are valued without irony – you begin to realise why the Conservatives only won one seat out of 36 during South Oxfordshire District Council’s local elections in May.
The presence of the Johnsons has made things tense around these rosy lanes. Armed security men stroll down them now. Police cars lodge uncomfortably next to the Audis. Carrie Johnson was warned that she was not welcome in the village by a local shop owner; Johnson himself was apparently “confronted” on one of his daily jogs. It is easy to imagine Johnson viewing Brightwell as another Chartwell – the country schloss in Kent where his hero Winston Churchill spent the 1930s painting and plotting a return to power. Oxfordshire today seemed more hostile than anything Churchill faced back then.
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How that hostility makes peace with Brightwell-cum-Sotwell’s self-image – the villagers described themselves as “very quiet”, “very friendly”, “nice”, “lovely”, “nice” and “lovely” again – is a different question. One school of thought, encompassing those who finger-wagged at the photographers, suggested that Johnson “had to live somewhere”. The same man who said that also said, “Brexit was the worst mistake we ever made.” He may not like Johnson, but he had decided, chivalrously, to pity him.
But others could not even show pity. I bumped into two men who were discussing British politics. “The Conservatives have gone to the gutter – and taken half of the BNP with them,” one said. News was appearing on smartphone apps that Nigel Adams had resigned in support of Johnson and would stand down as the MP for Selby and Ainsty in North Yorkshire. With Nadine Dorries having resigned the previous day, there was speculation about yet another Tory civil war – as if, David Cameron’s chillaxed interregnum aside, Tory politics had not been one fratricidal orgy ever since Margaret Thatcher was forced from Downing Street. Would more MPs follow Adams and Dorries, and quit?
The men detected a political paradigm shift. “More and more people in power will not accept that they have done the wrong thing,” said one. Johnson’s indignant, self-pitying 1,021-word resignation statement, released on 9 June was marbled with fighting phrases such as “witch hunt” and “kangaroo court”, and it confirmed their sense that Johnson would never take responsibility for his actions. The early-middle-aged pair, who seemed relaxed about everything in their lives apart from Johnson’s move to the village, inevitably compared the former prime minister to Donald Trump. They spoke in ready-made phrases that were as venomous and as humourless as those Johnson had used in his statement. Weirdly, they sounded like the hosts of popular political podcasts. When I asked one of them who they did admire in British politics, they said: “Alastair Campbell”.
These people seemed well-off. But rather than giving them the space to ignore politics, their wealth had allowed them to treat it as a hobby, and consume it as a morality play. I was unsure whether their avowed dislike of Johnson would survive actual, day-in day-out contact with the man they now shared the village with.
As the sun fell, I heard that the actor Daniel Craig had turned down the chance to buy the property before the Johnsons. James Bond did not think it was safe. Perhaps those concerns were how Johnson had reportedly knocked £200,000 from its £4m asking price. Safe or not, after his resignation failed to stir many other Tories to join him in resigning, Johnson would be spending much more time at his house in Brightwell-cum-Sotwell. So would the photographers. Ultimately, unlike the Conservatives in parliament, the conservatives in this village would have to get used to Johnson. In these dying days of Tory rule, it’s easier to remove a prime minister than a neighbour.
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out