How Boris was usurped by “Bonus Johnson”

Jo Johnson's appointment of Toby Young means he is no longer the more sensible of the Johnson brothers.

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I always thought Jo was the more sensible of the two political Johnson brothers, but his recent run of decisions as universities minister suggests otherwise. His thunderous intervention about fining universities where students “no-platform” controversial speakers was calculated to fire up older voters who love a bit of snowflake-melting. Unfortunately, millennials can also read, and culture war interventions like that aren’t going to help the Conservatives with their 20-odd-point polling deficit among 18-24-year-olds.

Jo “Bonus” Johnson’s latest wheeze, helpfully announced on a quiet New Year’s Day, was that his new regulator, the Office for Students, should have professional contrarian Toby Young on its board. Yes, that Toby Young – I once dressed up as a woman to pull lesbians Toby Young; my friends didn’t turn up to my stag party Toby Young; Momentum are like Britain First Toby Young; I hired a stripper on Take Your Daughter to Work Day Toby Young. The response from the education unions and prominent academics was one of straightforward bemusement. Was he really the best candidate on merit, or was this yet more liberal-baiting? (Young does have strong experience in secondary education, having founded a free school and now as head of the New Schools Network, but there is nothing comparable on his CV at higher level.)

Presumably, with Boris Johnson’s campaign for the Conservative leadership looking shaky, Bonus Johnson has decided this is the perfect time to raise his own profile. Unfortunately, appealing to the Conservative base and the right-wing papers has also managed to alienate students and now a sizeable chunk of public sector workers. You’d almost think the Conservatives have been finding elections too easy, and have decided to up the difficulty setting.

Mystic signs

The outgoing leader of the Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, is worried about the continuing influence of Freemasons on the service. Steve White told the Guardian that the persistent popularity of the secretive society is blocking the advancement of women and ethnic minorities. If I’m honest, I’d pretty much forgotten freemasonry existed. With its aprons, rolled-up trouser legs, peculiar handshakes and the patronage of the Duke of Kent, freemasonry feels like a relic from a simpler, perhaps naffer time.

Most Masons are men, but there is a special lodge for women (aren’t we lucky!), which last year admitted the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme to some of its rituals. “Perhaps the Freemasons’ greatest recruitment barrier is their reputation for secrecy and association with corruption, including favouritism in which members help each other rise up the career ladder,” intoned the resulting piece. Is that really the greatest recruiting barrier? Surely the only reason to join a secret society that asks you to put a noose round your neck in an initiation ceremony is in expectation of a good networking opportunity in return? Otherwise you could just join a book club and save yourself the expense of an apron.

Young Iran

David Runciman, head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge University, also hosts an excellent podcast, Talking Politics. Looking at the images of Iranians taking to the streets, I remembered an episode from December in which he outlined the thesis of his new book, How Democracy Ends.

Runciman thinks that comparisons between the US and Europe now and Weimar Germany in the 1930s are overblown, not least because we are now much richer, and our societies much older. “Old people don’t do fascism,” he said. “They just support it.” The country which has the most similar age and wealth profile to pre-war Germany today is… Egypt. The median Egyptian is 23 years old, and its GDP per capita is around $3,500 – a tenth of Britain’s.

The comparable statistics for Iran aren’t quite so extreme, but with a median age of 30, it is a significantly younger society than ours (where the figure is 40), and its GDP is less than double that of Egypt. However the current wave of protests play out in Iran, they are unlikely to be the last.

Grass is greener

For the last few years, I’ve been on high alert for incipient signs of middle age. Now I’ve found a definitive one. Watching posh royal soap opera The Crown on Netflix, I found myself genuinely irritated that the Duke of Windsor affected an upper-class accent but with short As – you know, “grass” rather than “graaaaarse”. There’s no hope, is there? Last year, I had a boundary wall dispute with the builders redeveloping the pub next to our house.

The power of No

My New Year’s resolution is to say “no” more often. When life feels exhausting, it’s because there is a temptation to try to cram too much in – too much news, too many events, too many books, too much information. This year, I want to stop trying to keep up with stuff that doesn’t matter, and I’m becoming ever more sympathetic to Peter Wilby’s assertion that nothing that happens in the Brexit negotiations is worth paying attention to until much closer to the final leaving date. Think Sherlock Holmes not knowing the Earth revolves around the Sun, because it’s not useful to his work. My version of this is deriving great satisfaction from looking at Mail Online’s Sidebar of Shame and realising I have no idea who any of the women are, flaunting their curves or showing off their amazing post-baby bodies. I want that feeling more often.

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old