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17 November 2021

Philip Collins

Boris Johnson’s leadership steered the Tories to power – but it will also be their undoing

The Owen Paterson fiasco is damaging because it speaks to the Prime Minister’s character. Slowly, the public is starting to see through him.

Politics, said Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, is simple but hard to do. The analysis of politics today is much the same; most things don’t matter but it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. In his new book, It’s The Leader, Stupid, Andrew Adonis makes a powerful case for analytical simplicity: the better leader always wins and that’s the long and the short of it.

There is no question that leadership was a major part of the 2019 general election. For all his obvious flaws, Boris Johnson had many virtues in the eyes of his voters. They regarded him as funny, clever, irreverent, interesting and trusted his bona fides on Brexit. The anti-Johnson critique is that he never keeps his promises.

In 2019 he was elected precisely because his supporters expected him to keep his promise to get Brexit done, which he subsequently did. Jeremy Corbyn, by contrast, was a magisterial anti-leader, a hopeless candidate to be prime minister. After four years of Corbyn heading up the official opposition, the public had the measure of him and the reverberations have not yet ceased. What might be called “long Corbyn” syndrome is a distinct problem for Labour – the party is struggling to win back the trust it forfeited when it offered up as the leader of the land a man so evidently ill-equipped for the job.

Yet does that not also sound like a valid description of Johnson, the winner? It is possible, of course, that he too could be entirely hopeless, and yet the Adonis thesis would still stand. In a two-horse race, one of the horses will win even if both are lame – although the spectacle will not exactly be worth watching.

But the example of Johnson’s victory in 2019 shows how much is embodied in the idea of leadership. The figurehead of a party is not somehow separate from it. He or she is a kind of shorthand, a heuristic for understanding the state of the party at that moment. The effective leader is an answer to a particular question. In 2019 Johnson was the leader who answered the question of the hour, which was about Brexit. His predicament today – as the Tory party falls in the opinion polls for the first time since January this year – is that it is not obvious what question his leadership should be addressing now.

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The temptation to undo Article 16 of the agreement with the European Union, and make an even greater fiasco of the Northern Ireland protocol, must be rooted in a desire to revive the grievance of Brexit. It would be irresponsible, stupid and an overt political game. A leader of any substance would never even contemplate it. But Johnson is struggling to embody anything else.

Look at the front page of the Northern Echo on 16 November, or at the other regional and local newspapers in the north of England. The news that the government will not go through with the full extension of HS2 has been greeted as the first sign that Johnson will fail to deliver on his promise to level up the nation. This terrifies Tory MPs, as it should. If the new coalition of Tory voters starts to become disillusioned with the inaction of the government, the party is in trouble. A leader who embodies a betrayal is a liability.

Leaders in politics, in other words, exhibit characteristics that come to represent the way the public sees their party. This is why the flurry of allegations about the avaricious conduct of Conservative MPs might prove to be more than a quick media storm. Being a bit of a chancer is one of the character traits that people tend to like about the Prime Minister. But that virtue can rapidly turn into a vice when seen in a different light.

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This is the sense in which character matters in politics. As a rule, stories about politicians having their noses in the trough tend to hurt people from all parties. But the Owen Paterson fiasco might conceivably damage the Tories because it refers directly to the character of the Prime Minister. It is a point on which his leadership is vulnerable and, slowly, the public is starting to see through him.

If Johnson’s ratings continue to fall and poor economic news starts to come in, the Tories on the back benches will become restive. They have no great affection for Johnson, whose appeal for them is his capacity for victory. Rather like Tony Blair and Labour, but with due allowance for the bathos of the comparison, Johnson will be tolerated only so long as he seems capable of performing magic tricks that are beyond the dexterity of the standard leader.

All of which means that something important might be afoot. The Labour Party is not very good at winning elections and it is especially poor at winning dull victories. The Tories win plenty of elections (Theresa May and David Cameron, in recent times) in which the required character trait of the day is safety and security. Labour victories require either a world war or the presence of a political superstar (Harold Wilson and Blair).

Yet the likelihood of Keir Starmer being prime minister is under-appreciated. It is not difficult to imagine the kind of character contest in which Starmer looks like a much better option than Johnson. It is, of course, a long shot to suppose that Labour could win outright. The 2019 election was almost two defeats in one. Almost, but not quite, because the Tory party has no allies among other parties. If it is unable to win an overall majority, then Johnson would not have the goodwill to form any kind of government.

Again, this is best understood by appreciating the virtues of the Prime Minister. In 2019 Johnson won the Conservative Party its biggest majority since 1987. This has been a period of volatile and fragmentary politics, and the only politician so far who has managed to construct a winning coalition has been Johnson. If, for reasons of character, he cannot pull off the trick once more, the long spell of Tory rule will come to an end – and it will be down to him.

This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand