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13 July 2022

The hollowness of Boris Johnson

The Prime Minister’s gift for shape-shifting powered his ascent – but in his downfall the emptiness of his politics was revealed.

By John Gray

There are times when the idea that the world is a computer simulation seems plausible. The downfall of Boris Johnson is one of those moments. It is as if some alien mind, bored with the spectacle it has created, has scripted a fantastical pattern of events in order to expose the unreality of contemporary politics. Johnson’s undoing leaves a sense of disbelief. A phantasm is melting away, and a new configuration of forces taking shape.

For months, there have been signs that Johnson was in danger of fatally losing control. From the Owen Paterson affair and the first tremors of partygate, Johnson has fibbed in defiance of facts that were bound to come out. He still refuses to acknowledge that he had any agency in his own ruin. In his resignation speech, it was the Westminster herd that thwarted the visionary leader.

Much of the hallucinatory quality of these events radiates directly from Johnson. He is himself a simulation, self-programmed to mould the perceptions of others. That his dishevelled bonhomie overlays a coldly thuggish figure is attested by many who know him well. In a telephone conversation reportedly recorded in 1990 he seemed to be conspiring with a friend to have a journalist beaten up. (Johnson dismissed the conversation as a joke.) He has been stalwart in defending Ukraine, a noble cause; but some suspect his enthusiasm serves to deflect attention from an excessive reliance on Russian donations to his party after he came to power. There has long been something of the night about Johnson. His inner life remains a mystery. Other than a recurring need for excitement and occasional bouts of melancholy, there may be nothing there.

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

The revulsion against the Prime Minister has little to do with his policies or ideology, for he has none. Victory in the Brexit referendum was the work of Dominic Cummings, who played a crucial role in securing the Tories’ 80-seat majority. Johnson is neither a free-trader nor a protectionist, a neo-Thatcherite nor a One Nation Tory. There was never a Johnsonian programme, other than gaining and staying in power. In this, as I’ve written about in the New Statesman before, he has been well suited to the fluid environment of liquid modernity, in which objectives and values are permanently provisional.

[See also: The Tories’ new nightmare]

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He is commonly described as mendacious, but a solipsist cannot truly lie. Deceiving others involves recognising that they have an independent existence. For Johnson, other people are as insubstantial as the hologram he projects of himself. In his eerily imperturbable two-hour appearance at the Commons Liaison Committee on 6 July, he was not addressing its flesh-and-blood members, but the indistinct millions he imagines gave him a mandate to rule as he pleased. It was a more than Trumpian performance. Ours is a parliamentary, not a presidential, system of government, and in any case Johnson’s former Red Wall supporters are more discriminating than  Donald Trump’s camp followers.

Johnson’s trajectory cannot be explained without understanding the type of politics he practised. Tony Blair is a much more impressive figure, but it was under his aegis that perception management took hold in British government. The US, meanwhile, is where so many British political trends originate. In April 1973, Richard Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler retracted some of his statements on the break-in at the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic National Committee with the announcement, “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.”

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Nixon’s mouthpiece dismissed facts as irrelevant. He did not try to create an entirely different reality. The British experiment in post-truth politics began not so much with the dodgy dossier as Blair’s insistence that Iraq had somehow benefited from the ruinous invasion. His disciples David Cameron and George Osborne emulated this practice when they represented the calamitous effects of austerity as improvements. The actual experience of people was of unsafe streets, long waiting lists and decaying infrastructure; but in some other realm public services were becoming ever more efficient, and a thriving “Big Society” was emerging from the shadow of an overmighty Labour state.

With his 40 new hospitals, 20,000 police recruits and the chimera of levelling up, Johnson made the construction of a fictional otherworld central to his mode of governing. This project was anticipated in the situationist theorist Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967). In a postscript, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1989), Debord identified Italy as one of the countries in which the displacement of reality had been taken furthest.

Silvio Berlusconi is reported to have declared that if something is not on television it does not exist, and one of his media executives claimed to have learnt their methods from Debord. Berlusconi survived as long as he did because his identity as political gangster and media celebrity was anchored in an earthy cynicism. Whatever figments he promoted, he seems to have regarded them as no more than political stratagems. Identifying with his own legends, Johnson is closer to Trump. In Johnson’s career as a politician, however, there will be no second act.

[See also: The death of “Boris” the clown]

He appears determined to hang on for as long as he can in Downing Street. He seems to be attempting to influence the choice of his successor, and may have authorised briefings against some of them. Other than further muddying his party, his meddling will have scant effect. The hold he had over British politics is gone. The forces he mobilised against established political elites, and for a time seemed to embody, have not gone away.

A great chorus is delighting in his deposition, but if they think it a prelude to returning to a pre-populist arcadia, they too are living in a parallel universe. “Populism” is a term used by centrist liberals to describe political blowback from the disruption of society produced by their policies. They appear to have forgotten how, in an effort to block Brexit, they were ready to back a government led by Jeremy Corbyn, a populist of another kind, which would have installed anti-Semitic racism at the highest level of the British state. During the course of their campaign, the same people envisioned an all-Remainer “government of national unity” that would have excluded more than 17 million voters. Their belief that they can engineer a restoration of the centrist ancien régime is no less delusional.

The forces that erupted from 2016 onwards are continuing to transform the political landscape. Having lost control of parliament to parties of the far right and left, Emmanuel Macron is facing five years of paralysis. The Democrats are looking at a rout in the midterm elections, while Trump – or some potentially more astute operator, such as the Florida governor Ron DeSantis – could deny them the White House in 2024. Britain is heading towards a period of political and economic upheaval.

Whoever succeeds Johnson will find salvaging the reputation of the Conservative Party a forbidding task. The information war being waged between the candidates risks uncovering scandals – financial or otherwise – that have so far remained hidden. A more fundamental danger is that the party will be unable to distance itself from its recent past. Rishi Sunak, who must be the most serious candidate, cannot risk becoming a reincarnation of Osborne. Public debt must be curbed, but not by hacking away at the heart of the state. Resisting increased defence spending, in current circumstances, is folly. The cost of living crisis demand surgent action to prevent a catastrophic increase in poverty. Fully reconciling these conflicting imperatives may be impossible, but unless it is attempted, the slide to defeat at the next election will only accelerate.

Conservatives have failed to understand the significance of the Brexit referendum. European Research Group-style Thatcherites misread it as a vote for a small state, when it was actually a demand for a stronger government which could repair communities that had been abandoned. So-called One Nation Tories have never ceased wanting to reverse the result, even if they will not admit this in public. Both wings of the party are effectively turning their backs on the Red Wall constituencies the party needs to hold if it is to stay in power.

Labour is aware of Tory vulnerability in this regard. Keir Starmer’s recent speech on “making Brexit work” was well crafted in seeming to accept that Britain’s exit from the EU is irreversible. It was also not credible. There is talk that the Liberal Democrats have demanded a commitment to electoral reform as the price of supporting a minority Labour government. In that case the Labour leader will be compelled by his dependency on a “rejoin” party to integrate Britain more deeply into European institutions. The SNP and the Greens will push him in the same direction. No doubt Starmer grasps this logic.

Changing the electoral system is a strategy aiming at re-establishing the neoliberal politics of the pre-Johnson era. Left-liberal supporters of voting reform believe it will empower a “progressive majority” in Britain. Whether such a majority exists is questionable. The fact that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party gained more than 30 per cent of the votes cast in the last European Parliament election, held in May 2019 under a party list system, suggests some doubt in the matter.

[See also: The final act in the Gove-Johnson psychodrama]

Moving to a proportional system might keep the Tories out of power indefinitely, but at the cost of enfranchising parties further to the right. The likely upshot would be gridlocked and hobbled government, as in France. British politics would finally be fully Europeanised.

Boosterish on growth and at times speaking in wokeish slogans – as when, in a television interview on 28 June, he described Vladimir Putin’s aggression as “a perfect example of toxic masculinity” – Johnson was something of a neoliberal himself. When aligning himself with his new constituencies, he leant towards a conservative version of social democracy. His genius in shape-shifting enabled him to assemble an improbable electoral coalition. Aside from Thatcher, he is the sole Tory leader to have expanded his party’s reach in working-class England. But it is not simply that he did nothing with the opportunities presented. The virtual world around him began to disappear.

In the microcosm of Westminster, Johnson lost any control he may have had over the media with the departure of Cummings. Oscillating between inept attempts at manipulation and open disdain, Cummings’s successors turned their mistrust into mutual enmity. Johnson was portrayed as a would-be dictator, a cynical con-artist and a shambolic clown. The media he deployed as the vehicle for a self-invented persona became focused on its destruction.

Johnson’s hologram vanished along with the imagined world of which it was a part. Except in the collective mind of the Western political classes, the illusory vista of unending neoliberal progress has evaporated. With famine and blackouts used as weapons in Putin’s geopolitics, shortages in food and energy will persist for the foreseeable future. If China responds to faltering Western resolve in Ukraine by launching a special operation to absorb Taiwan, which dominates the global semiconductor market, the impact on Western economies will be incalculable. Britain and the West are ill-prepared for the brute material reality of a world of endemic warfare and chronic scarcity.

Beyond the American lecture circuit, where he may retreat to replenish his depleted finances, Johnson will soon be forgotten. A black hole that sucked in everything around him, he leaves no lasting achievements. His legacy will be a moment in which the emptiness of the politics he personified was revealed.

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This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant