Leader: A huckster in Downing Street

Rarely has unifying and inspired leadership been more needed. But there is little prospect of Boris Johnson providing it. 

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The election of Boris Johnson as Conservative leader represents a new low for British politics. Mr Johnson is not merely unsuited to the office of prime minister – he is morally unfit for it. Throughout his media and political career, as Martin Fletcher writes this week, he has repeatedly shown himself to be a self-absorbed charlatan. That he was elected with the support of more than half of Conservative MPs and 66 per cent of party members is a symptom of what we have called, in our ongoing series, “the closing of the conservative mind”. A party once admired for its moderation and pragmatism has succumbed to the dogma of Brexitism.

Mr Johnson inherits a profoundly divided country, one scarred by nearly a decade of austerity and wearied by political paralysis. Rarely has unifying and inspired leadership been more needed. But there is little prospect of Mr Johnson providing it. He has long specialised in promising the undeliverable and blaming others when he falls short. As prime minister, however, he will have no alibi.

The EU has repeatedly stated that it has no intention of renegotiating the withdrawal agreement agreed by Theresa May. Contrary to Mr Johnson’s claims, the problem is not that Mrs May failed to deliver on the Leave campaign’s promises – the problem is that no prime minister could have done so. In 2016, the Brexiteers vowed to end free movement, retain the economic benefits of EU membership, withdraw the UK from the customs union and avoid a hard Irish border – aims that were inherently irreconcilable.

Mr Johnson’s response has been to vow to leave the EU by 31 October, “do or die”, and without an agreement if necessary. Yet a no-deal Brexit would surely represent the greatest act of self-harm by any major country in postwar history. His allies’ threat to prorogue parliament for this purpose displays a stunning disregard for democratic norms. Conservative MPs should not hesitate to put country before party and pass a motion of no confidence in Mr Johnson’s government to thwart this outcome.

Should the new prime minister pursue a ruinously divisive course, he will threaten the very future of the United Kingdom. Brexit and the ascent of Mr Johnson have forced even lifelong unionists to consider the appeal of Scottish independence. Having voted to remain in the EU, Scotland is now being recklessly forced out against its will.

In spite of craving the office of prime minister for several decades, Mr Johnson has offered nothing resembling a domestic vision for transformation, beyond mouthing the usual platitudes about One Nation Toryism. After embracing Brexit on self-serving grounds, he is now prepared to pursue it regardless of the economic, social or diplomatic costs.

Mr Johnson is fortunate to face a divided and inept Labour Party, which far from surging towards government is barely functioning as an opposition. In present circumstances, the greatest threat to him could be from the resurgent Liberal Democrats, the SNP and some of his own MPs. Some, perhaps complacently, suggest that Mr Johnson’s premiership could be a mercifully short one. But however long the new prime minister lasts in No 10, there is every reason to fear the damage he will do while he does.

The Liberal Democrat revival

Jo Swinson, who was elected as the new Liberal Democrat leader on 22 July, inherits from Vince Cable a party in a stronger position than at any time since 2010.

Throughout their history, the Liberal Democrats have played a role in championing causes often neglected by the two main parties: the defence of civil liberties, constitutional reform, green policies and, in 2003, opposition to the Iraq War. Though tainted by their participation in the 2010-15 coalition government and the austerity it imposed, the Liberal Democrats are in recovery mode and leading the opposition to Brexit. They are drawing support from both the Labour and Conservative parties, especially among Remainers. Can they win even more voters to their cause?

The election of Ms Swinson, who represents East Dunbartonshire in Scotland, a seat she won back from the SNP in 2017, could further help preserve a Union threatened by Boris Johnson. As she contends with these challenges and others, Ms Swinson deserves the goodwill of all progressives and constitutional reformers.

This article appears in the 24 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation