Jack Clayton assesses the inevitability of Boris Johnson’s tenure as Prime Minister resulting in scandal, and what this says about those who supported his rise to power.
When Harold MacMillan said that the greatest challenge for a statesman is “events, dear boy, events”, perhaps Boris Johnson thought that he specifically meant “work events”. Even if he only thought this implicitly, Johnson has now explicitly created for himself a problem. How was Big Dog going to get out of this one? Perhaps with a charming recital of a Kipling poem, or a quotation from one of the great philosophical thinkers. Instead, he said that he did not know that he was at a party and that he was unaware that he may have been breaking the rules which he had made. Maybe he had accidentally inverted Descartes’s “I think therefore I am” quote into, I don’t think, therefore there were no parties.
What we have not heard in this scandal is something that his supporters usually like to say, which is, this is just Boris being Boris. How true those words are now though. The Tories and tabloids that insisted that they had a brilliant vote winner, capable of defeating the Goliaths of political opponents such as Ken Livingston and later Jeremy Corbyn, knew that Johnson was completely unsuitable to be prime minister. Instead, they made a Faustian bargain by trading in their soul and any sense of morality, all for the short-term gain, of getting Brexit done. Few of course could have foreseen the pandemic, but Johnson threw the goodwill away that was offered to him by the public, demonstrated by the huge sacrifices many have made. Yet the Tories have known this about his character for decades since he has been in the public eye and the Sue Grey report is not necessary to reveal it. They are therefore equally as culpable for the consequences that his premiership has had on the country.
His shamelessness in Parliament further evidenced that he had no contrition for what he did. Instead, Boris has throughout, shown his so-called fighting talk, which manifested in diversions, dishonesty, and cynicism. One of Johnson’s desperate manoeuvres, which some of his Conservative allies are trying to help in, is his use of the crisis on the Ukrainian border where Russia does indeed pose a serious threat of invading. Cries came from Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Daily Mail that everyone needs to get their priorities sorted by focusing on the geopolitical challenge instead.
Perhaps Johnson’s fighting talk about Ukraine was trying to emulate his political hero Winston Churchill, that prime minister who also forced out a leader and took over during an international crisis and war. Johnson of course should know; he wrote a book about him. However, Johnson seems less like a commander-in-chief and more like a cowardly Colonel chicken Kiev, trying to hide behind his own crisis in which unsavoury lies and rule-breaking leak out, rather than a buttery filling or anything finger-licking good. It’s hardly encouraging having someone who might lead a nation into a war who feels ambushed by cake either.
Johnson’s diversion has not only focused on international challenges though. Big Dog announced ‘Operation Red Meat’. He presumably named it this because the policies it consists of are difficult to process and do little about the problems that the nation faces to bring it back to health, such as the living costs crisis. But don’t worry, the military has more control of tackling illegal Channel crossings. Sure, the military that Boris says that he cares about so much is the smallest it has been since the nineteenth century due to cuts, but that is probably another minor inconvenience to ignore, especially when there is talk of conflict.
Johnson’s other strategy appears to be dishonesty and cynicism, by trying to portray his opponent Starmer as being bad as he is. Although he apologised, Johnson is determined to exploit public cynicism about politicians, by resorting to far-right falsehoods that Starmer failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile. This is the latest and to date, Johnson’s most disgraceful attempt at obfuscation, with allies previously falsely claiming that Starmer also broke rules during election campaigning.
Despite the speculation about letters for votes of no confidence, it is uncertain how long Johnson will remain as prime minister. Will Tory MPs undo the Faustian bargain that they entered and replace him? Or will they be warped in a populist fever and dig their heels in to protect him to avoid awkward questions about their judgement about Johnson in the first place? Either way, it is the country that gets the brunt of the bad deal.
Jack Clayton is a PhD student at SOAS looking at U.S foreign policy, researching the Vietnam Syndrome and the influence of domestic public opinion policy-making towards military intervention. He tweets at @claytonj944.