Why Boris failed
Johnson never recognised the radical, transformative potential of Brexit.
You could hear the army of cynical Eurocrats chuckle as Boris Johnson announced his resignation this week. Their reaction was summed up by the French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, who said he ‘personally will not miss Johnson’, and that ‘populism and Brexit were not a good mix’.
Remainers, who dominate the British establishment, have echoed the response of their European counterparts. This is not just a resignation of a prime minister they dislike. For them it represents a major blow against a populist movement that dared to defy their authority and, for a few years, forced them into a humiliating retreat.
The vote for Brexit in 2016, and the landslide vote for the Brexit-backing Tories at the General Election of 2019, were always about much more than Boris Johnson. Yet, at the same time, and despite his many personal failings, Johnson himself was key. He served as a vehicle for disrupting the political arrangements that had dominated British society for decades.
After the Tories’ decisive General Election victory in 2019, no one could seriously argue that the vote for Brexit in 2016 was an aberration. The fact that millions of working-class people were prepared to abandon the Labour Party in order to ‘Get Brexit Done’, showed that there was a widespread appetite for real change among the public. The collapse of the Red Wall showed that people had had enough of being patronised by a political elite that barely disguised its contempt for them. They wanted a voice. And they wanted leaders who would fight for their interests.
The historical significance of Johnson’s 2019 General Election victory cannot be overlooked. It came after three years of uncertainty about Brexit. During those years, the British establishment did everything it could to thwart the result of the referendum. Some Remainers even hoped that the election would force supporters of Brexit on to the defensive.
They were proved wrong. The Conservative Party received a landslide majority of 80 seats. The electorate provided Boris Johnson with a historic mandate not just to push Brexit over the line, but also to shake up the established way of doing things and renew public life.
But, tragically, Johnson blew it. The question we should ask is why did he fail so miserably? Why was he unable to make anything of the huge mandate afforded his government? Why did he squander such a historic opportunity?
Numerous commentaries before and since Johnson’s downfall have tended to blame everything that has gone wrong on his personal and psychological failings. Most of these exercises in armchair psychoanalysis rely on little more than speculation and long-circulated anecdotes. For example, journalists, determined to present Johnson as a dishonest, mendacious character, have regularly cited his teacher at Eton, who described Johnson’s approach to his studies as ‘disgracefully cavalier’. Others have recycled the words of Max Hastings, his old boss at the Telegraph, who described Johnson as ‘a compulsive liar who has betrayed every single person he has ever had dealings with’.
Today, these same commentators are enjoying saying, ‘I told you so’. Yet Johnson’s political failure cannot really be explained by his personal flaws. Moreover, the public had long been aware of these flaws, and yet many still voted for the Tories in 2019 – a large proportion of whom did so precisely because of Boris Johnson. For better or for worse, he emerged as someone who appeared as a credible leader for the nation.
The new establishment
The problem with Johnson was less his flawed personality than his limited grasp of the political issues at stake. He may have been leading a movement – Brexit – committed to restoring Britain’s national sovereignty, but he has consistently failed to understand its radical, transformative potential. At times he gave the impression that the post-Brexit era would just be more of the same. He never seemed to grasp just how high the stakes were. And, above all, he underestimated the scale of the resistance to Brexit and the immense opportunities it offered.
Formally leaving the EU, though torturous at times, has proved to be the easy part. A far more formidable challenge has been posed by the resistance to Brexit of the British establishment and the complex network of powerful institutions that dominate public life.
The ruling establishment today has little in common with its 19th- and 20th-century predecessors. Since its emergence in the 1980s, this new establishment has succeeded in exercising cultural hegemony over both public and private institutions. The election of New Labour in 1997, which institutionalised Blairite technocracy, greatly expanded the power and influence of the new establishment. And it continued to grow under the Cameron-led governments of the 2010s.
The new establishment has overhauled public institutions in its own image. In doing so, it has broken away from the practices and values of the past. It has encouraged a cosmopolitan, metropolitan outlook and has self-consciously distanced itself from Britishness. It much prefers fashionable American attitudes and values, including those associated with the cultural politics of identity.
At the same time, the new establishment’s predilection for technocracy and social engineering has led its members to regard the EU with affection. They have always been spontaneously and instinctively Remain. They still feel they have more in common with their colleagues in Brussels than with the citizens of their own nation.
If Boris Johnson’s government was to effectively act on its mandate, it would have always had to take on the new establishment. And at times it did appear as if Johnson and some of his colleagues understood this. Johnson’s former close adviser, Dominic Cummings, frequently talked about challenging ‘the blob’ and overcoming the reluctance of the civil service to implement the wishes of an elected government.
But ultimately the Johnson government backed away from the challenge. It self-consciously avoided confronting the new establishment. And this failure to assume control over the state’s departments and institutions significantly undermined the government’s credibility, because it prevented it from governing purposefully and effectively. So while the new establishment has suffered referendum and electoral defeats, it has still been able to retain considerable influence and even political control.
It has certainly retained control over the media. The media not only possess cultural power, they have also become a political force in their own right. They are able to limit the influence of political institutions and parties. And, most importantly, they are able to determine the news cycle and decide what are the issues of the day.
A government unable to challenge the media’s monopoly over the news cycle will lose its ability to take the initiative. We saw this happen during the early stages of the pandemic in 2020. Initially, the Johnson government was keen to avoid locking down society. However, under constant pressure from an alarmist media, the government’s courage melted away and it fell in line with the media’s demands. When the media are able to dictate policy in this way, public life becomes diminished and depoliticised.
But the media’s power can be misinterpreted. They are only able to exert so much influence because of the waning influence of other institutions in society. In other words, it is the decline of party politics and the hollowing out of democracy that have created the conditions for the ascendancy of today’s media.
There is little doubt, however, that the media have played a key role in eroding the boundary between the public and the private spheres. Increasingly, politicians are judged on their personal attributes and behaviour rather than on their public achievements. This has led to the politics of scandal dominating public life, depoliticising and diminishing it in the process.
Indeed, since the last General Election, the media have devoted a lot of energy to uncovering the scandals of Johnson’s own private life. This media scandal-mongering, often framed in the worthy terms of ‘trust’, has constantly pushed out coverage and discussion of the key issues of our time.
Johnson’s flawed character certainly contributed to his demise. But in the end, he was brought down by his inability to challenge this media-led contention that the personal is political. Until this formula is reversed, and public life is made political again, it will be difficult for any politician to exercise genuine political leadership.
It is even more difficult when the media are so clearly aligned with the new establishment. The metropolitan elite, the bureaucratic blob and numerous NGOs can always rely on the media to watch their back. Despite the new establishment’s electoral setbacks, it has retained its power and influence through its control of the media. In this way, it was able to prevent the Johnson government from seriously acting on its electoral mandate. And for its part, the government failed to realise that in order to take the political initiative it had to tackle the corrosive influence of the media.
A lack of conviction
As numerous commentators have noted in recent years, Johnson wrote two newspaper columns ahead of the EU referendum in 2016 – one coming out in favour of Brexit and the other against. So perhaps Johnson’s commitment to Brexit was always wafer-thin. What is certainly true is that Johnson and his colleagues are conviction-lite politicians. There are very few parliamentarians today who possess strong ideals and are prepared to risk their careers by acting on principle. Indeed, despite parliamentarians’ party affiliations, they tend to act as individuals rather than as loyal members of a team.
This lack of conviction and commitment has played a role in Johnson’s failure. It is not possible to ‘Get Brexit Done’ unless the vision is underpinned by a coherent set of ideals and objectives. Unfortunately, the Johnson administration has lacked the vision and the intellectual force required for carrying out its mandate. It has signally failed to turn Brexit into an intellectually coherent political outlook.
This failure to provide Brexit with serious content is hardly a surprise. Johnson’s government has been stuffed full with individuals lacking the kind of convictions and commitments necessary to realise Brexit’s potential. This was continually demonstrated through ministers’ willingness to brief against one another and to leak sensitive information to the media. It also meant that they did not take their public duties very seriously, which is why so many of them have behaved in ways that left them wide open to the scandal-hungry media.
One of the consequences of the Johnson administration’s lack of vision and intellectual clarity was that it was unable to assert its ideological independence from the new establishment. That is why, despite Johnsonites’ repeated assertions to the contrary, the government did not seem to take seriously the culture wars promoted by sections of the new establishment.
On numerous occasions Johnson and his colleagues boldly declared that they were committed to challenging woke culture. These declarations turned out to be empty gestures. On this government’s watch identity politics has become institutionalised throughout the public sector, especially in schools and higher education. And the parliamentary Conservative Party has frequently embraced the latest woke fads.
At times it appeared as if Boris Johnson was even collaborating with woke moral entrepreneurs. Last October, he attended a Stonewall-organised meeting at the Conservative Party conference, while his wife, Carrie, delivered a message of support to Stonewall. If he had been genuinely serious about fighting the culture wars, he would not have signalled his support for an organisation that has done so much to impose trans ideas on society.
It does now look as if Johnson never took the culture wars seriously. In the aftermath of disgusting remarks hurled by a handful of racist fans at black England football players last year, Labour leader Keir Starmer was able to force Johnson on to the defensive for his lack of support for taking the knee. ‘The government has been trying to start a culture war’, Starmer said. ‘[Johnson and others] have realised they are on the wrong side and now they hope that nobody has noticed.’ Johnson replied to Starmer defensively. ‘I don’t want to engage in a political culture war of any kind’, he said. ‘I repeat that I utterly condemn and abhor the racist outpourings that we saw on Sunday night.’ By implicitly accepting Stramer’s association of a refusal to take the knee with being on ‘the wrong side’, Johnson showed that he did not have a clue about the issues at stake.
Johnson was being absolutely truthful when he told Starmer he did not ‘want to engage in a political culture war of any kind’. And it was precisely this refusal that helped doom Johnson’s attempt to take on the Brexit project. Because to pursue this project, politicians have to go on the offensive and stand up for British culture. The Brexit vote was itself an affirmation of Britishness and the value of sovereignty. It represented the very antithesis of woke culture. Johnson’s failure to continue fighting a political culture war effectively betrayed Brexit. It has left the new establishment intact and has done a great deal to undermine the electoral victories of 2016 and 2019.
Johnson’s retreat from the political culture war was a fatal, even tragic error. With that Johnson became a man without a project. And without a project he was always going to be easily isolated and then picked off by a predatory media.
We need leaders with commitment, conviction and a will to fight for what they believe. Johnson was found wanting on every count.
Frank Furedi’s The Road to Ukraine: How the West Lost its Way will be published by De Gruyter in September 2022.
Picture by: Getty.
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