The damage done by this prime minister’s misrule goes way beyond him, his inner circle and even his party
As Boris Johnson and the Conservative party anxiously tread political water while repeatedly being pulled under by strife and disgrace, two plotlines are unfolding. One is about the immediate moment and will reach another key juncture with the imminent report by the senior civil servant Sue Gray, which may finally focus wavering Tory minds on the impossibility of the prime minister’s position. Meanwhile, amid new allegations of blackmail, rumors of yet more illicit gatherings and Dominic Raab’s characteristically clever insistence that his boss is “like a seasoned prizefighter” who has “taken some knocks”, another story is in danger of being lost: the dire implications of Johnson’s antics for people’s trust in politics, and a gap between Westminster and the country that may now be bigger than ever.
All those Downing Street and Whitehall parties – along with the prime minister’s evasions, half-apologies and desperate attempts to shore himself up – have been reported in terms of shock-horror revelation. But for many voters, they will confirm longstanding ideas about the kind of people who run the country, or aspire to.
In 1944, about a third of Britons endorsed the idea that MPs and ministers were merely “out for themselves”, but late last year that figure was put at 63%. According to pollsters and academics, the first phase of the pandemic saw political distrust briefly fall before it reverted to pre-pandemic levels. They may have dutifully followed the government’s rules and restrictions, but millions of people evidently have much the same view of politics and power as ever: either indifference or a tendency to outrage and a readiness – fair or not – to assume the worst of politicians, whichever party they represent. The real tragedy of Johnson’s fall is that it will send that alienation soaring: when Sajid Javid recently conceded that the accounts of all the parties have “damaged our democracy”, this is presumably what he meant.
In 12 years of political reporting, I have never felt that the reasons for such disaffection are all that complicated. Any meaningful sense of a social contract has long gone; many people’s lives are so precarious and chaotic that politics sounds like white noise, and its practitioners inevitably seem cosseted and privileged. Episodes such as the Iraq war, the crash of 2008 and the MPs’ expenses scandal only accelerated that estrangement. To cap it all, Facebook, Twitter and the rest have fostered a bitterly angry and divisive public discourse, and created a spectrum of disengagement that runs from an extreme outer edge to the heart of public opinion. At one end are people who think the world is run by a secret order of vampiric lizard people or worse; beyond this hardcore lie various shades of the belief that politicians are a strange and hypocritical clique, and most of what governments get up to confirms this.
Some politicians have said they want to prove all this stuff wrong and restore the reputation of both their profession and the state. Johnson, by contrast, is one of those figures who surveyed the ferment and saw mouthwatering possibilities. Notwithstanding his first, aborted run for the Tory leadership, he soon made it to the top of his party, thanks to the EU referendum of 2016 and the success of a leave campaign that tapped into millions of people’s feelings of distance from power, raising their hopes with promises that everyone involved must have known would quickly turn to dust. His thumping election victory in 2019 was at least partly based on the selling to the public of a politician who supposedly wasn’t a politician, with a contempt for convention that held the key to Brexit’s impossible puzzles.
Since then, most of his behaviour in office has apparently been based on the belief that if people’s faith in leaders and institutions was so low, old-fashioned “delivery” would hardly matter, and he would have the moral latitude to get away with just about anything. As proved by the panicky rag-bag of policies he recently floated – attacking the BBC, sending the armed forces into the English channel, somehow tackling NHS waiting lists – to look for coherence, or to imagine many of his ideas being implemented, is to miss the point: his political approach is as chaotic and volatile as the public mood that gave rise to it, and really about nothing but him. As many have long known, what we have basically been dealing with is a political-psychological cousin of Trumpism, rooted on the playing fields of Eton rather than suburban New York – and it is all about defying the demands of traditional politics by using turmoil, misinformation and endless performance. But this is not America – yet – and Johnson has discovered that even if the public are jaded and cynical, some things remain beyond the pale.
Perhaps, like an initial crack on a car windscreen, the disgrace of partygate will shatter just about every aspect of his record. But here we hit one of the most glaring consequences of his misrule: the fact that even if he is forced out, the ramifications of his time in office will spread far further than him and his inner circle. Some of his Conservative colleagues evidently think that after he has gone, a new leader will be able to announce a completely fresh start. On that score, I would direct them to the opinion of a first-time Tory voter in the newly Conservative constituency of Bolton North East, whose opinions were recently recorded by the former Downing Street pollster James Johnson: “They’re all up there backing him, most of them. That’s my worry now, with the [Conservative] party: ‘Oh, he’s apologised, let’s just get on with the job.’ No – you’ve lied about doing the job.”
Even if they have kept their distance, whoever succeeds Johnson will be faced by lingering anger about his rule-breaking and deceit, and how much he was indulged by his colleagues – not to mention the consequences of Brexit, the fallout from his largely disastrous handling of Covid, and the cost-of-living crisis, which by raising National Insurance and scrapping the £20-a-week rise in universal credit his government has managed only to deepen.
There is a rather naive view that as Johnson’s popularity tumbles, Labour’s will carry on rising, and – by some as yet unexplained miracle – Keir Starmer and his party will eventually win enough seats to take power. But like all Labour leaders, he will depend on the public being open to his ideas, and prepared to believe that government can make a difference to their lives. His current leads in the polls aren’t bad, but you can find similar numbers in the history of plenty of Labour leaders who went on to lose – which perhaps suggests that the disaffection and anger spread by Johnson’s misconduct and broken promises may partly bypass Labour and feed into something much more insidious and grim.
This is the prospect that should worry people on all sides of politics. Long before partygate, years of public disengagement gave us Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson and millions of people concluding that the system was broken and simply switching off. In those circumstances, the first duty of anyone in high office should have been to try to heal the breach. But, having become prime minister in the midst of a crisis of trust, Johnson then made it even worse, sometimes as a matter of deliberate design, with consequences that will long outlast his time at the top. Whenever he goes, this will be his most lasting legacy – which is surely the greatest disgrace of all.
All Rights Reserved for John Harris