Why Are Things So Bad for Boris?
Or: Mission? Impossible!
One of the formative TV shows of my childhood was “Bootleg”. A 2002 BBC adaptation of a children’s book by Alex Shearer, Bootleg imagines a Britain in which a new political party- the "Good for You" party- comes into power and bans chocolate.
One scene from the show is seared into my brain. In it, the cartoonishly evil authoritarian Government are caught gorging on chocolate in private after banning it for everyone else (naturally, they are eventually overthrown in a revolution).
Over the years the show has shifted to the front of my mind and I’ve idly thought: surely no Government would be so thick in real life?
In one sense, the answer to the question “why are things so bad for Boris?” is obvious.
For ill or for good, the British public have a deep sense of fairness and a seething hatred of hypocrisy. In short, the PM is in trouble because as a rule maker in Britain, the worst sin you can commit is being a rule breaker. This is the same phenomenon that made the 2009 expenses scandal such a huge story.
Much like the expenses scandal, which was so toxic in part because it took place during the pain of the financial crisis, the news of the Downing Street party has created a target for legitimate pent-up anger among the public.
The last two years saw many people make sacrifices for the “greater good” of controlling the virus. As we’ve learnt more about the disease, it’s become clear that many of the restrictions we faced were needless: both unbearably harsh and, crucially, totally ineffective at slowing the spread of the virus.
It’s easy to scoff that people were morons or naïve for following the rules so stringently, but many of the most egregious and painful stories- of funerals missed; parents unable to share their last hours with their dying children; of women giving birth without their partners- were impossible for individuals to avoid.
Even if we set aside these extreme examples, the overriding feeling driving public opinion in the period of March-June 2020 was fear of the disease. As this fear has subsided, support for restrictions has stayed in place in part because the public thought they were doing their bit; that the sacrifices they made mattered. The revelation that the people that were setting the rules weren’t following them has shattered this illusion, releasing the pent up frustration and anger that didn’t previously have a target.
The defence presented by some Government loyalists is that many of the Downing Street gatherings were work events; that everyone there was working there together anyway, so it made little epidemiological difference. This excuse, while not entirely false, is weak.
Yet at the same time that social events were taking place at Downing Street, essential workers in places like supermarkets, one of the groups most exposed to catching the disease, were explicitly banned from unwinding in the staff room after a shift with a few beers. It was literally one rule for us, another for them.
Again, with the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to call the public foolish for following the rules so stringently. Yet perhaps a world where the rule makers were also chafing under outdoor socialisation restrictions would have seen the most foolish rules lifted sooner.
A more reasonable defence is that some of the “parties” that have been reported were not breaches of the rules; that they were in fact legitimate work gatherings. For example, I’m not convinced that the revelation about a small gathering held in the middle of the day to mark the Prime Minister’s birthday counts as a breach. The problem, however, is that Number 10’s decision to lie about everything else means they get no benefit of the doubt for marginal cases.
Would a story about a birthday cake in the office have got traction if everything else had been owned up to earlier? As always in politics, it’s not the crime that gets you but the cover-up.
As I said, the answer to the question “why are things so bad for Boris?” is obvious.
Yet the obvious answer doesn’t quite explain why things have gotten so bad so quickly for the Prime Minister with his own MPs. The change in vibe from the Conservative Party conference in October 2021 is striking. It’s impossible to believe that just 7 weeks ago the Conservatives were still chalking up poll leads.
Obviously, many of the Prime Minister’s problems with the party stem from the Owen Paterson debacle, in which Number 10 lost its head listening to dusted long-standing MPs and tried to block Paterson’s suspension from the house. It doesn’t matter whether there was merit in the Government’s argument that the Standards system in the Commons needed changing- a smarter political operation would have swallowed Paterson’s punishment and used the frustration on the backbenches to effect change, rather than setting in train an embarrassing and needless by-election loss.
But the Government’s problem with MPs predates this, and I think there are several causes. The most obvious one is consternation among MPs about the handling of the pandemic and a series of policy decisions- most notably the forthcoming National Insurance rise.
However, I think this disgruntlement is underpinned and explained by two structural issues that the Johnson Government has. The first is the 2019 intake.
At the General Election, 109 new MPs were elected, just under a third of the total Parliamentary Party. Unfortunately for them and the Government, the onset of the pandemic means they weren’t socialised as they otherwise would have been. Instead of days and nights spent together with colleagues talking, debating and passing Government business, they spent the formative parts of their terms behind a screen facing a deluge of confused, scared and angry correspondence from constituents.
While it’s never wise to generalise characteristics for a complicated, multi-faceted group of people, this broadly means that many of the new intake feel more disconnected than they otherwise would from Parliament and the party infrastructure. This, alongside the small majorities many of them face in their seats, is the perfect breeding ground for fomenting dissent.
The second structural issue is the single fundamental truth of the Johnson administration: it has no mission.
The central aim of the Conservatives at the 2019 General Election campaign under Boris Johnson was twofold: after a period of genuinely unprecedented political turmoil they would “Get Brexit Done” and beat Corbyn. Unfortunately for them, to all intents and purposes this mission was effectively completed at 10.01pm on 12th December 2019.
They’ve since failed to pivot to a single unifying mission in Government. This has left them unmoored and aimless and given backbenchers, particularly the 2019 intake, nothing to rally behind in times of trouble. This contrasts to Boris’s predecessors sharply: Thatcher and Blair had the reshaping of the state in their image; the coalition had austerity. Even Gordon Brown had the financial crisis, which he made his mission in a way in which the Johnson Government hasn’t done with Covid.
Without a mission, it’s incredibly hard for a Government to weather storms like this. One reason the Coalition was able to weather the torrid 2012 “omnishambles” Budget was a shared agreement between the Government and its backbenchers on what they wanted to achieve. In contrast, what is there to wait for if you’re a Government backbencher in this Parliament, except the slow slide to Opposition?
Admittedly, there have been failed attempts at scraping together a mission. Obviously Cummings knew what he wanted from Government, though he utterly failed at achieving buy-in for his aims within the Parliamentary party, preferring to be a messy bitch.
Elsewhere, there’s “Levelling Up”, that most ill-defined of forced memes. There’s also “Net Zero” which is both too controversial within the Party, and operates on too long a timeframe to make a successful defining mission. It’s probably now too late for the Johnson Government to find another one.
Without a mission, a Government is destined to drift or sink.
Personally, I don’t see how Boris outlasts this crisis.
The great irony of the 2019 leadership election is that both Boris’s backers and his detractors were right. He did win the election they thought he could win; he did deliver Brexit. He’s also demonstrated in spectacular fashion that he just can’t govern. As the Economist’s Bagehot wrote recently, he’s an honest liar.
If they’re smart, Tory MPs will ditch him following the publication of the Gray Report’s findings. My view is that waiting any longer, such as for a bad result at the local elections, will allow the stench of his Government to taint the party. Normal people will rightly think “well they only got rid of him because he lost, not because of the principle”. That will be fatal.
My hope is that in any ensuing leadership contest, a new Prime Minister is chosen with a sense of mission, a vision for the UK, and a view of what they want to do with an 80 seat majority.
We can’t again face a situation where the people at the top of Government seem to think that the sole end of politics in Britain is holding a party in Downing Street.