Boris Johnson has just won a vote of confidence with 148 Conservative MPs voting for him and 211 opting to get rid of their major liability and election winner.
‘Piccaninnies, watermelon smiles, letter-boxes and tank-topped bumboys’. A few phrases with uncertain hyphens, but all unmistakably from the pen or mouth of our prime minister.
The conservative MPs had to decide whether this Eton-educated toff, vicious hack and unashamed liar was fit to remain in office.
When I lived in London I voted for him as mayor of London, thinking it could be a bit of a laugh. Well, the bendy buses were, the Olympics went well and then the Garden Bridge vanity project and the water cannons, bought in by Johnson for the streets of London were scrapped at a cost to the taxpayer of around £250 million.
We call most politicians by their surname, but the tendency is still strong to label Johnson as Boris, because he is a man-boy, but it makes him appear harmless, loveable even, when he is anything but. He is the unacceptable face of upper-class twittery and is as dangerous for us as Trump was for the rest of the world. Except, he has fewer checks and balances to keep him under control.
The States was run by a former reality TV show host, we are governed by a former journalist, surrounded by other former right-wing journalists. No wonder Gove doesn’t trust experts.
Johnson blustered his way to the top with lies and bravado, but the decline of expertise and knowledge stretches much further.
Even committed conservatives might overlook his casual racism, his sexism and gaffes, but how can a man who can’t count his own children, or stick to a core party policy become prime minister? How can a deeply untrusted person, who cynically ignores the rules of public life, present as the leader of the British establishment?
Johnson’s election manifesto offered nothing beyond the partial restoration of the public services that the party had been devastating for a decade.
His rise also tells us that the UK establishment has become socially and ideologically incoherent. Globalisation severely divided their ranks. Eton and Oxbridge may be overrepresented in recent cabinets, as well as in the judiciary and other elite pockets – but such pedigree means less among the more transient ranks of today’s international CEOs and financiers.
Decades of neoliberalism brought a shake-up of establishment winners and losers. While City players reached ever greater heights, the old Tory shire faithful were pushed to the margins. As private business consultants and lawyers flourished, BBC top brass and Whitehall mandarins saw their public servant status diminished.
What this means is that Johnson’s policy flip-flops are acceptable because there is no clear direction of travel that unites either party or establishment. His incoherence can be seen in the wider context of elite incoherence. The elite can, however, only agree on what they don’t want: a Labour government. For that they need “an election winner” more than they need a big thinker.
However, Johnson’s rise is about more than his perceived electoral value to his wealthy establishment donors and the party faithful. He is also there because his personal failings seem to matter less, either to his elite backers or to many undecided voters.
The deterioration of expertise and knowledge stretches much further than Johnson. He is not the only frontline MP who doesn’t seem able to master a simple brief. Professional politicians, of the kind who have come to lead the main parties in recent decades, have gathered little experience or specialist expertise outside the Westminster village.
They have moved rapidly from ministerial post to post, rarely staying long enough to understand their policy areas. Their networking skills and media savviness gave them quicker routes to the top – journalism and PR experience were useful political apprenticeships. Johnson and his on/off allies, David Cameron and Michael Gove, all followed such pathways to the top of their party.
In any case, “expertise” has become a highly devalued commodity. The term itself is almost an insult and not just because Gove has said so. For years, politicians and business leaders agreed on the merits of an economic policy consensus that neither predicted nor explained the great financial crash. While leaders lauded their policy triumphs to the public, and the ranks of the super-rich kept rising, a growing number experienced wage stagnation, unaffordable housing, precarious employment and debt. Inequality kept growing.
Similarly, Johnson’s willingness to lie and bend the rules of the game to breaking point is only an extension of recent trends. In the 1980s, the economic victors of the Thatcher revolution were those who were the quickest to disregard gentlemanly capitalism. The old corporate and City leaderships were ruthlessly replaced by those ready to ignore business traditions and long-standing relations. In the 1990s and 2000s, New Labour’s spin machine was notorious for its elasticity with the truth, be it selling the Iraq war or the merits of big finance. Now, institutional lying, obfuscation and dirty tricks are the norm.
For the voters, this means that the political classes in general are no longer seen as credible. Nor are government institutions, business leaders or journalists. British electorates are as volatile and unaligned to parties as they have ever been. Trust in even respectable news content has reached new lows. Social media fabrications, PR spin and lying authority figures – against the backdrop of an industry struggling financially – makes the task of reporting even harder.
Thus, in a world where politicians bluster, where experts are wrong, where lies and deception are commonplace, where neither politicians nor commentators are trusted, why not pick Johnson? Such failings are far from terminal.
On the contrary, Johnson’s skill sets are to be prized by those who just want a winner. Johnson, with his carefully honed media act, is able to deflect all comers with a ruffle of his hair, a classics reference or Brexit rallying cry. The public knows he lies, but forgive little Boris. In the dishevelled void that is British politics, why not pick a ruthless, Trump-style leader to lead us out of the current mess?
This morning, Johnson told his cabinet: “this is a government that delivers on what people in this country care about most”, which feels bold, considering that a poll yesterday indicated 60% of the country wanted him to go.
Today’s other official angle is that last night’s horror show allows the government to “draw a line” under leadership speculation, and to stop the Tory infighting. A reminder: things we’ve done fairly recently to stop Tory infighting include: having a referendum, having two general elections, and having no-confidence votes in the both past two leaders. A significant number of the exhausted British public will feel they’ve worked harder on this relationship than their own marriages.
But look, Johnson’s big new ideas are reportedly in the post, so do clamber back on to the old tenterhooks. Another new chief of staff? Return to the gold standard? Revival of shillings and farthings? His biggest big idea continues to be the threat of triggering article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol. Or, if you prefer, to get Brexit undone. It remains remarkable that some years into the experiment, we are no closer to discovering what, politically, Boris Johnson actually likes, other than being liked. A lifetime of hollowing himself out with narcissism and personal ambition seems to have meant that when he finally became prime minister, he had no idea what to do with the position, and even less interest in finding out. The course of a redemption arc for that type of character feels particularly unclear.
For us, the audience, the scene feels familiar. It’s a place we’ve come to know only too well, where frequent extended bloodlettings have yielded a steady parade of inadequate PMs and lackeys.