Johnson’s gross unsuitability for office must herald a decade of genuine progressive politics

Boris Johnson has damaged Britain: its cohesion, its standing, its reputation, its economy and its constitution. But what is increasingly apparent is that he has also damaged his own Conservative party. When the time comes to remove them from office, an electoral strategy will be insufficient; there needs to be a positive plan for long-term progressive politics that both fixes the mess left by Johnson’s opportunistic populism and makes sure no future Prime Minister can act with such gross impunity. And that represents the singular opportunity for Liberal Democrats today.

When he led the Tories to an 80 seat majority in 2019, exploiting the new Brexit voter cleavage, and taking red wall seats in the Midlands and the North, Johnson seemed electorally predominant and largely Teflon. The usual rules of politics didn’t seem to apply and that, of course, is how Johnson likes it. But for the Conservatives that victory came at a cost. For starters, they accepted Johnson as their leader because he could win votes. Most Tory MPs, it seems, view Johnson no differently from the rest of us – that he is a self-interested opportunist, with a casual relationship with the truth and who is unsuitable for office. And that explains a victory built on easy slogans, misinformation and untruths. To get there, the Conservatives also ejected a raft of sensible and experienced politicians from the parliamentary party: the likes of Dominic Grieve, Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, Justine Greening. This explains why now there is a dearth of serious alternative PMs on the Tory benches and how the party is captive of its own reactionary right. There is a clear message that there is no place in the modern Conservative Party for people like Anna Soubry or Rory Stewart. That is limiting.

Until last Autumn, it looked like Boris Johnson could do as he pleased. He thought it, and we feared it. Johnson has relished exploiting our uncodified constitution which relies on what Andrew Blick and Peter Hennessy recently described as, ‘good chaps’. Clearly not a ‘good chap’, Johnson has unlawfully prorogued parliament, undermined the judiciary, undermined parliament and process, rode roughshod over the Good Friday Agreement, habitually misled Parliament, not to mention breaking his own lockdown rules, accepting dodgy cash, protected his Home Secretary when she was shown to be a bully, and attempted to change Parliament’s own rules of conduct in order to save his friend, Owen Patterson. His lack of accountability was assured given the knowledge that a big majority and strong opinion polling meant he could get away with it. It meant his government could propose retrograde laws to allow ministers to ‘correct’ court judgements and promise to actually extend first-past-the-post. It also allowed him to get away with the gross incompetence of his Brexit policy and the fast and loose way he handled the pandemic.

The Patterson affair, you won’t need reminding, was a turning point in Johnson’s electoral standing. Since the autumn he and his government have come under increasing and sustained pressure as public opinion turned on him over outside earnings, lockdown breaking parties in Downing Street, lies and hypocrisy. That Johnson has so far survived is testament to his own shamelessness and a sorry array of potential successors. Whether Tory backbenchers oust him after the May elections or not, we are stuck with this government for the time being. But momentum in democratic politics is an astonishing thing. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way back for the Tories and the very circumstances which propelled them to such an extraordinary victory in 2019, are now a millstone.

Johnson has been a dominant figure in British politics for a decade and his self-interested populism has damaged the UK. The damage must be reversed – not just what we do but how we do it. Liberal Democracy is fundamental to this challenge and that means being right on the big questions now and putting the cause of real progressive reform above easy headlines and short-lived victories.

* Stephen Barber is Professor of Global Affairs and a former Parliamentary Candidate

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One Comment

  • David Garlick 15th Mar '22 - 10:18am

    Easy to write as much is so evidently true. Makes sobering reading never the less and surely makes some sort of coalition of the centre and left a no brainer?

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