Boris Johnson once wrote two leading articles, one endorsing ‘Leave’, the other ‘Remain’. Boris Johnson appeared on the show Have I Got News For You to raise his public profile. Boris Johnson uses his pithier middle name – ‘Boris’ – rather than his real one, Alexander.
It is, apparently, the little touches like these that make Boris Johnson sui generis. His name is invoked as a self-evident punchline, loaded with meaning. We are told that Boris Johnson casts a long shadow; so long, indeed, that serious attempts have been made to recast all of recent history as his personal drama: a schoolboy rivalry with David Cameron that festered, terminating in fratricide and Brexit.
Boris Johnson is not allowed the normal vanity and manoeuvre of a politician – the kind that we freely grant to, say, Gordon Brown. When Boris resigned from parliament on Friday, we were taken on a whistlestop tour to revisit those he had vanquished: George Osborne, Theresa May and more. We were invited to see them not as failed politicians, but as victims who had – at last – lived to see their old oppressor brought low. But why? What exactly has Boris Johnson done to these people? In 2016, and in 2019, Boris competed with these individuals for power. In each instance he did so on a clear political platform, known to all. In the end, he won, and they lost – vanishing into well-renumerated obscurity.
Assertions of Johnsonian uniqueness have never been convincing. Glance at the rap sheet. None of it looks particularly out of place. Hedging his bets? Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May, now bywords for conviction politics, ducked the EU referendum altogether. Parliamentary purges? George Osborne planned to dump his party’s radical wing; Keir Starmer has already done so. Self-promotion and opportunism? Please.
We start to get the sense that all this is deliberate. Exoticising Boris Johnson as something unprecedented is designed to gin up a sense of crisis and emergency. It declares him to be somehow outside the body politic. Old bosses bemoan ever employing him as a young man. He should not have been allowed to write articles or books. From this, the use of special measures to hound a duly-elected politician from public life is only a short step.
Boris Johnson is a degenerate aristocrat who makes an appeal to the people. This archetype is probably older than democratic politics itself. Healthier polities are not so easily rattled by these kinds of adventurers. Regency Britain eventually let Charles James Fox back into the fold, and certainly never considered a lifetime ban from office. For Boris it has always been something of an act: demagoguery, but with a wry face. Only modern Britain, stolid, worthy, and neurotic, could see in this a real threat to the body politic. But see it they do, much to Boris’s own shock. Classical allusions have no doubt inspired him, and he has spent his whole career wondering why no one else seems to get the reference.
The pathology runs deeper still. The main event of Boris Johnson’s political life has been Britain’s departure from the European Union, a momentous act. But Brexit is exactly the kind of about-face that liberal democracy is meant to absorb, on the pattern of 1945 or 1979. The fact that this hasn’t happened simply discredits everyone involved. The real story since 2016 hasn’t been about one man’s ambition, but the collapse into incontinence over an attempt to moderately reform the British state, an attempt that – by the way – enjoys two democratic mandates.
The mandate was thrown away. Boris locked Britain down for over a year, and was only talked out of it by those he now denounces as wets. The temptation is for Johnson’s Rightward critics to cut him loose. But this would be a mistake. Boris’s present difficulty speaks to more elemental questions. What we are confronted with, now, isn’t the decadence and drift of the Johnson Government, but whether opposition politics is possible in Britain at all. Via the Privileges Committee, Whitehall and a declining class of lobby journalist asserts its old control over the executive. In years gone by, this control rested on leaks and on elegant obfuscation. But, enraged by Brexit, their tools have become crude and cracker-barrel. They no longer plot, only harangue. The endless drawing up of rulebook violations is used to keep ministers in quasi-judicial limbo, locked up in the extra-parliamentary barracks of Portcullis House. This is designed to harry and demoralise, or score a lucky hit; at the very least it wastes their time. As a demented last resort, MPs can now – apparently – be banned from Parliament outright.
Under these new rules, policies are of no moment. As are the virtues that Boris was said to lack: probity and ‘fitness for office’ – whatever that means. If personal probity couldn’t save Dominic Raab – who has eaten the same sandwich and ‘superfruit pot’ for lunch every day for the last ten years – then it will not avail anyone else.
So it has proven. Rishi Sunak’s Government is based on a simple idea: probity and ‘fitness for office’ to end the conflict with Whitehall. This idea has now been tested to destruction. Rishi has watched his ministerial bench slowly empty, picked off for trifles. Probing attacks have already been made on Rishi himself, which will end in his own arraignment. Either you assert the House of Commons’ sovereign authority over its rivals, or politics will simply disappear. Defending Boris Johnson would be a first step in this direction. It would say that a majority of 80 from the British people counts for something, and is more important than a nonbinding office handbook.
But ‘Boris’ is more than just a point of principle. Matt Goodwin tells us that Boris the man is less important than the broader ‘Realignment’ he represents. This idea should not be taken too far. Of those who have had any success in centralising power in Parliament there are exactly three: Nigel Farage, Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson. Each of these people – infamously – proceeded on individual will and charisma, not big ideas. A gift for command, gravitas, organisation, a common touch. These are high virtues. And they are rare ones – just ask Ron DeSantis. There is no Bonapartism without a Bonaparte to hand. Boris Johnson has immense popular appeal across the country, and, crucially, a cosy retirement of books and speeches no longer seems to be on the cards. As a classicist, the dilemma will probably feel familiar to him. It should be familiar to us, and we’d be advised to meet him halfway.
Stop Press: Read Boris’s scathing 1,700 word statement on the Privileges Committee’s report into partygate describing the findings as “deranged” and “beneath contempt”.