WE all hoped he would be different. Despite all the warning signs, the acres of newsprint exposing his myriad faults: the shambolic, near-terminal lack of organisation, his lack of principle or underlying philosophy, we hoped it would somehow turn out OK in the end. We were willing to give him a shot because he had one huge and extremely rare talent: he could make conservative politics look generous, bold, visionary, romantic, even (dread word) inclusive. No one but him could, for instance, compare Brexiteers to the Spartans at Thermopylae without looking ridiculous. Apart from Ronald Reagan, I can think of no other right-wing politician in my lifetime who had this ability. Sure, he would need others around him content to do the heavy lifting while he hogged the glory, but then so have many other inspirational leaders. It was only Boris, whatever his shortcomings, who had the unique ability to deliver us from the People’s Vote, win a General Election and then unite the country behind a bold Brexit vision.
To hope, of course, is not the same as to expect – as yesterday’s press conference on Cummings’s comings and goings so rudely reminded us and regarding which almost everyone has missed the point. If the fate of an unelected aide is seen as this big a deal, then your leadership is in serious trouble. I don’t think many of us were completely starry-eyed, certainly not those amongst us who are deeply suspicious of Toryism generally: there was something to those embittered Remainer accusations that the man was a charlatan, and we have long grown jaundiced waiting for a latter-day Tory Arthur to emerge, wielding Margaret Thatcher’s handbag in Excalibur-like fashion.
Far from it. Boris, in Kathy Gyngell’s pithy phrase, is a bottler: talks a very good game, yes, but not a man of action. Although I don’t doubt for one moment the man has been seriously ill (he seems to have aged ten years) it is hard to believe this is the major reason for his caution over releasing us from lockdown. He has ‘form’: for instance, while he was Mayor of London, he did nothing to reduce the power of the RMT, memorably surrendering to their ‘concerns about health and safety’ when they threatened to disrupt the London Olympics. He could have at least prepared the groundwork for the automation of the Tube, with the result that the greedy and ideological RMT would be less able to hold us all to ransom today. Nor did he lie in front of the bulldozers or die in a ditch, which he threatened to do over Heathrow and Brexit respectively. His track record during the first few months in office as Prime Minister was equally inauspicious, with a string of appallingly derivative, corporatist decisions that showed a government largely bereft of original thinking or courage.
To be fair, the one ray of light is on Brexit itself: so far, David Frost is holding to a very firm line that may well end in a WTO-style exit next year. However, one suspects this is driven less by principle than by Tory concerns as to the solidity of its ‘Red Wall’ seats and fear of Nigel Farage in particular. However, to many of us Brexit was much more than that: a chance to reinvigorate a culturally moribund and fragmented country behind a new and exciting vision of itself. Boris, with his charm and can-do bravura, seemed the man best suited to the task – indeed the only one in a very mediocre field who could have done so.
Instead, Gisela’s Stuart description of Brexit as ‘an unfrozen moment’ is turning into Arctic perma-frost. The major step-change brought about by Covid-19 will be to exacerbate the destructive cultural trends that have been creeping up on Britain and the entire Western World for a considerable time: timidity, risk-aversion, authoritarianism – and stagnation. Having propagated the myth that Covid-19 is a hyper-virulent killer, the country is now being destroyed simply to cover Tory backs and Boris’s in particular. Whatever has happened to Dominic Cummings by the time you read this is quite frankly a sideshow, the big issue is and will remain Boris himself: highly ambitious, cynical, and something of moral coward, a man whose selfish opportunism could seize the day, but never the year, let alone the decade or the century.
Boris Johnson. Just another Tory.