AS THE final grains of sand run out of the Brexit hour-glass, what, exactly, is going on in the mind of Boris Johnson? My guess is, Mr Micawber-like, he is still hoping and praying that some magical formula will allow him to declare a victory that will please everyone. He is wrong: optimistic bluster has carried him very far in life, but there is no hiding place now. Every hour of delay enrages and hardens attitudes further, particularly amongst Brexiteers.
It is not just Johnson’s personal lack of spine, his desperation to be liked by all and avoid difficult decisions, that is at fault here; the Tories themselves are caught on the horns of an almost impossible dilemma that gravely threatens their survival. As we all know, that majority of 80 may look impressive but it is paper-thin. Just as a Brexit betrayal would bring the Red Wall crashing down, the Tories may face an equally catastrophic electoral meltdown if they go with No Deal.
All those Red Wall areas once looked set to be Labour until the end of time, and similarly the true blue South is not what it was, rapidly turning LibDem Orange as younger Metropolitan liberals ship out of necrotic London and settle down. Covid may have greatly accelerated these major demographic shifts, but it is impossible at present to know just by how much.
It is very hard to have sympathy with the Tories: for decades they ignored the culture war, allowing first political correctness, then its even more militant cousin Woke, to become deeply embedded in the social fabric because neither seemed to threaten their electoral prospects. Once, becoming more conservative was a sign of maturity and respectability. Now, as the pundit Ed West observes, liberalism has become the ‘high status faith’ of the age, and those who want to get on in life had better adhere to its mantras if they wish for social status and career success. Such people are unlikely to take kindly to a Brexit on WTO terms, or for that matter an aggressive response to the woke Kulturkampf, which perhaps explains the recent woke pivot in the Johnson Court.
Just as this administration has betrayed conservatism generally (no change there, then) the party’s high command would rat out Brexit in an instant if they thought they could get away with it. They may well judge the destruction of the Red Wall would be a price worth paying if it preserved the Blue South, whose more malleable ‘Knight of the Shire’ MPs are in any case much more to the Central Office’s liking than those frightful below-stairs Northern types who have such horrible things as political principles.
But can it? Ominously for the party, two trends are emerging. The first is that as Margaret Thatcher fades into history, long-brewing changes in perception about what the Tory Party actually is may well be approaching a tipping point. In retrospect, Thatcher was a tragic figure: a political titan who convinced a whole generation on the centre-Right that the Parliamentary Tory Party was a creature capable of courage and conviction, rather than the cynical, shape-shifting parasite it has always been. As such, her living memory assured the decades of Left-liberal domination that followed her fall. Now, after decades of frustration and disappointment – not least with Johnson’s current catastrophic administration – even contemporaries, like James Delingpole, once reluctant to stick the knife in, are following Peter Hitchens’s lead in calling for the party’s total destruction.
The second factor, as the commentator Patrick O’Flynn sagely notes in the Spectator, is the rise and rise of Reform UK’s* Richard Tice. Charming and urbane, he can appeal to a much broader section of conservative-leaning people than Nigel Farage could hope to. Farage is a great man to whom the country owes an eternal debt of immense gratitude, but he also has glaring weaknesses. He manifests the paradox of the classic insurgent leader: an abrasive, highly courageous fanatic who fought hard for the freedom of others against seemingly insurmountable odds, but who ran his own movement with an iron hand and repelled as many as he attracted. His ‘Sun King’ style of leadership made him incapable of building a movement that could survive him as the demise of UKIP, which he treated brutally once it was of no further use to him, demonstrates. Farage could – and did – wound the Tories enough to make Brexit possible, but he was never going to destroy them.
Tice could well be different, more of a team player, content to be primus inter pares. At some point, for example, an accommodation will have to be reached between the high-profile Laurence Fox’s Reclaim Party, and Reform UK; one feels that Tice could happily share the limelight with Fox in a way that Farage never could. Whereas Farage appeals primarily to Thatcherite Essex Man and the post-industrial North, Tice can appeal to the more genteel Tory South, where hard truths, insofar as they are tolerated at all, must at least be sugar-coated by nice manners. A combination of major demographic change and a Tice-led Reform UK could spell doom for the Tories in their heartlands.
So, we return to our original question: what is going on in the mind of Boris Johnson? After he has spent the most fateful weekend of his life pondering the future of Brexit, one thing we can be sure of is that he is thinking about how history will see him. Heavy on his mind must be the fact that, whichever way he jumps, that magnificent 80-seat majority he won could prove to be the Tories’ Indian Summer: a late, final flowering of success before the winter of its demise.
*The name change of The Brexit Party to Reform UK is still under review by the Electoral Commission at the time of writing.