The future used to be Boris Johnson’s great friend. During his many years manoeuvring for the Tory leadership, he used fantastical building proposals such as the “Boris Island” airport to keep his national fame alive. During the dominant first phase of his premiership, he won over voters with huge promises about Brexit. And he persuaded a party that had been in power for a decade – usually too long – that its best days in government were still to come.
In a country that often feels weighed down by the past and gloomy about its prospects, Johnson’s relentless optimism was unusual and powerful. After believing for years that politicians could achieve little, many Britons persuaded themselves that he would be different, despite his terrible record as a minister and lack of significant achievements as mayor of London. Any democracy needs periodic infusions of belief from voters if it is not to collapse into total cynicism and apathy, and the personality cult of “Boris” provided one. To millions of voters, he was a superhero who would somehow transform the country.
For quite a while, focusing on the future fitted Johnson’s abilities and personality. He is a bad administrator yet eager to please everyone; an attention-seeker yet averse to accountability; an advertiser of his own authenticity of him yet also a constant liar. His flaws and contradictions of him are so many and obvious that dealing with the present or the recent past – timeframes where his performance of him can be scrutinized – rarely suits him. On the occasions when he does try to be serious in public, he only sounds truly comfortable sketching out glorious futures.
Increasingly, his party prefers that timeframe, too. With the Conservatives’ miracle cures for Britain’s ills, such as shrinking the state and leaving the EU, achieving so little and doing so much damage since 2010, the moment to judge their effectiveness, according to the Tories, is further and further in the future . In 2018, the future minister for Brexit opportunities Jacob Rees-Mogg argued: “The overwhelming opportunity for [gains from] Brexit is over the next 50 years.” Had the often elderly Britons who voted for Brexit been told this during the referendum, the leave campaign might not have gone so well.
For the first year and a bit of Johnson’s premiership, this sort of Tory futurism – which is sometimes no more than procrastination – was given a degree of intellectual energy and credibility by his adviser Dominic Cummings. He aggressively promoted his schemes for reshaping the civil service and the economy as a dose of realism, as a way for Britain to belatedly adjust to the modern world. But their sheer ambitiousness and scale, the fact that they would take many years to carry out, meant that they were also a way of avoiding the government’s difficulties in the present. And even after Cummings’ disillusioned departure from Downing Street in 2020, the government’s tendency to take refuge in the future lived on. Last autumn, Johnson tried to present the shortage of truck drivers and resulting supply-chain chaos as just bumps in the road on our journey to becoming a “high-wage economy”.
Yet since then the future has become a much less reassuring place for him and the Tories. With the police investigation into Partygate continuing, the Sue Gray report coming, the cost of living crisis worsening, the Conservatives behind in the polls, and his authority over the party loosening, the next few months at least look very perilous for Johnson – assuming he stays in Downing Street that long. And as his position weakens him, so does the allure of his promises. There will probably still be plenty of big ones in the Queen’s speech next week – a government that regularly calls its policies “world-beating” is unlikely ever to turn modest – but an air of unreality hangs over the program of any premier whose days seem numbered.
As his future has darkened, Johnson has retreated into his other comfort zone: the distant past. In his 2014 book on Winston Churchill – published when the premiership of his rival David Cameron seemed in trouble – Johnson’s intellectually old-fashioned, unashamedly self-serving central argument was that “one man can make all the difference” in a crisis. Predictably, his response to the invasion of Ukraine has become ever more self-consciously Churchillian. This week he even deployed one of Churchill’s most mythologized phrases from 1940, telling the Ukrainian parliament that their country’s resistance to Russia was its “finest hour”.
But unlike in 1940, Britain is not at war. While the government’s handling of the Ukraine situation is one of the few parts of its performance that voters broadly approve of, Johnson’s Churchill impression has not lifted the government’s overall poll position. Despite the efforts of Johnson and the tabloids, the second world war may simply be too long ago now for most voters to feel stirred when its British legends are invoked.
Unable to reference the past to any great effect, and no longer able to talk mainly about the future, Johnson has finally been forced to conduct his politics in the present. He is not finding it easy. With his upper-class airs and old-fashioned language – “humbug”, “piffle” – he has always been a retro politician, in some ways, but the widespread assumption has been that it’s all a skilful act. Yet it may be that much of contemporary Britain simply baffles him. This week, he appeared not to have heard of the famous TV presenter Lorraine Kelly or to know the difference between Tyneside and Teesside – not great when campaigning for local elections in a region that is supposed to be one of your government’s priorities.
Johnson seems trapped in the present in another sense as well: too damaged to dominate politics again, yet too lacking in obvious successors to be quickly ousted. Instead, surviving from one week to the next, playing for time, relying on elaborate parliamentary procedures, his political existence of him is beginning to resemble – with delicious irony – that of the beleaguered Commons remainers during the early months of his premiership, before the 2019 election. Then, Johnson treated their delaying tactics with contemplation, as an obstruction of the will of the people; yet now he may be beginning to realize how they felt.
Prime ministers often age fast. But these days Johnson sometimes looks strikingly lined and pale – almost haunted. It could be the after-effects of Covid, or it could be a belated realization, that in politics making lots of promises is ultimately not enough, however much your party and many journalists and voters want to believe them. As Cameron once said to Tony Blair, when the end of Blair’s premiership was in sight: “You were the future once.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism