Tuesday, August 16

Even diehard Tories can’t stand another minute of Johnson’s rollercoaster government | Raphael Behr


Yot feels like a long time has passed since the prime minister’s ethics adviser resigned. The second ethics adviser, that is: Christopher Geidt. It was only a fortnight ago. The first one, Sir Alex Allan, quit 18 months earlier. That is an aeon in Johnson time – a temporary distortion caused when bad government tumbles out of Downing Street so fast it laps the news cycle. One drama is not over before the next one has begun. Seven days in Johnson time can age you more than a week.

What was the spur for Geidt’s departure? Something to do with steel tariffs. Not lockdown parties? Too slow! Now we’re breaking international law to rip up the Brexit deal. Oh wait, now we’re deporting refugees to Rwanda and railing against human rights law. And what was that about Boris, Carrie and a top job at the Foreign Office? A treehouse at Checkers? £150,000! Someone calls the ethics adviser. Oh, there isn’t one.

Meanwhile, the trains aren’t running, the foundations of England’s union with Scotland are groaning ominously and it’s all someone else’s fault. It is exhausting to pay attention, resisting the temptation to tune out for sanity’s sake. It is doubly draining to stay angry, not to lose sensation in the nerves that can feel an individual outrage but go numb under a barrage.

The relentlessness of it fuels Johnson. He likes making other people dizzy because it forces them to keep looking at him as the only fixed point. Also, there is a momentum to the chaos that helps him evade responsibility. To hold him to account, you first have to keep up.

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The prime minister levies an emotional tax on everyone who believes that Britain can and should be governed better. He outsources the basic function of caring what happens to the country. We have to spend our own limited mental energy inwardly apologizing for the mere fact that he is there, representing us. It feels like paying the bill for someone else who has done a runner from a restaurant, or picking up other people’s litter. But the alternative is accepting that this is just the way politics will be from now on.

That is also why the casual boast he made recently that he is thinking beyond a second term and into a third one filled his critics with horror. Not one who cherishes British democracy wants to see how it might weather a decade of Johnson time.

It is bad enough worrying what fresh hell might be in tomorrow’s headlines. Release from that stress can be a powerful motivating force in elections. Johnson himself tapped into it in 2019 with the pledge to “get Brexit done” – a promise to make the incessant partisan racket stop. Another promise broken.

An unofficial campaign slogan for Joe Biden’s bid to evict Donald Trump from the White House was to “make politics boring again”. The same applied earlier this year in Australia. Anthony Albanese, an amiable Bidenesque bore, returned the Labor party to power after nine years of failure to unseat ruthless rightwing governments led by the (not very liberal) Liberal party.

There are limits to the application of US and Australian lessons to Britain. Different cultures; different electoral systems. But it is worth noting, in Albanese’s victory, the enabling part played by independent “teal” candidates, so named because their appeal blended moderate conservatism and environmentalism – blue and green.

Teal voters were repelled by the divisive, aggressive postures taken by Albanese’s predecessor, Scott Morrison. It turns out that there is a limit to what can be achieved with cynically provoked culture wars and doubling down on anti-immigration rhetoric when enough of the electorate wants decent, capable government.

That is relevant to the UK not least because tracts of the Liberal party’s pugnacious playbook were drafted by Lynton Crosby and his associates, Johnson’s favorite strategists.

There is something teal in the tint of last week’s victory for the Liberal Democrats in Tiverton and Honiton, the biggest byelection defeat for a government in British history. That result does not express affection for Ed Davey’s party, or even awareness of his policies. The Lib Dems capitalized on a feeling that Johnson’s government has no focus beyond its own venal power games; that the man himself is not to be trusted under any circumstances; that he is governing badly because he is governing only for himself.

Something similar happened in North Shropshire in December, and in Chesham and Amersham earlier last year. Both Tory seats were snatched by the Lib Dems, appealing to voters who are conservative in the old-fashioned sense. These are people who want politicians to behave (and dress) in ways that show respect for serious offices of state. They see Johnson’s ill-fitting suits and disregard for lockdown rules as part of the same problem. They like fiscal discipline and sobriety in government, but are not reactionary on social issues. They don’t itch to unpick multiculturalism or wage a war on “woke”.

Many were remaining, but some also voted for Brexit. That doesn’t mean they want a forever war with Brussels simply because the prime minister can’t think of anything better to do. One senior Lib Dem describes the party’s archetypal new voter as the “Surrey solicitor” – a pillar of the community who doesn’t share the new Tory view of pillars as awkward establishment things to be vandalized or pulled down.

It is also worth noting that the Australian teal candidates were women, which was key to their success against bloviating, nationalist machismo. Opinion polls have consistently shown Johnson’s appeal to her to be stronger among men. There might be subtle socioeconomic reasons for that gender imbalance, but I suspect an intuitive aversion to lying, cheating bastards is at its core.

Johnson’s relationship with millions of Tory voters is broken beyond repair. Every passing day makes it harder for a potential successor to effect a reconciliation. A day of Johnson does more than 24 hours of damage to the Conservative brand.

There is a market for politics that ticks along at the old pace. People are tired of Monday’s outrage blurring into Tuesday’s blunder, compounded by Wednesday’s scandal lost amid Thursday’s provocation, triggering Friday’s backlash. It is nauseating to be spun around without going anywhere. The longer the Tories keep us all trapped in the vortex of Johnson time, the more severe the reckoning will be when the clock stops.


www.theguardian.com

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