jJust because Boris Johnson tackles every topic with only Boris Johnson in mind, doesn’t mean we have to do the same. Even the crisis that now engulfs the prime minister, and sees his fate hang on the reaction of Tory MPs to a Sue Gray Report that could come next week, it’s not just about him. It’s tempting to see it that way, to look for the roots of the partygate scandal in Johnson’s arrogance, entitlement and narcissism, but it’s a double mistake.
Politically, it is unwise because it would allow the Conservatives to get rid of Johnson, elect a successor and pretend to be a new government exorcised from its devil, without turning the electorate to Labour. But it’s also wrong.
Johnson may be a loner, but he didn’t act alone. That is strictly true, in the sense that there were many others who knew about or attended those rule-breaking parties and many more who are covering it up now. Any Conservative MP who defends Johnson, any campaigner or donor who does not demand his resignation, is complicit in the damage his actions have caused.
But it is also true in a deeper sense, in that the shameful events of Downing Street are a function of a Conservative party that is now something else. Despite the name, that organization is no longer conservative in the way it was once understood and once prided itself on.
Consider the two parties Johnson himself didn’t attend, the ones that rocked the cellar and spotted a suitcase full of booze at number 10 the night before the Queen buried her husband. Forget about Covid and the restrictions that were broken. There was a time, not long ago, when no Conservative would have dreamed of a party in a government building on the eve of a royal funeral, even if there were no pandemic. They would have been offended at the very idea of it.
Or consider the actions of two of Johnson’s most loyal cabinet ministers as they mobilized to save their boss. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announced the end of the license fee, essentially handing down a death sentence on the BBC as we know it. It is true that Conservative ministers have always enjoyed criticizing the BBC, threatening to bring it down, but they have not called for its effective destruction. Yet now a self-styled Conservative minister can look at a century-old world-class institution that almost defines Britishness and think that her mission is not to preserve and protect that institution, but to tear it to shreds.
Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who likes to dress up as a tall Edwardian Conservative, tried to defend Johnson by attacking the elected leader of the Scottish Conservative Party as “a lightweight”, thus disparaging the Scottish Conservatives who had elected him. Once upon a time, a member of the Conservative and Unionist party would have understood that the fate of the union is in jeopardy if Scottish voters believe that Westminster looks down on them. But Rees-Mogg couldn’t care less.
The origin of all this, a conservative party happily trampling on the union, the monarchy and the cultural organization that unites these islands like no other, is not difficult to understand, although it has become impolite to mention it. It is Brexit that transformed the Conservative Party.
Where the Tories once revered tradition, Brexit filled them with revolutionary zeal. Suddenly, and in a reversal of the teaching of the conservative theorist Michael OakeshottThey preferred the unknown to the familiar, the untried to the tried, the possible to the real, utopian bliss to present laughter.
Brexit saw the Conservatives succumb to the lure of abstract nouns: Freedom! Sovereignty! – and supposedly creative destruction. A minister cannot shake the image of Dominic Cummings, minutes after the referendum result was known, jumping on a table at the Vote Leave headquarters, giving a speech and then making a hole on the ceiling: “Destructive fervor in its moment of triumph.”
Hooliganism became a Brexit habit, which is hardly surprising for a project dedicated to uprooting a tangle of connections with our continental neighbors that had grown thick and dense for half a century, and this is the Brexit government. Like all revolutionary endeavors, he believes the end justifies all means, no matter the damage to things once treasured by conservatives. This, remember, was the move that promised to restore parliamentary sovereignty, only to illegally suspend parliament to get away with it.
So it shouldn’t be too surprising that Vote Leave Downing Street behaved the way it did. Of course he despised the rules, even the ones he wrote himself. This was the government that boasted in the House of Commons of its willingness to break international law, if that is what its purist Brexit required.
And, naturally, he cracked down on restrictions of any kind, even those essential to keeping our fellow citizens alive. A crude libertarianism always ran through Brexit, with Brussels seen as the source of petty rules imposing a nanny-like health and safety culture on John Bull. No wonder Johnson, Cummings and the others thought they were above such things. Freedom was always their war cry, and they were going to have it, even if they denied it to everyone else.
Furthermore, they saw themselves as granted a special license that placed them outside the reach of the usual restrictions. Brexiter participants believed that the result of the referendum had given them a super mandate that surpassed any convention or norm: it made them anointed instruments of the will of the people, who could tolerate no challenge. The landslide victory in 2019 reinforced that conviction. It was a toxic combination: part Marie Antoinette drinking and laughing while outside the walled garden the obedient public died to death in solitude, part revolutionary politburo convinced that whatever satisfied their personal interests served the cause of the people.
We should have no illusions about the Conservative Party of old. We know your record. We know that Margaret Thatcher had her own brand of revolutionary zeal, just as we know the destructive impact of David Cameron’s austerity. But there were lines he dared not cross, the monarchy and the union between them. This is a different animal. Brexit transformed it from a conservative party to a national-populist party. His instincts are now those of Viktor Orbán, funneling public money and jobs to ideological allies, ready to burn down even the most valuable institutions that stand in his way. Of course, he has contempt for the people, as all populists ultimately do. He even had contempt for the Queen on the night of their greatest duel. So let’s not pretend that these failures were Johnson’s alone. Brexit is the virus. Boris Johnson was only its most visible bearer.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism