While the cliché dictates that a week is a long time in politics, even that fails to convey what is now happening to the administration of Boris Johnson.
If you want to grasp the scale of the calamity now besetting the prime minister consider this: in the first 24 hours after parliament returned from its summer recess his government suffered three consecutive defeats. While Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher endured four losses each, they took 10 and 11 years to do so. In this respect, at least, Johnson is already in touching distance of the two longest-serving premiers of the last hundred years – and all in less time than it takes to re-watch season four of Peaky Blinders.
While Johnson assumed office just six weeks ago his tenure is already defined by a litany of firsts. In his first week the Tories lost leave-voting Brecon and Radnorshire to the Liberal Democrats. On his first day in parliament Johnson lost his majority as Phillip Lee crossed the floor to join that very same party. Not long after, he ensured that 21 of his Conservative colleagues lost the whip – turning his government’s majority from one to minus 43 in a matter of hours. For all the comedy lampooning, the honest truth is we need to invent a whole new category of political failure to describe what is happening. Even his own brother can’t stand it any more.
The day Johnson became leader of his party I wrote about how he was the “ultimate expression of neoliberalism in collapse“. At the time I wondered if my conclusion was an exercise in confirmation bias and hubris – after all it ran against everything I could find in the mainstream media. It turns out, however, that even I overestimated Johnson’s talents. Because while the Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP personifies all the features of the system he now represents – venality, carelessness, lying – he is also singularly ill-equipped for the role he has coveted since he can remember. The man who as a child wished to be ‘World King’ is now struggling to form full sentences. In the glare of the national spotlight and burdened with genuine responsibility, the garbled Latin dictums have given way to darting, panicky eyes. Already, power appears to have aged him to the extent that after less than two months at the summit of British politics stock images of Johnson look like they’ve been put through FaceApp.
While the absence of the necessary skills and political instincts was inevitable, the same did not apply for Johnson’s inner circle. Prior to his triumph this summer I questioned if, given his lack of attention to detail, he might come to depend on a number two who could fill in for such deficiencies. After all, Blair was the charmer and Gordon Brown the delivery and management obsessive. A similar dynamic prevailed, albeit with less success, between David Cameron and George Osborne.
I was told by Conservatives that the role of capable consigliere would be filled by Sajid Javid, the next chancellor offering a capacity for preparedness that would complement Johnson’s enigmatic persona. Like pretty much everything else about the Tories these days, while the idea sounded plausible in the comfort of a TV studio it collapsed on impact with reality. Johnson, as his biography had hitherto suggested, flies solo and has forged few enduring relationships in politics, which perhaps partly explains his sudden dependence on Dominic Cummings, a man with so little respect for Javid that he has already fired two of his advisors – including Sonia Khan, who received a police escort out of Downing Street. Less widely mentioned is how he cancelled the chancellor’s spending review with less than 24 hours’ notice late last month.
All of which suggests that the kind of relationship Johnson now needs with the chancellor will not happen – or rather it cannot. The reason is structural as well as personal: for the PM’s Brexit gambit to work he needs complete control of the Treasury, going all-out when it comes to public spending. Javid, while less miserly than Philip Hammond, remains a fiscal conservative and is averse to a shift which Cummings views as necessary if the Tories are to win the next election. Intriguingly, the tussle between the two men now resembles that of Steve Bannon with the Republican establishment in the early months of the Trump presidency, as the former Breibart executive tried to win the argument for fiscal expansion and public spending. Bannon, as we now know, lost – and it appears increasingly likely that Cummings will suffer the same fate. If that is to pass then any talk of the Tories ‘reversing austerity’ will remain precisely that.
This clash of ideas and individuals offers a microcosm of what will happen next for the Conservative party. Will it remain committed to neoliberalism and globalisation, free markets and minimal state intervention – or will it pursue the ‘red Ukip’ politics that Cummings appears to favour? In the middle of it – like a rag doll in a chaotic, stormy sea – Boris Johnson appears to be little more than a passenger. It’s so bad that people are no longer even laughing at him.
But despite setting the Tories on a collision course with market orthodoxy and the institutions of the British establishment – from the Financial Times to the CBI – it was the politics they championed which meant Johnson could ever rise to the top. For 30 years we were informed all that was necessary for good government was for it to ‘get out of the way’. In such a context those who believed in public service demurred from politics, while those more disposed to amassing wealth – but with a modicum of intelligence – pursued careers elsewhere. All of which meant that for the Conservatives, and before them the later Blair and Brown years, politics became a vocation for the entirely mediocre. The same dynamic explains how Trump so easily overturned establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio for the Republican nomination ahead of 2016.
Sooner or later, a party responsible for the Carillion calamity, a decade of stagnation and re-privatising the only rail operator to not lose money was going to be found out. It turns out that if you don’t believe in politics as a sphere which is independent of economic ‘management’, eventually you’ll no longer know how to do it. Margaret Thatcher once said there’s no such thing as society. The conclusion of that mindset is that in the not-too-distant future there may be no such thing as the Conservative party.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media co-founder and contributing editor.