As the 1979 general election campaign went on, it became increasingly clear that the Conservatives would likely win a significant majority. In the heat of battle, James Callaghan, then Labour prime minister, showed remarkable foresight. “There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea-change in politics,” he told his advisor. “It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change – and it is for Mrs Thatcher.”
Thatcher went on to win not only that election, but the following two as well. Her successor, John Major, prevailed in 1992, and Labour’s Tony Blair won three consecutive elections by overtly embracing her policies. At the start of the 21st century, Thatcherism was – for the most part – the political ‘common sense’ of the country. Thatcher would later comment that her greatest achievement was New Labour. She was, without doubt, the most successful British politician of the 20th century, and still casts a long shadow over British politics (as a cursory glance at Johnson’s would-be successors will tell you). Not bad for someone who had just one supporter in the shadow cabinet when she launched her leadership bid in 1975.
While the rise of Boris Johnson was far more predictable – his tilt at the top job less a meteoric rise than starting on the playing fields of Eton – Callaghan’s words could just as easily have applied to his stunning win in 2019. Capturing Labour’s ‘red wall’, comprehensively settling the question of Brexit and accumulating the largest number of votes since 1992 should have meant Johnson was able to oversee another sea-change in British politics. He was a powerful, popular leader with big ambitions and a mandate to match. If you’re a Tory, these are the moments that come along once in a political lifetime.
And yet in less than three years, Johnson squandered not only his own political reputation but this momentous opportunity. As Aris Roussinos wrote on the day he promised to step down: “Fate had granted Johnson an appointment with History: but he missed it, lost in a diary clash with wallpaper merchants, lobby courtiers and the endless need to flush away the squalid mess he was compelled to smear around the highest offices of the state.” While the calibre of Tory personnel was a factor in his downfall (certainly no business would survive such a litany of sexual assault and harassment cases), what wrecked Johnson, and his potential legacy, was himself.
Yet the scale of what has happened, and the opportunity missed, still seems not to have dawned on many Conservatives. “Whatever else you think of him, Boris is a historic figure,” tweeted Robert Colvile, director of the rightwing Centre for Policy Studies, two hours after Johnson announced his decision. “Changed the course of the nation in both 2016 and 2019. (And the memory of that election night and the destruction of Corbynism is one I will always treasure.)”
Besides the fact that being a “historic figure” is far from always positive (Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler and Fred West merit the label, billions of decent people don’t), this, in a paragraph, reveals the extent of Johnson’s failure. He was handed an opportunity on a par with that of Clement Attlee in 1945 (after which we got the modern welfare state and NHS) and Thatcher in 1979 (which led to the biggest transfer of wealth in the nation’s history since the Enclosure Acts). If Thatcher re-made the British psyche, and I believe she did, Johnson changed little more than the John Lewis decor at Number 10. In Brexit, he helped catalyse a political revolution which now hasn’t the slightest idea where it’s going. We’re constantly told by the media that Jeremy Corbyn was Westminster’s answer to the Chuckle Brothers – and yet Johnson’s legacy is nothing more than defeating him.
Johnson’s mandate to not only ‘get Brexit done’ but ‘level up’ the country could, and should, have led to a rupture every bit as seismic. With a disciplined top team, a shared vision and a party capable of at least minimal standards of probity, we would be looking at something similar. When Johnson won the Hartlepool by-election just last year – turning a Labour seat won twice under Corbyn blue – that’s what the electorate still believed in: putting the constant rancour of Brexit behind us and building an economy no longer focused on London and the south east. It was always a brave pitch from the Tories, particularly given their base is in the home counties, but it seemed to be paying dividends. Relocating some Treasury jobs to Darlington was emblematic of how they had grabbed the zeitgeist, not only mitigating Labour’s powerful arguments over regional and income inequality but stealing their voters while doing so.
It was the same in Batley and Spen, where Keir Starmer was likely just several hundred votes from having to resign last year. When I was there it was clear that the Tories were competitive without really trying, their campaign decidedly low-key. Many constituents wanted to give Labour another bloody nose, but ultimately they either stayed with the party, because of Kim Leadbeater, or voted for George Galloway. Already it was becoming clear that the Johnson project didn’t know what it wanted to do.
While Johnson’s successor may win a future election (who can really tell after the last 18 months), an especially large margin feels unlikely. What’s more, it won’t be on a populist platform for transformational change. Decades of activism and persuasion lay behind the Attlee and Thatcher supremacies. Johnson appeared to have enjoyed their mandate without the graft: no long march through the labour movement like in the 1930s, no neoliberal thought-architecture built in response to the triumph of Keynesianism. With Johnson, it was easy come, easy go.
In 2019, the electorate wanted a decisive break. What they got was a damp squib. For the Tories, that should prompt a reckoning. While Johnson is overwhelmingly to blame for his own downfall, perhaps the party simply doesn’t have the ideas, personnel or institutions to execute meaningful change anymore. It has power, yes, but stuck in the intellectual world of the 1980s, it doesn’t really know what to do with it in the 21st century.