If you’re looking for something that epitomizes the moral wilderness of Johnson’s government, then first prize has to go to the fact that the person wheeling in the karaoke machine for one of the Downing Street lockdown parties was the Deputy Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for propriety and ethics.
The Sue Gray report has, in a sense, done critics of the government a favour. During the past two years, criticisms of the government’s industrial scale dishonesty and moral bankruptcy mostly fell back into left wing echo chambers. But the Gray report has ripped off the veil for all, including the right-wing press, to see. In this respect, the critics’ arguments are now made a whole lot more credible.
However, for the Covid bereaved, the report has just added unspeakable insult to enormous injury. It shows the sheer scale of the government’s disdain for them and the rest of us. It has also resulted in their being deprived of that one shred of justice that might have helped to mitigate their pain, namely, the man responsible doing the honourable thing and resigning. But he is the cuckoo in the nest and will not budge.
This narcissistic intransigence is an insult to us all, and an alarming reminder of the flabbiness of our constitution and the lengthening shadow over our democratic rights. But let’s try to take a dispassionate look at what Johnson’s prospects might be.
Should he stay or should he go?
The Conservatives have a conundrum. Johnson has the advantage that the competition for his place is currently weak. There’s no obvious candidate to replace him in his party and, as the local election results suggest, no beckoning messiah on the other political side to rock his boat either. But the Gray report also means that the Conservatives are now a seriously damaged brand.
The options for replacing Johnson are limited since any replacement should be a Brexiter. This rules out more principled MPs such as Tugendhat. But a Brexiter replacement who could match Johnson’s ‘appeal’ is not apparent. Equally problematic is that any replacement would have to defend the increasingly obvious damage caused by Brexit but without the cover of the pandemic. Problems such as the strain on the Northern Ireland Protocol, and adverse effects on our economy and income mean that it will become harder and harder to gloss the harm Brexit is causing to the country. So, the Conservatives may calculate that, really, a consummate liar such as Johnson is perhaps, after all, the best person for this tricky job.
Yet Johnson staying will continue to drip corrosive poison into the Conservative brand. The party is in a hapless plight, no longer sure of their leader’s ability to wing his way out of trouble. Some ministers remain convinced that Johnson’s ‘Teflon’ skill in bouncing back will magically surface again. Johnson doesn’t have to do exceptionally well to survive the next election, only well enough to cling on. Traditionally, majorities tend to decrease with successive terms anyway.
But others such as Caroline Nokes, MP for Romsey and Southampton North, believe the party is permanently blighted by a leader who presided over a disdainful culture of rule breaking in a time of crisis. Their canvassing on doorsteps shows that Johnson’s 80-seat majority is crumbling and that he has lost his shine to a potentially election-losing extent.
Nevertheless, there are factors behind Johnson’s survival chances that are independent of the Conservative Party’s inability to find a replacement for him.
One factor is the electorate’s willingness to ‘move on’. There’s a huge spectrum here – at one end are those who couldn’t be at the funerals of loved ones and who, rightly, will never forget or forgive. Close to this end of the spectrum are people who didn’t have these experiences but empathise with how appalling it must have been. At the other end of the spectrum are those who appear to suffer from low boredom thresholds and difficulties in grasping the real import of the government’s rule breaking and therefore find themselves “sick of it all”.
Somewhere in the middle are those who argue that we should put Partygate aside and instead focus on the very real and urgent challenges of the cost-of-living crisis. This is true, but these two issues are not separate. To be in fuel poverty and barely able to feed your family is frightening and socially destabilizing. This is a time when the country needs trustworthy, reliable leadership, not governance from a man whose every action displays his contempt for the people he serves.
The Blitz spirit that carried us through the pandemic has gone. Partygate has forcefully shown even the doubters that we are not ‘all in it together’ after all, and trust in our leaders has evaporated. Co-operation, sacrifice and stoicism will be in short supply and the government’s U-turn on a windfall tax can readily be seen for what it is – not as a necessary act of compassion but a desperate attempt to garner support for a damaged party. The distrust and anger generated by Partygate will infect the feelings of many as they struggle to heat and feed themselves and this will hinder their ‘moving on’ in the government-approved manner.
On the other hand, the right-wing media machine is now linking Partygate to a ‘get over it’ mantra to help wean us off our concerns. Johnson dismissed Starmer’s focus on Partygate as a “sanctimonious obsession”. Now that Johnson has ‘apologised’, any continuing focus on Partygate will be similarly mocked by him, his media and supporters.
Predictions about ‘moving on’ are further muddied by a gaslighting tactic used by government ministers and their media. Here, prescriptions about how they want the public to think masquerade as descriptions of ‘what the public are thinking’. For example, Rees-Mogg’s narrative about Partygate as mere “fluff” implies that this is how most people view it now. The claim is wishful thinking and not evidence-based. But it serves to pressurise the listener into believing that it must be the new norm and that they are ‘out of step’ if they don’t conform to it.
This tactic will work for the die-hard Johnson and Brexit supporters and probably anyone short on sensibility and attention span. But for the rest, Partygate will continue to leak slow poison and the very fact of justice apparently not having been fully done by the Metropolitan Police or Sue Gray will deepen the flow.
A Shakespearean con
In calculating Johnson’s chances of survival, we also need to note his thespian leanings. These were spotted at Eton where he was given the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard II (though he didn’t bother to learn his lines and had to wing it, to the fury of the school). However, it’s crucial that, when the chips are really down, he has sufficient acting capability to do a passable impression of a leader of integrity with the country’s best interests at heart.
To illustrate – shortly after receiving his fine, Johnson displayed ‘plausible contrition’ in the House of Commons. But, failing to accurately read the sentiment of his own ministers, he then went straight into a 1922 Committee meeting, thinking it safe to drop the front. The meeting became a tub-thumping display of cheering and bravura in the same vein as Martin Reynolds’ glee on ‘getting away with’ concealing a Number 10 party. Johnson’s abrupt change of stance directly after his display of contrition went down so badly with MP Sir Roger Gale that he left in disgust. The story was then tossed around the media displaying for all to see that the earlier remorse was, in fact, false and that Johnson had been acting all along. Many of us knew this anyway but it took this incident for some of his MPs to register the deception.
However, sensing danger, Johnson followed advice not to make this mistake again. On 25 May, in both the Commons debate and the subsequent meeting on the Sue Gray report, he kept up the show of contrition throughout. And it worked. Many like Stoke MP Jonathan Gullis found that Johnson was “extremely apologetic” and “struck exactly the right tone”.
Johnson’s ability to pretend to be the man for the job will continue to underpin his keeping his place, both for the casual headline reader and for any ministers who are desperate to hang on to a leader who they think might keep the party afloat and their seat secure.
Superman in the psyche
Of course, not everyone is taken in by Johnson’s acting skills, but even the most cynical are vulnerable in other ways. A reason for his ‘Teflonesque’ powers is that, behind the thinking both of those who support him and those who feel genuine disquiet about him, is a ‘secret wonder’ and adulation. Johnson triggers a deep-seated need to admire the maverick who bucks the system but falls on his feet.
Jake Berry, MP for Rossendale and Darwen, displays this well in his excited account of the experience of accompanying Johnson as:
“… like being with a rock and roll celebrity. I’d never experienced politics like it. We were mobbed”.
BBC journalist Laura Kuenssberg is another victim of the ‘secret wonder’. She ostensibly scrutinizes Johnson in her recent Panorama programme on Partygate but ends by describing him as an “exception to the rule” and suggesting that his enemies might even be jealous of his ability to hold on. Her reputation for coyness about properly challenging Johnson is particularly concerning given her highly influential role in presenting him to the public.
It is Johnson’s magic magnetism that, his supporters think, explained his 80-seat majority and his ability to connect, or feign connection, with ordinary folk. At a rational level, they can see he’s a ‘bad un’, but deeper down he is lodged in many MPs’ hearts as a comic book hero – a superman enjoying a seductive, enviable freedom from social constraints that enables them to excuse his ‘misdemeanours’ and to hang on to him, against all rational odds.
The Future Is Precarious
These emotional responses to Johnson, together with his acting skills, the wide spectrum of attitudes to Partygate, and press manipulation, make predictions about his prospects extremely difficult. Will ‘Partygate’ become the next unmentionable ‘B’ word? Will Johnson be able to move enough of us or his MPs on?
The truth, given these points, seems to be that there’s actually no oracle that can tell us what the odds are on whether this unpredictable maverick will re-float his party or sink it with him in the future. Allowing Johnson to stay poses a huge risk, but any replacement, if one could be found, also poses a huge risk.
The opposition could, if it chooses to, take full advantage of this plight.