What the hell happened to Boris Johnson?

It takes a bit of time to register, and a bit of time to sink in; it’s a bit like one of the laws of physics ceasing to apply, so rushing to a conclusion or indeed writing a Medium piece about it feels like a big step, but has Boris Johnson finally started to grow up?

Boris Johnson has always been a lazy feckless liar, who falls upwards and delegates all responsibilities on down. As Mayor Of London, he managed to sell himself to a diverse and liberal city with his bluster and his stunts, while leaving pretty much all the heavy lifting of running London to the grown ups, and turning up for the odd ribbon cut or signature policy stunt. Johnson managed to serve two terms and move on, with a greatly elevated political profile.

Johnson in many ways fronted and tipped the balance in the Brexit campaign. His lies and rhetoric got ever more extravagant as he toured the country in a big red bus, and he told barefaced lies of things that leaving the EU would have exactly zero impact on, not expecting to win, and swanning off into the sunset when he did, with no vision of a post-Brexit Britain, leaving others to polish up the monumental mess he’d left in his wake.

And finally, as Prime Minister, once he had what he’d always wanted, Johnson responded to calls from women MPs suffering horrendous death threats and abuse to temper down the incendiary rhetoric in parliament as “humbug”, before bulldozing the checks and balances by unlawfully proroguing parliament, following that, promptly calling an election, and winning votes for the Tories in parts of the country that had never voted blue in a century of local political history.

All this told us plenty about Johnson: he’s an excellent showman, he’d probably be a laugh if you met him in a non-political sense in a pub, but he was in no way fit to lead the country, especially in the midst of a historical national and global crisis of herculean proportions.

Johnson, with his newly minted 80 seat majority, swanned off abroad, said little when America nearly started WW3, and proceeded to dodge COBRA meetings like a stroppy teenager as floods wreaked havoc across the country, and a pandemic took shape in Wuhan, before barrelling towards Europe and Britain. Johnson’s main pearls of wisdom during this time were “bung a bob to make Big Ben bong for Brexit” and “I met COVID patients and shook their hands, so should you”.

We know the history of the Johnson government’s pandemic response; even after near death the man was unable to summon the sufficient gravitas and tone. Britain lurched from crisis to crisis, and the gung-ho rhetoric that initially endeared Johnson so with much of the public, went down like a lead balloon in the midst of a global pandemic.

The disaster the govt presided over cannot be overstated. It never had to be this way. The sheer number of U-turns, PR disasters, own goals, mixed messages, blatant corruption and cronyism in broad daylight, and lack of any coherent strategy fostering the same mistakes again and again and again, defies belief; in the last century, this should be remembered as one of the weakest examples of British governance. It may be remembered historically as the period the wheels fell off the cart of Britain’s once highly efficient and globally reputed administrative state.

It became accepted fact that no matter how bad it gets (how much worse could it plausibly get??) Johnson would fail to learn the lessons, fail to alter his tone, and fail to upgrade or develop his character in any way, shape or form. We were a burning building of a country shackled to a humungous, ageless man-child. And then, against all odds, things started to change. At the last Downing Street briefing the PM sounded uncharacteristically cautious and grow up.

Over the last month, off the back of that festive fiasco that saw the opposition briefly open a 4 point polling lead, the govt seems to have finally reckoned with the disaster and began to learn the lessons it needs to learn from the last 12 months or so. We’ve heard caution, caution caution.

The vaccine rollout has run splendidly, for one reason and one reason only: the NHS. The vaccine rollout isn’t outsourced or contracted to Tory mates, it’s being run by the best health service anywhere in the world; a living, breathing, 80 year old piece of working socialism, beloved by everyone, the closest thing we have to a national religion, and for good reason. Even after 11 years of what ca only be described as vandalism by successive Tory health secretaries, and a 40 year spell of neoliberalism, resulting in NHS cuts, outsourcing, and privatisation, including by New Labour, this brilliant, brilliant organisation has pulled it out of the bag yet again. Of course, all the credit is going to the govt along with the NHS, but the reality is, the NHS isn’t lucky to have the govt, the govt is lucky to have the NHS.

Johnson has some good times ahead politically; undeniably, the vaccine rollout has saved his political skin. And in the last month, we’ve seen genuine political development. Johnson isn't rushing, he’s still making the odd asinine comment, but he’s being cautious, he’s being pragmatic, he isn’t jumping the gun, he’s starting to lead. As people wholeheartedly opposed to the Johnson project, these things are hard to reckon with, but we can’t fight this project unless we get our heads out of the sand; Johnson isn’t being Trumpian, and if we set out to fight a Trump we’ll stumble and fall, why do you think Keir Starmer has crashed and burned? He assumes he’s fighting a Trump, and as of now (save for any new political shape shifting), he really isn't.
The feel good impact of returning normality and a cautious unlocking will suit Johnson even more; he souring rhetoric will once again connect with ordinary voters.

A serious political project to take on Boris Johnson has to reckon with three things.

  1. Johnson has politically developed and can easily get away with the skulduggery of the last year and move on to “sunny uplands” unless he’s effectively held to account every single day.
  2. The Tories have a clear vision of state corporatism for the next decade; investment and high state spending, that a mere critique of austerity will fail to touch.
  3. Unless the opposition parties cooperative around a radical and progressive vision for a new social, constitutional, and economic settlement for Britain, the Tories have until the 2030s to reshape Britain and our political spectrum in their image, much like in the 1980s.

Let’s get to work.

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Toby Lipatti-Mesme

Toby Lipatti-Mesme

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Insightful and innovative UK journalism and commentary, from Toby Lipatti-Mesme.