Picture Credit: Andrew Parsons
If you ever feel dissatisfied with what’s on offer in the British party system, consider how it began. Party politics first crystallised in this country out of a fevered atmosphere of hysteria around the so-called “Popish Plot”, where a man called Titus Oates, largely forgotten now but one of the great charlatans of world history, claimed there was a secret cabal of Jesuits who were planning Charles II’s assassination to make way for his Catholic brother. Over twenty supposed plotters were executed, and Titus Oates was given an annual allowance by parliament for his service from a grateful kingdom. Things got so bad the country split down the middle over whether to exclude Catholics from the line of succession entirely, the two sides engaged purely in bad faith and saw each other as using a dispute to cloak secret desire for revolution or absolutism respectively. Briefly, the confrontation even looked like tipping over into another civil war. Eventually tempers dissipated, but the parties remained, and the group that had kept their head and dismissed the plot began to be called “Tories”. Central to their self-image ever since has been an unshakeable belief that only they can be trusted to keep a steady hand on the tiller of the ship of state.
As American politics retains from its founding debates over the nature of the constitution a piety and syrupiness about that document that has been on full tap ever since it was signed, and French politicians have inherited from the founding of their own party system during the Revolution a belief that they’re actually practicing philosophy, so British politics has always had a spike of gossip and plot. All sides look for hidden motives in the other and one of the defining tests of a leader of either party is a kind of Middle England smell test to detect if it seems like you secretly harbour uncouth inclinations. This is true to some extent in lots of countries, of course, but in Britain political parties have deep connotations of social identity in and of themselves – think of the associations beyond the political of calling something ‘Tory’. It’s not just a world view but a way of life. The result is a kind of shadowboxing beneath any conflict over policy, over not just the values but the character and the type supposedly in the ascendant at any one time.
This brings us to Boris Johnson. Much has been written about how similar or dissimilar he is to Trump, and they’re probably more unlike than like on the whole, but in one important sense they are the same: they camouflage their duplicity very thinly. Little real attempt is made to disguise u-turns and scandals, to the extent it amounts to a tacit near-acceptance of guilt and (almost) wearing it on their sleeve. Whether you think Boris actually doesn’t mean what he says or whether, like the newspaper columnist he was for twenty years, his passions are deeply held but he usually manages to find a new one in time for the next deadline, a certain flexibility is baked into his persona and even appeal. This became apparent during the leadership election in 2019 when the ERG and some remainers looking for an ‘acceptable’ Brexit candidate simultaneously convinced themselves that he would follow his true interests, which they naturally calculated to be their prior beliefs. He became simultaneously the candidate of the softest possible Brexit that was realistic and no deal fantasy. The normal contours of discourse the British have about their leaders is suffocated, because once the initial blast of charm and bravado has worn off, broadly what you see is what you get.
Take the dismissal of Dominic Cummings. This was not just an influential advisor, like Alastair Campbell for Tony Blair (always loathed figures in Westminster because they have all the power and none of the accountability), but someone who came with a complete agenda and style fleshed out over years, a programme that was supposed to be the main thrust of the government. When it came to it, all of this was dropped as casually as it had been picked up. For any other prime minister this would be a shattering blow; when Theresa May lost Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill it was clear to everyone she was in office but her agenda was going nowhere fast, but after initial hand-rubbing that this Rasputin had met his Prince Yusupov it’s barely attracted much comment. There would be no point presenting these developments as shocking or revealing, because no one’s surprised or ever will be.
This is largely why what should be at least a moderately amusing government as pure spectacle, Boris is after all the least well turned out man to achieve high office since Charles James Fox in a country where becoming prime minister requires no oath or investiture but appointment over tea by an elderly society lady in Belgravia, is so tedious and depressing. The only fun to be had is his spluttering on the occasions the consequences of his own actions begin to catch up with him, like his tortured definition of ‘woke’ when asked about Joe Biden, a grim echo of his antics under interrogation on Have I Got News For You that made his name.
In that sense he is actually the perfect leader of the current Conservative party, who are behaving like ideologues in search of an ideology. With all but one of the authors of Britannia Unchained now in the Cabinet, the people who spent the years before the Brexit vote saying we should become Singapore-on-Thames now solemnly declaring the importance of a social contract and helping those left behind. The Spectator, still the best source for finding out Tory thinking, described the government’s project as trying to mend the social ills that led to the Brexit vote. This was first to be done in a reassuring, plodding way by Theresa May and, when that didn’t work, they wheeled around again and plumped for the most flamboyant style possible. In rhetoric if (not yet) effect, they’ve mastered the art of becoming the firmest opponents of their own previous position. The British people who were recently ‘the worst idlers in the world’, now have an ironclad ‘Will’ that is infinitely wiser than the caprices of ‘elites’ and must be respected. If Bismarck described conservatism as being boatman on the ‘river of time’, trying to channel the flow and steer the boat away from danger, this government is happy to encourage the rapids to hurl them around. The farce of the last few years has had all the futility of the charge of the light brigade, except with them wheeling around and trying to lance their own ranks.
Bear all this in mind as the latest crisis of their own making homes into view and the Tory party launches on a solemn crusade to try and the save the union with Scotland. It was barely five years ago they won an election on the threat of Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket, but expect them to behave as if that never happened. And while this is an emotive issue with valid reasons for jumping either way, expect them to behave with all the tact of, if not a bull, at least a scrum half, putting the ball in a china shop. While the pandemic has eroded Boris’ position and appeal, this has not had the feel of scales falling from people’s eyes, but rather just the wrong man at the wrong moment. His triumph in 2019 was to offer a quick get-out to an immediate constitutional jam, his harder times since have been his lack of answers to the problems that face him day-to-day. Expect things to continue like this until one day he finds he can’t keep the plates spinning. While he’d rather be remembered as a great prime minister than a bad one, in being there the struggle for him is largely over. Perhaps he can live out his last days like Titus Oates, who continued to receive his annual stipend from parliament until he died, forgotten and obscure. It didn’t matter, he’d already won.