All the political commentary in Britain these days seems to revolve around Johnson: his character and personality, his morality, his sexual philanderings, his egregious errors in government, his standing with the Tory Party, and his electability. All these things are worth discussing, and indeed it’s entertaining to dwell on them: after all he was always an entertainer before everything – watch him cracking his silly jokes at the G7 summit. But they might also act as a diversion from some of the bigger and more serious trends he represents.
For the fact is that he’s not only the clown he’s widely taken to be, or even on the other hand a serious political operator; but something far more dangerous. That is, a vehicle for other political operators to drive their mainly right-wing agendas through, conveniently clouded by his PG Wodehouse-like bumblings. I used to think he was unaware of this, and simply picked on policies and slogans he thought would get him into and then sustain him in his expensively gold-wallpapered PM’s flat. But then a little-noticed part of the interview he gave in Kigali, Rwanda, last Saturday – the one that seemed ‘delusional’ to reporters because it talked of soldering on as PM for a third term: that is, until the 2030s – suggests that he does know what he’s doing, or enabling; which is to undermine many of the fundamental principles and institutions on which the British system of government is based. He needed his third term, he said, to continue his party’s
‘massive project to change the government, of the constitution of the country, the way we run our legal system, the way we manage our borders, our economy. All sorts of things we’re doing differently. We also, at the same time, are embarked on a colossal project to unite, and level up… It’s going to take time. And I want to keep driving it forward.’ (Observer, 6 June.)
That could be interpreted quite progressively. He might be signalling a switch to proportional representation in Britain’s voting system, for example; a more compassionate refugee policy; more power to the judiciary and a reformed House of Lords in order to moderate or delay the dictats of an over-powerful executive; and a fairer economy. What ‘levelling up’ signifies in his mind is obscure at the moment; it’s a nice phrase, which could even be envisaging a form of socialism.
But we know, don’t we, from his previous utterances and actions that Johnson’s ‘colossal project’ doesn’t intend any of those things. Rather, its ultimate destination is a system of government that is more ‘efficient’ than the present one; in the sense that it will enable the executive branch of government – in a word, him – to do anything it wants; irrespective of informed public opinion, of the pesky interference of ‘lefty lawyers’ (in other words, of the Law), of current constitutional convention and parliamentary procedure, of international treaties and universal ‘Human Rights’ legislation, and even of ordinary morality – hence the resignation of two of his ‘ethics advisers’ – to hold things up. All these tendencies are clearly revealed by the work of his government over the last couple of years; in particular with regard to the Good Friday (Northern Ireland) agreement, refugee policy (deportation to Rwanda), the gerrymandering of his party and neutering of the Civil Service, his government’s projected withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, and Priti Patel’s draconian new laws limiting the age-old right of public protest in Britain; as well as much else that may be looming on the horizon.
Who is ‘behind’ all this is hard to say. Surely it can’t be the duffer Boris alone? Or is that Bertie Wooster image of his, and the comical bestrawed hairstyle, deliberately intended to obscure a sharper, Jeeves-like cunning beneath? He’s clearly a tool of right-wing factions in his party, and of the broader super-rich in the country, who are using him, even if they weren’t originally responsible – conspiratorially – for putting him there. I espy the hidden hand of Dominic ‘Machiavelli’ Cummings in much of this, despite his supposed departure from Number10 a couple of years ago. Many of these proto-authoritarian measures were on his wish-list.
This is what the current emphasis on Johnson’s larger-than-life personality is hiding from most people, both critics and supporters. ‘Personality’ hasn’t always dominated politics in Britain. Attlee hardly had any, for example, and his was arguably the greatest peace-time government of the 20th century. In that case it was policies that took people’s attention; devised and pursued by a cabinet of equals, and with a population broadly behind them. If today commentators in the popular press would leave off Boris for a while – juicy a bone as he is – and looked behind him at what is happening in the shadow of his bulk, we might get a healthier political debate going. Ours is not a ‘Presidential’ system, after all. Or a one-man dictatorship. Yet.