Mark Brolin is a political analyst, economist and author. His most recent book is titled Healing Broken Democracies.
The anti-Boris Johnson forces, both inside and outside his own party, have trumpeted the “clown-and-a-liar” message ever since the day he entered politics.
Yet he won both Brexit and the 2019 general election – to no small degree because numerous voters know that Johnson is no more evasive than most other politicians, just more attacked when it happens.
In fact, part of his voter appeal is that he sometimes calls a spade a spade. Such as over the EU. And wokery. Unless brought down during the following weeks, Johnson is likely to emerge from partygate as underestimated as almost always.
Most Labour commentators are totally relaxed about Keir Starmer having a beer with his colleagues while up in arms about the Prime Minister having the same thing. Still, an opposition expressing tribal outrage surprises no one. Partygate developed into a major drama only after two aggrieved Conservative subtribes, Remainers and Covid libertarians, decided to exact revenge by siding with Labour’s Johnson bashers.
A key message highlighted by all Johnson’s detractors, such as Covid libertarian Fraser Nelson, is that the Prime Minister is irreparably damaged. This is a classic tactic when trying to topple a leader. Simply because the prophecy turns self-fulfilling if it influences key backers to redraw support. Yet, for three reasons, the damage to Johnson is arguably far from irreversible.
First, he is strong where it counts. In fact, he is one of remarkably few key politicians in sync with the voter majority over both Brexit and lockdown. Conservatives not in sync with Johnson over these issues remain vocal but still represent minority opinion only. It speaks volumes that the Prime Minister’s enemies have had to dig out their inner Cromwell (puritan) to find common ground surrounding an obvious Johnson weak spot.
Following all personal scandals throughout Johnson’s career, it is hard to believe anyone voting for him in 2019 is too surprised about some garden beer or birthday cake rule stretching. Meaning that, despite today’s proactively inflamed moralism, many will eventually write off partygate as “Boris being Boris”.
Not a chance, you say? Well, remember when most commentators lined up to claim “Boris the lying clown” would never pull off Brexit. Yet he did. Why? Partly because voters could tell that singling out Johnson and then going on and on about his missteps, as if he is the only one in Westminster bending the truth when cornered, reeks not only from double standards, but from an anti-coalition ganging up to cut down a feared political rival through bullying.
When the dust has settled many voters are likely to deduce, regardless of current opinion polls, that the UK has in many ways been lucky to have been led by outside-the-box Johnson during the outside-the-box Brexit and Coronavirus years. Since hard to see how a “system clone” Prime Minister would have done a better job. Would, for example, anyone more strongly steeped in the establishment ways have allowed Kate Bingham to run her highly successful task force largely outside the Whitehall structure?
Second, the flipside of moralistic battles is that these easily transgress into silliness. Take Daniel Finkelstein, normally one of the most thoughtful Remainers. He now argues that no heed should be paid to the proportionality argument. Downing Street rule breaking has, as he sees it, severely violated the bond of trust between politicians and voters. If Johnson stays, he continues, it weakens the integrity of nothing less than democracy itself.
Yet it is hard to square Finkelstein’s outrage and sudden championing of the voter bond with his always relaxed attitude towards the massive EU democratic deficit, the EU consistent rule-stretching and the lack of voter insight in Brussels. Also, UK democracy never has been at risk due to Johnson’s Downing Street birthday cake or thank-you-drinks, despite the exceptional circumstances and legal grey area involved.
Democracy is only at risk if a) voters are not allowed to know about doubtful activities and b) voters are not themselves offered an opportunity to pass judgement. Nobody can claim voters have not been made aware of partygate. In fact, Putin is probably still laughing about how a few beers and an HR-investigation has brought the UK government to its knees.
Third, Johnson’s outsider credentials have been boosted by all the PM-bashing. Eton you say? Yes, obviously. But he is still an outsider in a much more politically important sense. Since not thinking and acting in the way of Westminster officialdom. Incidentally this is why he irritates, to bits, so many Westminster insiders. Does anyone really think that Starmer would have faced a similarly moralistic onslaught had he had a beer or a slice of cake in Downing Street during a lockdown? Precisely.
Tribal groupthink is again in play when Johnson is slapped and slapped in the face until he is forced to promise a Downing Street shake up. Unsurprisingly, many staffers immediately start looking elsewhere for opportunities. Whereupon the anti-Johnson forces are publicly gloating: “See, what did we tell you, everyone is leaving”.
Johnson-bashers do not seem to get that many voters can sense such partisan scheming from a mile away. Also undecided voters might very well deduce that if the establishment wants Johnson gone so badly he must be doing something right. This is incidentally one of the best points rarely made in the emotional debate surrounding his future. Since the prime reason democracy must always be upheld is that only the people can be relied upon to offer push back against the paternalist tendencies often developing within an administration class.
Among Johnson’s rivals for the top job, is anyone really better suited, currently, to offer such pushback? The administration class does not seem to think so. It does however seem to love to hate the Downing Street “drinking culture”. Perhaps while seemingly so swimmingly verifying an always much favoured self-image among paternalists: “refined philosopher Kings” versus “vulgar people’s tribunes”.
Nonetheless, even though premature to talk about Johnson as a necessarily spent force, the key reason not to oust him over partygate is much bigger than both Johnson and the Conservative Party. Just think about the precedent it would set if the wording of an unelected civil servant, Sue Gray, is allowed to play a key role in deciding the political fate of a British Prime Minister – following an attempt by that Prime Minister to relax for a few minutes after a number of frantic months.
Political robots will then turn into a permanent feature at Downing Street. Why? Since every Prime Minister will be terrified to put a foot wrong. Well aware that any day the leading civil service “HR-inquisitor” might be tasked to scrutinise, given only yet another bandwagon witch-hunt, if Downing Street has fully followed a “protocol” largely determined by the inquisitors themselves. “What did you see? Alcohol! So you feel it was a ‘party’ rather than a ‘work meet’? Tell me and you might save your own skin.”
Given how moralism as a political weapon has crept back into society – and through mission creep transformed HR-departments from non-entities into rightfully feared internal affairs units – it was probably always only a question of time until this weapon was to be used against one of the last influential anti-moralists still standing. Johnson.
Nonetheless, whatever we personally think of him and partygate, democracy weakens big time if HR-inquisitors can be used to deny voters the chance to pass balanced judgement on the pros and cons of an elected Prime Minister.