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Boris Johnson - the only show in town

Julia Langdon - The Tablet - Fri, Oct 15th 2021

Boris Johnson - the only show in town

Johnson: the ‘peculiar individual talent’ of being able to defy political logic - Alamy/Colin Fisher

The prime minister presides over a government with no identifiable ideology, which implements policies with inherent contradictions and which is derided by its own natural allies. Yet there is no credible opposition in sight 

Many years ago in a dingy church hall, way down the other end of the Portobello Road in London, far far beyond the tourists and all the totters’ tat, I once heard one of the best political speeches of my life. It was delivered by John Cleese over the heads of a largely uninterested audience of British voters, most of whom were far more absorbed in picking over the piles of manky old coats  and woolly jumpers on offer that afternoon at a Labour Party jumble sale. Cleese had been persuaded into an appearance at this decidedly low-key event and had agreed to mark it with a speech. This was the mid 1970s and he was already quite famous, but not famous enough to mind that nobody much was listening – and in a way that made the point about what he had to say. 

The joke was that what he delivered was an all-purpose political speech that could be made by any politician to any audience anywhere. What was so incredibly funny to those of us who were listening, was that it said absolutely nothing at all. No policy, no content, no politics but brilliantly articulated and passionately expounded. We whooped and cheered, just because it was so clever and so entertaining. (Cleese was sufficiently encouraged to develop the idea into a skit for a wider audience on one of his later television shows.) 

Well, you can see where I am coming from here. It is the talent of the showman we have as prime minister that he still somehow managed to pull off an apparently triumphant speech at the end of what was deemed a successful party conference and then immediately disappear on a family holiday in the Spanish sun – yet without having done or said anything at all. All this in the midst of a set of political and economic circumstances of such critical severity that any logical analysis would suggest should have brought the government juddering to the point of resignation. 

But Boris Johnson is able to defy political logic. That is his peculiar individual talent. He presides over a government without any identifiable ideology which implements policies without any kind of coherence and all of which appear to contain inherent contradictions. The pursuit of his latest idea to secure a high-wage, highly skilled workforce by limiting immigration and to do so directly in the face of the warnings from both industry and agriculture about what is already happening, the queues and shortages we can already see for ourselves, provides the most obvious example. 

What on earth is going to happen when the inevitable workforce shortage reaches the care system and the health service? No government minister, let alone Johnson himself, has tried to explain how the much-lauded NHS will be able to continue to function, let alone cope with the pandemic backlog, given the escalating staffing crisis for which there is no visible means of resolution.

The contradictions are everywhere. The state of the Union remains rocky. Scottish nationalism is only temporarily out of the news in England because of what else has been going on. The problem of the Northern Ireland Protocol is being addressed, but without any indication of whether the government is committed to squaring that circle, or even if it can be done. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, will shortly reveal the annual Spending Review against a backcloth of rising taxes, the promise of a soaring cost of living and the threat of inflation rising to as much 6 per cent by the end of the year. Our domestic energy bills are going to look bad enough, but for some sections of industry they will be crippling. Meanwhile welfare is being cut, the uplift to Universal Credit has gone and all this is being done in the name of something called levelling-up?

All of these inconsistencies bring us to the political contradiction at the heart of British politics today – and that is the lack of any meaningful political alternative to the present government, thus enabling it to continue unchallenged in office until calling a general election at a time of its own choosing. There is opposition to what is happening, not least within the party itself. There is a huge swathe of Conservative political opinion, articulated by many MPs and a large number of Tory peers – many of whom are former ministers – which rejects everything for which Boris Johnson stands. “Whatever that is”, as most of them would add. 

“That wasn’t a Conservative conference. It was a Johnson conference!” one lifelong party politician spat back angrily in response to a question from me about events in Manchester. “It isn’t the Conservative Party any more – it’s the Johnson Party. That is my view and I know I’m not alone in thinking that.” This bitterness within the party is real enough, but not sufficient to pose much of a personal threat to the prime minister when he can still marshal the enthusiasm of the foot soldiers, as he has so forcibly demonstrated, and when the Tories are ahead in the polls. How the Conservative Party will ever put itself together again when the Johnson era has ended is a question for the future, but the inbuilt ethos of loyalty within Tory party politics, seen in the cheering crowd in Manchester, will probably help.

But what is to explain the failure of Labour to cut into the Conservatives’ lead in the public opinion polls? And that despite the earlier Labour conference having also resulted in a positive outcome for the party leadership? Sir Keir Starmer did not exactly score a triumph in Brighton, but he confronted the Corbynistas and – for the time being – beat them back. The conference was not the disaster it could have proved and Starmer emerged with his status somewhat improved. The obvious answer, spelled out so starkly by the opinion polls, is that this is just not enough.

The truth is, Boris Johnson and his team cannot believe their luck. The government may be derided on all sides by the experts, the commentariat and – of all things! – even the Daily Telegraph. Yet the prime minister finds himself facing as his political opponent a Labour leader who is palpably a decent and intelligent man, but who wholly lacks credibility as a prime minister in waiting. The public can see that and that is the simple story of the opinion polls. 

Needless to say there is also a more complex message to be read in the details of the polling data. According to YouGov, the prime minister is now less popular than the party he leads, which would normally be a dangerous position for Johnson but, in the circumstances, doesn’t matter because of the lack of any threat from the Labour Party. The polls record that by a proportion of 3-1 the public believe that Starmer is doing a bad job, that he does not look like a future premier, and that the Labour Party is not ready for government. It is unfortunate but true, that Starmer appears unable to reverse this gloomy public analysis of his capabilities. It seems that the Labour leader is failing to cut through to the former Labour voters in the Red Wall, and, while Johnson is losing support in former Tory strongholds in the south, the party he leads looks like the only show in any town, north or south.

Some years ago a journalistic colleague of mine invented a political characteristic he dubbed “amsirahc”. It is a condition of helplessness: someone who has “amsirahc” cannot attract service from a barman polishing glasses in an empty pub or hold the attention of the House of Commons at prime minister’s questions as Starmer has repeatedly failed to do. Most recently, after a particularly badly judged joke against himself, the Labour leader was cruelly compared to the character of David Brent from The Office, a man who exemplified all that there is to say about “amsirahc”, which is to say “charisma” spelled backwards. 

Only when the Labour Party addresses this problem of its leadership will the luck of the current Conservative government turn. Until then Boris Johnson can continue to say what he wants and do nothing at all about it.

Julia Langdon is The Tablet’s lobby correspondent.

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