In autumn 1977 Paul Johnson wrote a memorable article for the New Statesman explaining why he could no longer support Labour. “One reason why I joined the Labour party,” he wrote, “was that I believed it stood by the helpless and persecuted, and by the angular non-conformist.” For him, Labour no longer did this – thanks to trade union corporatism from below, and Marxist intellectuals above.
I was an undergraduate at the time, and this article changed my political outlook so profoundly that I can recall the moment I read it. As for Paul Johnson, a giant of literary and political journalism, his timing was sublime. He called the moment when Labour, which in 1977 seemed the natural party of government, embarked on its journey to irrelevance and worse.
Forty-two years later, the Conservative Party is open to the same despairing verdict. The Conservatives have become a vehicle for well-drilled fanatics who, like the Militant tendency forty years ago, infiltrate constituency parties in order to deselect MPs who offend doctrinal purity.
There is no more Conservative figure than Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general. His offence? Standing up for parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. These are, it seems, hanging offences in Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.
The prime minister, who is one of the most brilliant men to enter Downing Street, ought not to need reminding that the Conservative Party came into existence in the wake of the French Revolution as a defender of institutions – church, monarchy, parliament, rule of law – against abstraction, ideology and ultimately political violence.
But Johnson’s new Conservatives have abandoned these origins, and become a sect. They have detached themselves from the everyday concerns of ordinary people and are waging a destructive war on the British system of government.
Johnson’s Downing Street has been hostile to Parliament and contemptuous of the civil service. It has humiliated the Cabinet, mocked due process, repudiated the rule of law, made light of monarchy and played games with the integrity of the United Kingdom.
This government is not simply un-conservative. It is an explicit repudiation of everything that it means to be a Conservative.
Constitutional vandalism, and dark money
When I was political correspondent at The Spectator magazine under Boris Johnson’s editorship at the start of this century, we mercilessly analysed and exposed the constitutional vandalism of Labour’s Prime Minister Tony Blair. Now Johnson, counselled by his amoral, dangerous ‘senior adviser’ Dominic Cummings, has been doing exactly the same.
Dominic Cummings has variously denounced civil servants as “grotesque incompetents” and non-compliant Tory MPs as “narcissist-delusional”, and idly speculated about “bombing parliament.” Cummings and Johnson are both creatures of big money – a point persistently missed by Britain’s client political press.
The apparently magical ability to whistle up donor cash at a moment’s notice is the main explanation of Cummings’ mastery. “After this meeting,” he told a meeting of special advisers, “I’m going to go and meet billionaire hedge fund managers and get a giant pot of cash from them.”
When his role came under threat in the early days of the Vote Leave campaign, Cummings boasted: “The donors are going to see them off.” Cummings is often framed as master of the dark arts. Dark money is more apt.
The inside word is that big donors, some of whom have profited from Brexit instability, will soon be elevated to the Lords. (There is form on these squalid arrangements, as openDemocracy has previously reported.)
These hedge-fund managers and private donors have purchased their domination of the Tories in the same way the union barons bought Michael Foot’s Labour. Big cheques from obscure private sources are an important part of the explanation of how the Johnson clique seized control of the Tory party late last July.
What do these rich and unaccountable people want in return for this munificence? Nobody in Fleet Street asks. Britain’s supposedly independent and fearless press don’t want to ask, let alone know.
They also don’t ask how Boris Johnson meets his notoriously expensive private financial commitments on his meagre prime ministerial salary, now that he no longer enjoys his reported £250,000 a year from The Daily Telegraph. His hero Winston Churchill was helped out by lavish private subventions from business tycoons. Is history repeating itself?
A government of whatever it takes
This government is a repudiation of everything that Boris Johnson’s own Spectator once stood for. This has been made abundantly clear in the abandonment of sound finance in Tory policy and the choice of cabinet ministers.
No defence secretary since Profumo in 1962 has suffered disgrace like Gavin Williamson. He was sacked by Theresa May, acting on the strong advice of the intelligence services and the cabinet secretary, for disclosing secret conversations. Profumo spent the following forty years doing charity work in the East End as penance. Williamson was recalled to Johnson’s cabinet within a few months, rewarded for his role in organising the prime minister’s leadership campaign. Grant Schapps and Priti Patel are two other inappropriate appointments. There are others.
Only loyalty matters. “Whatever it takes” is now the motto in Downing Street – the term used by Malcolm X when he rejected the principled non-violence of Martin Luther King.
In this context, that means: Lie. Cheat. Bully. Threaten. Insult the monarchy. Be prepared to destroy the union. Drag the Queen into politics. Risk economic chaos and devastation. All legitimised by official permission to do “whatever it takes”.
A leap in the dark
Is it at all possible to be a Conservative and support this Johnson government?
Edmund Burke famously wrote in ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’:
Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.
This classic defence of the middle ground against clever metropolitan opinion once defined where all Conservative governments stood.
Not any more. Now, the grasshoppers have taken control from the ruminative cows. The government has been run by three grasshoppers: two brilliant former journalists – Johnson and Gove – and their intellectual thug Cummings. And they have been joined during this election campaign by Lynton Crosby’s protege Isaac Levido, who runs a ruthless ‘meme machine’ that makes a mockery of truth and moderation.
Together, these grasshoppers consistently place the end before the means – which means neglect of due process; readiness to mislead; and Leninist obsession with ideological rectitude. In particular, political lying has reached epidemic proportions in the few short months since Johnson and Cummings entered Downing Street.
We Conservatives are careful students of history. We know that men and women are frail, imperfect, corruptible and sometimes capable of great evil. That explains why we have always paid such attention to the importance of institutions which, as Burke explained, embody wisdoms and truths which are beyond the comprehension of individual minds.
Michael Oakeshott, the greatest Conservative thinker of the twentieth century, noted that there was no Conservative ideology. Instead, there is a Conservative disposition which “understands it to be the business of government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed on, but to inject into the activities of already passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile”.
Today, there is a popular thesis in political journalism, faithfully echoing Downing Street propaganda, that the Conservative Party can only survive by pushing through Brexit – whatever it takes.
This does a grave injustice to Conservatism, which is about avoiding the kind of leap into the dark promised by Boris Johnson and his crew of destroyers.
As the historian Richard Cockett – whose study of British press complicity with Chamberlain’s Downing Street during Appeasement is highly relevant today – wrote in the summer about Johnson’s no deal plans:
The long, fragile supply chains of small British companies criss-crossing Europe are conservatism in economic action. They should endure or wither according to “human circumstances”, not be hostage to the intervention of an impetuous legislator.
Cockett warned against breaking all these “micro-links for an uncertain future”. His words could not be more prescient.
Brexit has mutated from a virtuous and even admirable attempt to reassert British sovereignty into a brutal assault on everything we stand for.
Like Paul Johnson turning his back on Labour forty years ago, there is no way that I can as a lifelong Conservative vote for Boris Johnson’s revolutionary clique this week. Decent, middle-of-the-road Conservatives have no choice but to oppose this unremitting war on everything the party has fought to save and protect over the last 200 years. History will judge us accordingly.