Why partygate could be good for Boris Johnson
The prime minister built his career by stoking distrust in politics. His fine from the police could end up benefiting him
The prime minister has been fined for breaking the law. He stands charged with having lied to Parliament, in breach of his own ministerial code. This, says establishment media windsock Robert Peston, “is perhaps the most important test of the robustness and efficacy of the checks and balances in the British constitution of my lifetime”.
It’s possible that this scandal will sink Johnson. But it probably won’t. And, assuming it doesn’t, I can’t help but think it might end up being good for him. After all, he has long used distrust in politics like a predatory snake spitting venom.
In 2008, Boris Johnson had a simple plan to win London’s mayoral election. He promised to do nothing.
Over his two terms in City Hall, Ken Livingstone had endless schemes and policies and initiatives, most of which aimed to help people in the poorer communities of central London – the people who identified as Londoners, and tended to vote in the elections.
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Johnson’s core message – designed to turn out the richer suburbanites living in the ‘doughnut’ of outer boroughs who’d been less likely to vote in the previous elections – was that he wouldn’t. He scrapped the western extension of the congestion charge and the additional fee for gas guzzlers. He promised to “cut red tape” in policing and abolish a target that 50% of new housing should be affordable.
He promised to stop ‘interfering’ with local councils, accusing Livingstone of bullying them, and pledged to hand land belonging to the Greater London Authority to private developers. He leaned heavily into a favoured trope of the right-wing press – that money being allocated by elected politicians rather than the market is inherently corrupt – and banged on about Livingstone’s cronies.
His manifesto didn’t focus so much on what he was going to do, but how he planned to do it. With the title “Making London's Mayor More Accountable,” it was broken into just three sections: “Give Londoners More Say”, “End the Culture of Cronyism at City Hiall” and “Restore Trust in How City Hall Spends Our Money”.
To fill the void in his campaign where policies would usually nestle, he posed as a celebrity, with silhouettes of his likeness put up across the city, and posters calling on Londoners to “Back Boris”.
When running for re-election in 2012, he had nine key pledges. The first was “stop waste” and the second was “freeze council tax”.
For me, this was all pretty familiar. In 2006, he’d stood to be rector – the elected chair of the board of governors – of Edinburgh University, where I was a student. I’d run the campaign for his opponent, a less prominent Green MSP, and we’d won by explicitly calling out his ‘do nothing’ approach. But that’s another story.
In 2019, Johnson rode a more extreme version of the same strategy to the highest office. Before the election, he prorogued Parliament in a bid to drive Brexit through – our political systems, he implied, are all utterly shit. ‘Back me’, he said ‘and I’ll get them out of the way’.
The less people trust politics, the less they believe the fundamental arguments of the Left
In the December 2019 election, he had one message: ‘Get Brexit done, so you can get on with your Christmas shopping’. The second clause went unsaid – but, touring the UK before that vote, it was very clear to me that people understood. He was no longer promising a glorious future outside the EU. He was promising to get all of this annoying politics over and done with so we could get on with our lives. People voted for him enthusiastically.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two decades chatting about politics with strangers in streets and bars and coffee shops across the UK and around the world, from the West Bank to eastern Tennessee, Ukraine to Spain. There is a dominant attitude across the Western world, summed up neatly by an optician I asked about partygate yesterday: “I don’t trust any of them – they’re all as bad as each other.”
This attitude sounds politically neutral, and of course drives a lot of abstentionism. But in reality, it almost always benefits right-wing candidates for three reasons.
Firstly, it’s those who feel they have the least power who are the first to feel disaffected. After all, the system works pretty well for people with wealth and status. Persuade the poor and the marginalised, for whom politics patently isn’t working, that it is irredeemable, that all politicians are the same, and you suppress turnout among those who the Left need to win.
Secondly, the Left is built on the idea that politics can be used to do good things for people. Jeremy Corbyn didn’t lose in 2019 because voters didn’t like the ideas in his manifesto. He lost because they didn’t believe he’d implement it. The Right, on the other hand, prefers to leave power in the hands of the market, and of traditional social hierarchies and institutions. And so, the less people trust politics, the less they believe the fundamental arguments of the Left.
And thirdly, because when people don’t trust the institutions of democratic politics, they fall back on those traditional social hierarchies. As one woman in an estate of government-built tower blocks on the edge of Prague put it to me in 2020: “I don’t believe in politics, I believe in religion and family.” As a result, she voted for conservatives.
The main social structure people in England fall back on is the one promoted by Anglo-British nationalism and the tabloid media that upholds it: the monarchy and its attached class system. People don’t ask what they want the government to do, but who looks most ‘prime ministerial’ – by which they mean ‘posh’.
Boris Johnson, perhaps more than any other politician in this era of British politics, has become a master at surfing this anti-politics. With each wave of distrust in democracy, he becomes stronger. Of course, it’s a dangerous game. One day, one such wave will likely toss him from his post. But until it does, he will grow ever stronger, as the sea of distrust grows deeper.
Too often, the Left responds to all this by ignoring the dominant feeling of the country about politics, or, worse, trying to convince voters that our democratic systems should be protected rather than replaced. But if progressives are ever going to win again in England, they need to learn to listen to the country: our politics is broken. And the solution isn’t less democracy. It’s more.
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