In 1985, all Britain’s living ex-prime ministers were invited to 10 Downing Street to mark the 250th anniversary of the building. Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan and then incumbent Thatcher were all there. To break the ice, Callaghan supposedly asked the others what they thought they had in common. ‘A lack of principle’ Macmillan immediately replied. The rot at the top has deepened measurably since then. Thatcher helped her son to millions in kickbacks for smoothing Saudi arms sales. Major’s government was embroiled in unending cash-for-questions and kiss-and-tell scandals, the PM himself conducting torrid affairs in Number Ten, while his Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Jonathan Aitken, was eventually jailed for perjury in denying Riyadh had settled his Ritz Hotel bills in Paris.
Blair and Brown, both accused of lying about legal exemptions for Formula One racing after a million-pound donation from Bernie Ecclestone, turned to tarring each other over the cash-for-peerages scandal, which saw Scotland Yard knocking on numerous ministerial front doors; not to mention the still unexplained death of whistleblower David Kelly and misleading Parliament over the invasion of Iraq. Cameron was deeply embroiled in the celebrity phone-hacking scandal involving the Murdoch press and his close chum Rebekah Brooks. Theresa May, always coy about her tax returns, was revealed to be linked via her husband to Panama Papers tax-avoidance schemes.
And Johnson? Office parties during lockdown, or sparing the rod to spoil your Pincher, fade in comparison. Claiming not to know about the notorious Mr Pincher (his Deputy Chief Whip) fondling young men’s posteriors at his club was a stupid decision, but a sacking offence? The hallowed domain of the Carlton has surely witnessed worse. The frothing indignation of the British liberal pundits – ‘toxic’, ‘poison’, tarnishing ‘good people’ according to the Economist’s Bagehot column – makes one wonder what these people know of their own history.
Comparisons between Johnson and Trump were always far-fetched. Trump is a disruptive novelty who has succeeded in creating something like a political movement on the right of US politics: numerically quite small, perhaps, but capable of exploiting the radicalizing dynamic that the predominance of gerrymandered one-party constituencies has built into America’s two-party system. Johnson – a social liberal by inclination, who presided over the most diverse cabinet in British history (a litany of opportunists and useful idiots, many of whom are now vying for the top job) – is very different. More of a louche old-school politician with a popular touch, the closest US equivalent would be an upper-class Chris Christie. Johnson has no extra-parliamentary movement. He rode the Brexit wave; he didn’t create it.
It’s miscategorizing Johnson to see him as some right-wing populist excrescence on the fair face of liberal democracy. While the Daily Mail has risen in Johnson’s defence – ‘What the hell have they done?’ – ‘Day Tories Lost Their Marbles’ – ‘Red Wall Backlash Against Tory Traitors’, the Daily Telegraph has been attacking him from the right for turning the Conservative into a ‘semi-socialist party’ with big-state hand-outs and tax rises. Whatever else his ouster is, it’s definitely not a revolt from below. If Johnson had seized the initiative at the start of last week and called a snap election, the voters would likely have returned him with a much-diminished majority. It is rumoured that the Queen baulked at agreeing to dissolve Parliament and call a fresh election. Then BJ baulked at going head-to-head with his monarch. This is England, after all. Amid soaring inflation and rising interest rates there is plenty of discontent in the country, as the widespread support for the striking railway workers and their plain-speaking leader Mick Lynch has shown. But Starmer is desperate to avoid any association with it, banning Labour MPs from joining RMT picket lines, adopting all the Tory policies he can. Johnson, of course, has presided over a hawkish foreign policy and sadism towards refugees, but this is continuity politics in Britain.
What we are witnessing is an internal Tory Party revolt, set in motion by some of Johnson’s long-term personal enemies: ex-Foreign Office mandarin Simon McDonald, the energetic Cummings. The real puzzle is why Tory MPs have lost their heads in this fashion and defenestrated one of their very few leaders capable of galvanizing popular support. True, Conservatives have always been ruthless in dumping Prime Ministers viewed as an electoral liability (in polar contrast, Labour is only ruthless in removing any leader who poses a threat to the values of the extreme centre: before Corbyn there was George Lansbury, considered too radical and replaced by Attlee). But the Tories were not doing so badly in the polls and have done worse since Johnson’s overthrow. Their deep divisions over tax-cutting Thatcherism or ‘One-Englandist’ pork will still prevent them from presenting a coherent programme to the electorate.
Why then are the Tories behaving so irrationally? It appears to be a galloping case of the post-imperial entropy diagnosed by Tom Nairn many decades ago, through which ‘the English conservative Establishment has begun to destroy itself.’ Enoch Powell was an early sign of this – as Nairn put it: ‘symptomatic of the growing paralysis and deterioration of the consensus itself.’ Posing as the answer to British malaise, Thatcher succeeded in rebooting returns on capital and crushed the organized working class for two generations as a political force. But the radicalism she injected into Conservative politics – combined with the decimation of the Tories’ provincial base of local gentry, bank managers and businessmen through the waves of trans-Atlantic acquisitions and privatizations she unleashed – has left the Tory Party permanently damaged. Cameron’s attempts to remodel it on New Labour opened up a vacuum to its right, instantly filled by UKIP and the tyros of the European Research Group.
Thatcherite globalization, along with the abdication of international sovereignty formalized by Blair and Brown, has produced a series of disconnects between governing-class factions, business interests, cosmopolitan intellectuals and provincialized voters, which manifested themselves in the Brexit bid and now in this febrile desertion of the leader, without having a better candidate in place. A Night of the Short Knives has begun, as Tory contenders stab each other in the front. An election looms, probably within the next year. The Tories will be punished for this electorally, which is well deserved; but otherwise Johnson’s departure offers nothing much for the left to celebrate, since Starmer stands for virtually the same policies, not least being as gung-ho for war on Russia, China or anywhere else. A Lib-Lab coalition with SNP support, hoping to glue the UK more firmly together with a new Scotland deal and rapprochement with the EU over the Customs Union, but thereby losing more support in the North, would take the entropy one stage further.
Read on: Tom Nairn, ‘Enoch Powell: The New Right’, NLR I/61.