Boris Johnson’s position as prime minister is more challenged by politics than ethics. He’s lost his political touch.
There was a moment at the Kite Festival, our first festival of music and ideas at Kirtlington in Oxfordshire last weekend, that I think it’ll be hard to forget. In fact, there were a few. But the one that I’m thinking of came in a ThinkIn on The Battle for Truth. In a tent of around four hundred people, I asked: who here thinks Boris Johnson has lied to Parliament? Every hand went up. Every one. I checked: who doesn’t think he’s lied? Not a hand. No one.
To me, the significance of the show of hands on that sunny Sunday afternoon wasn’t just that it was unanimous, but that it was in sunny southern England. This was, as I said, Oxfordshire. Conservative country. The local Tory MP had a majority of 14,000 at the last election.
I’m James Harding, I’m the editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I want to talk about how Boris Johnson’s position as prime minister is more challenged by politics than ethics. Once the unifier of his party, he’s now dividing it. He’s lost his political touch.
The Rwanda policy – which Hashi Mohamed investigated so devastatingly in this week’s Slow Newscast – is a case in point.
For weeks, Downing Street revelled in picking a fight with “progressive lawyers” and “metropolitan media” over this Rwanda policy – the deportation of asylum seekers to Kigali. And that’s because the policy itself looked like such a canny ruse, a political, although let’s be clear, never a practical answer to public anxiety at the rising number of people crossing the Channel; clearly a political dividing line popular with Tory voters in red wall seats still worried about immigration; and clearly a noisy distraction from the real problems facing people, namely the hike in energy bills, higher food prices and the fear of a coming recession.
But, in fact, Boris Johnson has created a trap for himself and his party. The Rwanda policy collapsed this week, when the European Court of Human Rights effectively blocked the flight of a handful of refugees to Rwanda on human rights grounds. The ECHR let’s remember was established by Winston Churchill, enshrined in British law and, being separate from the EU, never in play during the Brexit referendum.
Quick as a flash, Nigel Farage was calling on the Prime Minister to pull Britain out of the ECHR and “complete Brexit”. Suddenly, Johnson had opened the door for the “Take Back Control” Brexiteers to launch another campaign against the establishment and out of touch elites. Farage, once again, found himself with the opportunity to set terms for the Tories. He tweeted: “Left-wing lawyers now dictate our immigration policy. Time to leave the ECHR and finally complete Brexit.” Yesterday, the Express newspaper was running an online poll, asking its readers whether they supported the call to complete Brexit. It felt like 2015 all over again.
The Prime Minister’s political opportunism and lazy analysis is now pushing him and his government, once again, further into the hands of Brexit hardliners and the populist right. And, as a result, he’s further abandoning the centre right ground, cutting One Nation Tories further and further adrift.
Johnson has 148 MPs sitting behind him on the Conservative backbenches who want him out; threatening to rip up Britain’s historic respect for human rights does nothing to bring them back into the fold. In fact, it’s made him a fresh enemy: an enemy of the Church of England. When can you remember a time when the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, as well as all the sitting bishops in the House of Lords, denounce a government policy? And it has enraged Prince Charles, the future King already said to be unimpressed by Johnson’s shambolic conduct in office.
The muttering against Johnson in high Tory circles has changed, it seems to me, in the last few weeks. It’s not just that he can’t be trusted; it’s that he can’t be counted on to win. The fear is that he personally – and his politics – are becoming a liability.
For most of the last decade, the speculation was whether the Labour party could hold together; Boris Johnson has flipped things, as he has divided the ‘rule of law’ Tories from the ‘people’s priority’ Tories. And the arguments over the Northern Ireland protocol, WTO tariffs and the Nationality and Borders bill are pushing those groups further and further apart. And now the questions are about whether Johnson is stumbling into breaking up – or just chipping away at – the Conservative party. Whether any of the MPs who voted against him as a leader the week before last will form a voting bloc in Parliament, well that’s a question that remains to be seen. Whether a movement emerges like the ‘teal independents’ in Australia that, mixing ‘blue’ fiscal conservatism and ‘green’, environmental activism, makes a move on the space on the centre right that Johnson has abandoned, again an opportunity there. And there’s a question too about whether he’s enabling the revival of the Liberal Democrats by inviting them to step into the space he’s vacated on the centre right. In other words, whether the Prime Minister who broke through the Red Wall seats in the North has left vulnerable the Blue Wall seats in the South.
Johnson was a Prime Minister visited by the furies this week. His ethics adviser finally resigned. The Bank of England warned of higher inflation to come; interest rates went up; and companies like Asos signalled not just big trouble in the markets ahead, but with a warning of lower growth and profits signalled most likely further warns from big tech companies to come. In other words: recession looms.
Johnson may be a week further away from the confidence vote; but his party looks more vulnerable and divided; and his position looks less tenable. Not because the public say they think he’s a liar; but because Tories are beginning to worry he’s a loser.
Have a very good weekend.
P.S. I should say that, happily, there’s more to life. The big show of hands at the ThinkIn last weekend wasn’t just the only moment to remember at Kite. Nor the only one when everyone came together. In the middle of Mavis Staples’ set, there was a power cut in the big tent. She was midway through “Can you get to that”. The lights went out; the mics silent; but she – and the crowd – kept singing, all together. Then when the power came back a couple of minutes later, Mavis Staples and her band started back up with “The Weight” and, as she pounded her chest as she bellowed, “put the load right on me”. As you may know I tear up easily but still: I beamed and cried. We’ve just put on sale very early bird tickets for Kite next year, the weekend of June 9-11th 2023. Do join us.