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The joke’s over

The joke’s over

Boris Johnson has, one way or another, dominated British politics since 2016. Despite his destructive legacy, the end of his premiership brings with it reasons to be optimistic


While Big Dog was slowly coming to the realisation this week that he was being sent to the farm, other political animals had life lessons for all of us. 

First, the Zahawi, the Tory praying mantis. He called for his boss to resign, the day after he’d promoted him. Yes, Boris Johnson made Nadhim Zahawi Chancellor of the Exchequer on Tuesday; and then Zahawi told him to stand down on Wednesday, a moment – even by the treacherous standards of Westminster – of opportunism and ingratitude. 

Then, the Donelan, the Conservative goldfish. Michelle Donelan was made education secretary on Tuesday evening, then resigned on Thursday morning. Perhaps the education secretary had realised she’d forgotten to bring her judgment to work, rather like a schoolkid on her watch who had left their homework on the bus. 

And, then there’s my favourite, the Braverman, the political Schrodinger’s cat. Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, announced on live television that she was running to be prime minister but remaining a member of the cabinet serving Boris Johnson, i.e. an animal philosophically in two states, both disloyal and loyal at the same time. 

After being the best teller of jokes in British politics for a generation, Boris Johnson had finally become one. Politics was evidently, hilariously absurd this week. Downing Street was like the set of Noises Off, the Michael Frayn farce, as 50 ministers quit and Caitlin Moran, the Times columnist, unimprovably coined the phrase “the coup d’etwats”. Even Johnson’s resignation speech would have sounded bitter, if it hadn’t been so risible. All of which is to say, the news business can often earnestly view these moments of high drama as milestones in history; but millions of people have just been laughing.

I’m James Harding, I’m the Editor and Co-founder of Tortoise, and, in among the giggles in the newsroom this week, I want to also reflect on the government of Britain now that the joke is over: a watershed for British politics post-2016. 

The downfall of Boris Johsnon – disgraced and humiliated as he has been by parties and Pincher – shouldn’t eclipse his real failure in politics. He has been a corrosive politician and a terrible prime minister. He championed Brexit, both for personal and party advantage and leaves the country exhausted by six years of division; and he campaigned rather than governed in office, leaving the country worse than he found it after three years picking fights in the culture wars, sloganeering on the economy and nativist dog whistles on immigration. There’ll be reams of political obits of the prime minister this weekend, no doubt confirming – or not – what you already thought of him. 

But that’s not my point: the end of Johnson’s time as prime minister should not be seen as the end of three short, noisy years of his premiership, but, potentially, the end of six long, disorienting years for the country. He dominated British politics not since 2019, but since 2016. And with his departure, Brexit, as the central dynamic of British politics, could – certainly should – go too. 

And here are the three reasons why I think that’s the case.

First, the electorates. The electorates – plural – on Brexit are changing: I was interested to learn this week that the number of Conservative party members, i.e. the people voting on Johnson’s successor – well that number has fallen since 2016. Party insiders calculate that the party has lost more Brexiteer right-wing members than One Nation Tory members. It’s also the case that the balance of UK voters on Brexit has shifted too; Sir John Curtice, the pollster joined us on Thursday for Tortoise’s Democracy Summit as, by one hell of a coincidence, Boris Johnson was resigning. John said that the number of Leavers who would now vote Remain is frankly very small, much the same as Remainers now persuaded of Leave – they largely cancel each other out. But what has changed, he said, is the number of voters who didn’t or couldn’t vote in 2016; they’re coming through and they are mostly younger and they’re mostly Remain. In fact last month’s Tortoise Democracy in Britain poll found that 45 per cent of voters would vote to rejoin the EU if there was another referendum, compared with 40 per cent who’d vote to stay out.

Here’s the second thing. The performance of Brexit Britain is – and I think everyone knows it – a long way from the promise of the Brexiteers. At the start of this year, I recorded one of these Editor’s Voicemails and said that Brexit isn’t working; it felt more contentious then. Six months on, Left and Right are discussing “why” not “whether” – why the UK has grown by just under 4 per cent since the end of 2016 and the EU by just over 8 per cent; why the EU’s recovery since the pandemic has been stronger than the UK, which has largely stagnated; why a weaker export outlook for the UK means real wages look set to fall in the 2020s. Many leavers will dispute these numbers; others still buy the emotional arguments of sovereignty, borders and control. But the potency of the Brexit promise is not what it was when Johnson won his 80-seat majority in 2019.

And then there’s one third, final thing. Brexit is being overshadowed by bigger problems. Domestic ones: cost of living and energy prices; inflation, possibly recession; housing, education and, once again, a struggling NHS. And also by international ones: this week, it’s really caught up with me that if 2016 was the year that the old Left and Right of politics in the West looked entirely out of place and out of date, then 2022 has been the year that a generation of accepted international wisdoms have been challenged. For nearly all my adult life, I’ve assumed that China is an economic engine that can’t be stopped, but it’s really possible that Xi Jinping has put the brakes on not just for years, but for decades. Likewise all my life, the US has been seen as the beacon of western democracy, but its moral leadership keeps getting chipped away – whether by Trump or the Supreme Court decisions on Roe v. Wade and the Environmental Protection Agency. And, since 1989, followers of international affairs have generally worked on the principle that small countries, not great powers, go to war. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the use of nuclear weapons a genuine possibility, that assumption has perished too. Our worldview – our understanding of China, the US and Russia all need to be rethought. 

None of this is not to say that I expect post-Johnson Britain to reconsider membership of the EU. Some will, but only a minority. Most can’t face it.

No, the point is that a post-Johnson politics can and should be defined by something other than Brexit. In recent weeks, when I’ve spoken to MPs who are running to replace Johnson – or working for them – I’m struck that their visions, rhetorically at least, mark a shift away from Brexit divisionism. The bids are framed around believing in people, crowding in private investment, restoring growth, a resumption of competent, diligent government and a return to facts, figures and the truth. Warm words, to be sure. But these are the themes of the first candidates who have been revving up to replace Boris Johnson. While they’re not as funny as he is, they offer, just perhaps, reason to be cheerful.