IAmid the Conservatives’ car crash over Owen Paterson’s lobbying affair, I asked a top Tory if he thought Boris Johnson’s ignominious turnaround was now going to reshape the party’s political landscape. . He responded with the words of the instinctive pragmatist: “We’ll see. In politics, nothing matters – until it does. “
Many would say this is a time when it matters. The work seems to be revitalized by the anti-sleaze campaign. Charges against Conservative MPs Geoffrey Cox, Iain Duncan Smith and Daniel Kawczynski have given Paterson’s outrage new legs. Fleet Street reporters dig for more scandals. Columnists – not just on this newspaper – are plundering the thesaurus for condemnatory language with which to damn the Downing Street villain.
Make no mistake: the outrage is justified. It will also have some effect. The polls are tightening in favor of Labor. But the larger political question must be colder. Can we be sure, in the words of my former Conservative, that it matters? Does this dispute really change our policy?
At this point, consider three things. The first is whether this is the time when the Tory Party, with its hard-wired sense of self-preservation, goes on red alert to seek out Johnson’s downfall. The second is whether this sordid crisis could have a cataclysmic effect on the Johnson government similar to that which helped bring down John Major in 1997. Finally, is this the beginning of the end of the affair for Johnson and its voters, and the opening of a new opportunity for Labor and opposition parties?
In 1990, the Conservative cabinet and backbench MPs each played a pivotal role in ousting Margaret Thatcher, a three-time winner of the party’s election. They did so after opinion polls showed the Tories could lose an election under Thatcher but win one under Michael Heseltine, amid widespread unease over Thatcher and under electoral rules at the direction that favored the challenge. In the end, it was the cabinet that drove Thatcher out the door.
Today’s circumstances are different. The Conservative Party currently does not view Johnson as an electoral liability, but as an asset. The cabinet was handpicked for its loyalty to Johnson. And the rules now give party members, among whom Johnson is still very popular, the final say. So the days of the legendary “men in gray suits” wielding the stylus are over.
Nor is the sleaze crisis of the 1990s an improvised model. On the one hand, it seemed endless, stretching from the David Mellor sex scandal of 1992 to the 1997 election, in which Neil Hamilton was ousted by anti-sleaze candidate Martin Bell. On the other hand, the current crisis, although undeniable, lasts barely a week.
Another big contrast is that Labor under John Smith and Tony Blair have been leading the polls throughout. Any byelection in the 1990s threatened disaster for the Conservatives. This is not yet true today, although that may change. Unlike Paterson, Cox, Duncan Smith, and Kawczynski all have seats that the Conservatives might struggle to hold, if it comes to this point.
Most importantly, today’s public cynicism about politics extends to all parties, not just one. It is doubtful that Labor can win back every hesitant Conservative vote. At the heart of it all is a question that simply never arose in the 1990s. Can Labor, or any of the opposition parties, win the votes of the lost leavers, no matter who? or the level of corruption or corruption in the conservative ranks?
After all, for many exiting voters, it was Labor and opposition parties who brought politics into disrepute by trying to overturn the Brexit vote. To these voters, Johnson may be a villain inhabiting a moral vacuum; but in the end he is their villain. He delivered Brexit.
Whig historian Lord Macaulay has written something relevant here. Discussing popular support in 1685 for the Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of Charles II who led a doomed Protestant revolt to seize the throne from his Catholic uncle King James II, Macaulay said he was unfair to accuse “ordinary people” of “inconstancy” for their volatile enthusiasm for a suitor they later rejected. “The charge which can justly be brought against the common people,” Macaulay intoned, “is not that they are inconstant, but that they almost invariably choose their favorite so badly that their constancy is a vice and not a virtue.
No one except Jacob Rees-Mogg would use such language today. But Macaulay’s point still resonates. For five years and more, our politics have been dominated by the rise of popular constancy that Johnson has exploited for Brexit. This has led many observers to view these years as a historic break, marking the end of democratic partisan politics of the industrial age and its replacement, driven by social media, of a more celebrity-driven populism that chews and spit out the old parties that stand up. in its own way.
So obviously the question of whether politics tires out Johnson is important. But this poses a systemic question as well as a personal one. This asks us to assume that Britain may be ready to embrace new forms of democratic – and ultimately more consensual – forms of politics, not just reestablish old ones, and be ready with them when today’s system is discredited. will collapse. Right now it looks like a stretch. The polls do not support it. But it’s like the man said: in politics nothing matters – until it does.