Edward Docx has probably written the definitive statement on the departure of Boris Johnson from Number 10 – certainly the one of highest literary quality. There is little more to say. Nevertheless, I find myself reflecting on the last few words I wrote of my own about Johnson, back in June of 2019: “Boris Johnson isn’t funny; he has become Britain’s Ragnarök personified. We’re all revolutionaries now.” What did I mean by that, and has Johnson’s perhaps surprisingly short time in office held true to my initial understanding of it?
In some ways, Johnson’s premiership was blown almost entirely off course. Within months – really, weeks – of his commanding victory over Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn in the early general election he called in December 2019, SARS-CoV-2 upended everything. Lockdowns, social distancing, vaccines, the whole sad shebang of those dread days: there are those who argue Johnson’s government did too little as the virus spread, and those who argue it did too much; but undeniably whatever it did was not planned. There was no strategy at Number 10 for the coronavirus pandemic, no grand policy or comprehensive framework. (Of course, there should have been – officials during David Cameron’s first government had modelled a coronavirus pandemic, but succeeding Tory administrations had done nothing to learn the lessons or prepare for the real thing.) “Events, dear boy, events” a offer a convenient excuse for every failed prime minister; in Johnson’s case the weasel words are writ especially large – he wasn’t given a chance, his supporters say, he had to deal with so much.
The flip side of this, however, is that the absence of a plan – the gaping hole at the heart of the Johnson administration where a governing intelligence should have been – was among the most predictable things about its approach to office. Whatever else might have happened to a government led by Boris Johnson – in the alternative universe where a bat did not bite a pangolin – is ultimately immaterial. The inability to engage with policy detail, the refusal to describe reality rather than fantasy, the reliance on phrase-making over governance: all these existed in Johnson before coronavirus, and they would have found their expression, too, in every other imaginable circumstance. The sense of muddling-through that his government increasingly gave off – the improvised policy announcements, the dramatic u-turns, the repeated scandals – was not a bug of the pandemic years but a feature of Johnson’s very being, if not of his raison d’être then certainly of his joie de vivre. The Conservative Party turned to him because he seemed, in the dog days of 2019’s Brexit-fractured spring, to offer a means of cutting a Gordian knot, an anti-political solution to politics’ own dysfunction – unconventional, of course, and high-risk, but an exit nevertheless.
What this lazy conclusion failed to consider was that anti-politics is itself the dysfunction. The impasse of the indicative votes and all the rest had been reached because of the unconventional risk-raking of one B. Johnson: his devil-may-care approach to public discourse had led directly to the impossible expectations of first the referendum campaign and then the negotiations with the EU which followed the vote to leave. Johnson muddled through the EU debate, waving fish in market squares and parroting nonsense about Turkey and migration, in the way he has done since the 1990s – when as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondence he confected and withdrew stories on a daily basis, heedless of longer-term consequences in search of shorter-term hits. This approach had led the Conservative Party down the very dead-end from which Johnson seemed the only escape. Famously, one definition of madness is doing the same thing again and again and each time expecting a different response.
This tragi-comedy of errors led the country, then, to the position in which it found itself in February of 2020: adrift, rudderless, with a head of state happily boasting about shaking hands with the clinically vulnerable. The Micawberish sense of exceptionalism – that something will come up because it must for a man like Johnson – led to the dismissal of television pictures of overwhelmed Italian hospitals, of the lockdowns being put in place in East Asia, of the expressions on the faces of the government’s own scientific advisors. Even were we to adopt a Spectatorish scepticism of COVID policy, these delays led inevitably to the need for more pronounced responses. Both sides should agree that opportunities were missed by a government that had never intended to be especially organised or effective.
And this was the nature of Britain’s Ragnarök, the one I declared in June 2019. I didn’t argue that Johnson himself was the armageddon in toto; rather, I suggested he was its personification. The great tumult in which the British found – find – themselves was the consequence of their collective assumption of a fundamental unseriousness. One might track this as far back as the sofa government of a complacent New Labour, or perhaps more immediately to the heralding of Cameron and George Osborne’s nonsense argument for austerity – that a nation-state is like a household, and must prioritise paying down its debt. This was always simplism, an at-the-time unusually glib political argument; and yet it was reported, and accepted, as fact. To come closer to the present age, one might situate the British people’s resignation from responsibility in the 2014 European Parliament elections, when Nigel Farage’s UKIP won more seats than any of the major parties. Perhaps it was in our reaction to that consequence of low turn-out: first Cameron’s promise of, then the electorate’s apparent enthusiasm for, a referendum on EU membership at a time when wages were stagnating, the banking crisis was barely over, and threats foreign and domestic were proliferating. Some will point to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, other’s Jo Swinson’s bizarre tenure at the helm of the Liberal Democrats; Change UK, Douglas Carswell, GB News – all have offered their own absurdities. We might say that the moment the scale tipped into full farce was the referendum campaign itself, or the nonsense that followed it, or the result of the 2017 General election which did for the authority of Cameron’s successor, the unpleasant yet nonetheless disproportionately maligned Theresa May. Perhaps the coup de grace was the ascension of Johnson himself, his illegal prorogation of parliament, his eighty-seat majority, Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle … any of these moments might be said to be the prime example of a nation which no longer cared. The truth is that an unseriousness in politics built up over time, by degrees and unnoticed; but it ultimately had severe consequences.
Johnson’s rapid fall from grace – from eighty-seat colossus in January 2020 to yesterday’s man by June 2022 – is in this sense not a surprise but an inevitability. Unseriousness can only persist for so long; ultimately it will have to face facts. The pandemic was an all-pervading phenomenon that affected everyone. It touched the lives of every voter and non-voter in the UK – in the world. Quite aside from its macroeconomic impacts, in particular the pandemic’s early mismanagement in the UK cost the lives of elderly loved ones in unprotected nursing homes; later, the government’s dithering cost people their Christmases at short notice; and, finally, the insouciance of its most senior figures offended the natural sense of justice shared by almost everyone. The bread and circuses of an unserious politics was insufficient to the task of muddling through such a crisis – no chimeric “oven-ready deal” or three-word slogan or smirking apology was sufficient, because this stuff suddenly mattered. As Michael Lewis has noted in The Fifth Risk, electorates in the modern West ordinarily underestimate the benefits of good government, ignore or never learn about the positive impacts on our lives made by state institutions. “The United States government,” for example, “managed a portfolio of risks that no private person, or corporation, was able to manage” (The Fifth Risk, p. 23). It is easy to take for granted that things will be OK until they are not. It is easy to be breezy when the wind is still.
Britain’s Ragnarök, then, was a titanic clash not between twilit gods but between fantasy and reality, between the rhetoric of politics and the truth of the challenges faced by a twenty-first century polity. The winter crisis in which the UK now finds itself means that the greatest cheerleader of “Boris and Brexit,” the Daily Telegraph, must paint increasingly rococo pictures of our apocalyptic fates should we not roll back a left-wing consensus that last won an election in 2005; David Frost, the man who negotiated Johnon’s much-vaunted deal, and thus left Northern Ireland adrift from the rest of the UK, must write columns in the nation’s second-most bewildered organ, the Daily Mail, and deliver lectures about how the deal which won his former master’s majority is rubbish; and, of course, the great herald of unseriousness, Boris The Clown, must be ushered off stage, protesting all the while that he’d have gotten away with it, too, had it not been for those pesky kids. Unseriousness is suddenly – and evidently – ineffective.
Johnson’s most committed supporters will remain loyal – acolytes always do. They have ensured that his successor, Liz Truss, is locked into defending him and his record while pushing in a Hayekian direction with which the statist Johnson’s disappointed hard-right backers will be more comfortable. Like his trite old hero Churchill, Johnson will seek to write his own history, repeating that trifecta of triumphs – the vaccine that every Western nation in the world has now delivered to its populations, the support for Ukraine that it is hard to imagine any post-war British Prime Minister would not have offered in exactly the same way, the breaking of the Brexit impasse which has, as even Frost admits, has led only to another – until they seem, through dumb repetition, like verities. But despite these efforts, he will be remembered as less like Churchill and as at best more like Eden, a man superficially judged to be made for office who in practice rapidly squandered his popularity and at key moments acted in bad faith. Ultimately, the wiser heads in his party know this, could see it in the polls – and it is why they evicted him from office. They are, though, yet to wrest back control of their party from the ERG clique that has now been unseriously calling the shots for the best part of a decade – and thus we are to be subjected to an ideological experiment in which taxes will be cut, regulation cut back, and energy policy once more upended, all at a time of acute discomfort for millions.
It is a sign of how perilous the next phase of Britain’s Ragnarök will be that even the billionaire Thatcherite Rishi Sunak – a studiedly bland politician remarkable mostly for his emptiness – seems the centrist in the face of this fresh Tory prescription. For twelve years now, the party of Peel has treated the country primarily as an expression of – and a canvas for – its own neuroses. Unseriousness proved for some time a good distraction from its own intellectual bankruptcy. Johnson may be the personification of that approach – but the Conservative leadership contest which followed his fall – replete with wish fulfilment but in dire need of solutions – represented its apogee. COVID was the moment the spell of this nonsense broke; but this winter’s cost of living crisis will likely be the trial by fire that tempers whatever alternative to it we may yet be able to adopt. Truss may prove up to this task, and in her abandonment of the Cameron-Osborne orthodoxy, or her unafraid explanation of a non-redistributive tax policy to Laura Kuenssberg yesterday, she is certainly attempting to ring the changes; but on the same show the comedian Joe Lycett made much hay with the idea that her vague assurances should in the present context be taken at all seriously – and others closer to the new PM agree. As the British summer limps away, someone might remind Truss that a key event in Ragnarök is the “great winter”, which in the legend puts an end to all life. Such, perhaps, are the wages of clowning.