Why I Think Momentum has turned in favor of Boris Johnson
For the last few weeks I have been putting off writing up my thoughts on British politics and Boris Johnson’s chances of survival. As someone who lived in the UK for almost a decade, is something of an anglophile, especially when it comes to British history, and whose work at Eton was one of my most enjoyable and educational experiences, I feel I have at least some insight. Sometimes that can be off, but generally I feel it is pretty good, and far superior to the groupthink that tends to dominate British “lobby journalism”.
I correctly called Theresa May’s succession in 2016, as well as Corbyn’s surprise showing in the 2017 election weeks before it happened. At the core of this is applying the concept of momentum and sentiment, the dominant traits in modern US politics especially on the right to Britain. While the Westminster lobby focuses on the importance of individual events and issues, a similar error that some of the US media makes when obsessing over the fate of something like Joe Biden’s Build Back Better program, the main issue of interest to politicians is their own perception of which way the wind is blowing. As with Covid19, a leader or party is either on the upward trajectory, in which case the overwhelming sentiment is to associate one-self with the winning side, whether in fact or in perception, or that it is on the way down, in which case there is a rush to dissociate.
To put this theory in terms of physics, the behavior of political actors is driven more by acceleration than velocity. What matters less is how fast a political object is moving than whether it is perceived as speeding up or slowing down.
“Events” and “Scandals” matter to the extent to which they play into existing narratives. Brexit was fatal to Cameroonism because it occurred in the context of a five year long campaign of grassroots discontent against Cameron’s leadership of the party. Turning Brexit into a culture war resulted it in becoming not just a referendum on Cameron himself, but the entire culture and trajectory of the Conservative party, one which the “liberal elites” lost. It was that defeat, within the Conservative party, which was ultimately more decisive than the 52-48 defeat among the wider electorate. Because win or lose on Brexit itself, Cameron’s position would have been untenable as would that of his vision of conservatism.
How does this apply to Boris Johnson’s problems? Well Boris’ political achievement has been to pull back the curtain which maintained the pretense that policy and performance mattered in favor of selling himself as a pure political perpetual motion machine. Boris, as Steve Baker noted this week, ““We did not make Boris Johnson Prime Minister for his meticulous grasp of tedious rules.” Rather, he was made Prime Minister because of his penchant for selling himself as constantly in motion – good or bad – at a time when the electorate had become convinced that no politicians were capable of undertaking any action whatsoever. In 2019 Johnson sold the Conservative party on the idea that any plan, no matter the gamble was better than no plan, and that trying to deliver Brexit and failing was still a better outcome than compromising or retreating In the 2019 general election he convinced the electorate that any Brexit deal was better than a continuation of the status quo.
Even during Covid, Boris has never really suffered serious damage from any sort of “performance” related scandals. Whether it was contracts, “Eat out to help out”, death tolls, interviews with actual voters consistently showed that even if they did not like everything Boris did, or what he happened to be doing at any given moment they believed he did things, and did not trust any other politicians to do so. Hence they stood by him.
Second, the net result of Boris Johnson’s “scandals” and attacks on them from other politicians was to lower the numbers for those politicians. Keir Starmer’s numbers, never high, collapsed when he decided to make politics by and large about Johnson. Why? Because the British public does not trust politicians. Any figure or cause that manages to portray itself as “against” the “politicians” whether it be Brexit or Johnson, will have their support. And attacks on Johnson rapidly were perceived not as being about the “issues” concerned – corruption was seen as common among all politicians as was incompetence – but as efforts by the political class to use those issues to remove Johnson.
This is one reason why the revelations by Raphael Marshall of not just negligence bordering on incompetence from the Foreign Office during the evacuation of Kabul, but outright interference, potentially from the Prime Minister’s wife in securing the evacuation of animals, failed to make a dent. Because after Iraq/Libya/Migration incompetence in foreign affairs is baked in. Boris’ accomplishing of Brexit stands out as the only successful “resolution” of any major international issue. Yes, the media critics will be quick to point out that it is far from settled, but it is to the satisfaction of most, and those who are upset over the Northern Ireland protocol will only turn on Boris if they think the alternatives will do more, not less of what they want.
How does this feed into the current scandals? Well first, I believe Boris was in serious trouble in late December and early January. It was not, however, because of the parties themselves. Here is where both his external critics, and it now appears a disturbingly large number of newer MPs and old hacks err and are repeating the errors of their predecessors. “Boris is corrupt” has not “finally broken through.” Rather, what endangered Boris was the perception of what he was not doing.
Two major issues of vital importance to the Conservative membership occurred in December, in both cases Boris Johnson was seen as surrendering to the “establishment.” They were respectively, the decision not to invoke Article 16 to suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the decision to impose Plan B restrictions in response to Omicron. In both cases the media, opposition, and according to pollsters, the electorate at large were on the side Boris hewed to. But within the Conservative grassroots, both issues were surrenders in a battle they have been waging for more than a decade against first David Cameron and then Theresa May.
Critically, they did not interpret these events as Boris Johnson betraying them. That was wishful thinking mixed with lack of comprehension of the Conservative party by outsiders. Rather, they interpreted the concessions as a consequence of Boris’ weakness. Boris had been so weakened by the revelations that he was now too weak to resist pressure. Usually this analysis was mixed with hostility to Carrie Johnson and her presence at the parties in question, both metaphysical and physical in the form of the photographs, reinforced the perception that she was the source of the dysfunction which produced the weakness which left Johnson unable to carry out Conservative policies, and an advocate against them. Here Lord Frost, who is held in such contempt by the media that they miss obvious implications of his actions, showed much greater political acumen in “reading the room” than many others in choosing the two issues the grassroots actually cared about to resign on. Frost will never be PM. The “Lord” before his name ensures it. But as JRM proved, being a viral sensation among the grassroots guarantees relevance and a sinecure.
What endangered Boris’ support among the grassroots then was the perception that he had been weakened to the extent he would have no choice but to “give in”, and that the weakness was either permanent or the result of structural factors(Carrie) which could not be removed. If Boris was therefore unable to be Boris and carry out the function for which they had elected him, then he would have to be replaced.
This was not a moral conclusion, nor was it based around enthusiasm for anyone else. None of the prospective successors are trusted. It was resignation that they might have to be tried.
Enter “Operation Red Meat” and the events of the last few days. Once more announcements such as the phasing out of the BBC license fee and the termination of all covid restrictions were written off as “theater”, unlikely to fool anyone. But they weren’t intended to fool anyone. On the contrary, there were transparent demonstrations not of Boris’ strength to the grassroots. He showed he still had the political power to deliver on the issues they cared about. Given that they do not trust anyone else to even try, and their doubts about Boris hinged not on “would” but “could” by showing that he “could” he silenced many of his detractors on the Right of the party. He is also taking the “war” to the enemy, by ordering an end to masks in schools, and civil servants back to the office, in both cases picking fights with individuals viewed as enemies by the Tory grassroots.
Then his opponents blundered. The defection of Christian Wakeford to Labour reinserted the opposition into the story, badly undermining the position of Boris’ opponents. Up to that point they had managed to eschew any clear ideological affiliation. They were not diehard Remainers, or dejected Leavers. This was critical because any perception this was a factional effort would have rallied opposition by everyone suspicious of that faction. If the faction in question was perceived to come from the left of the party that would be a serious development for the plotters. That was why they had recruited David Davis, a Brexiteer to make their call for Johnson to go, though here they erred again choosing someone whose behavior in 2019 had undermined his support on that wing of the party as had his loyalty to May.
Subsequent interventions made matters worse, not least Rory Stewart’s column, all the more damaging because of how entertaining it was. Rory Stewart may be a media favorite, but he ran as the “anti-Tory” candidate in the 2019 leadership election, then was kicked out of the party that fall for opposing Brexit. His association with efforts to oust Johnson looks at best like sour grapes and at worst like an ideological effort by Cameroons and Remainers. William Wragg’s intervention in some ways was worse. Alleging that the Whips threatened to withhold constituency funding will shock few. Everyone expects the worst of politicians, and such stories were common currency.
Furthermore, the Whips were whipping for Johnson’s agenda, the agenda the grassroots voted for in 2019. Yes, those Conservative members would prefer if these tactics were not needed, but they would overwhelmingly prefer the use of these tactics to allowing “sabotage” of the agenda. In their view, the MPs who needed to be “bribed” were disloyal, and they will find as little sympathy among the grassroots as they will find endless expressions of shocked camaraderie from a lobby which knew all about this.
Worse, by attempting to involve the police in the matter, they have repeated the error Democrats made against Donald Trump, from the 2016 campaign, to Mueller, to Ukraine, to the January 6th Commission. Attempting to wage political battles against someone the voters elected to fight to the establishment and deep state by using the most “establishment” of institutions, the judiciary, vindicates the suspicions of grassroots Tories that this is a London/elitist plot to remove Boris. A man who was after all their choice.
None of this means Boris is fine. Some of the damage to the Conservative polling position looks set to last, and if the May elections are brutal talk of deposition may start up again. But I increasingly think he is likely to ride out the present storm. I might well be tempting fate by saying so, but the events of the last few days in which
1. Boris showed he can deliver on Conservative priorities
2. His opponents have increasingly become associated with the Left/Remainer wing of the party
3. The shift in emphasis from issues of concern to the membership, namely Boris’ ability to govern, to ones of interest only to the “lobby”, namely “whipping operations”
Convince me that momentum is now on his side. Senior leadership contenders are unlikely to risk grassroots wrath which is now much more likely to fall on any assassins. Boris is a different problem for Liz Truss next week than he was last week. Last week the challenge was avoiding a leadership contest they were unprepared for at a time when they did not wish to take over government. Today it is that Boris is, and is likely to continue to be a liability for Conservative candidates among the general electorate, but efforts to remove him will be viewed as disloyal to the party by the members who will elect any successor.