Tom Rachman is a Canadian-British writer based in London. His new novel, The Imposters, comes out next year.
Across the stuffy Parliament offices, a contagion spread in past days, airborne and infecting many of Britain’s most powerful politicians: a frightening outbreak of morality (late onset).
The initial symptom was trembling. Next, dozens in Boris Johnson’s government – Tory MPs who’d long tittered over their morally derelict leader – tested out unfamiliar terms like “integrity,” typed in haste into resignation letters. The Prime Minister, they’d discovered, wasn’t a good egg after all.
This must’ve come as a shock. After all, the shabby-posh Mr. Johnson was an entitled and overpromoted cad with a decades-long record for lying in every possible venue, from print to political rallies to Parliament; a man whose leading skill is to clown around as an upper-class-twit savant; a Conservative Party idol who waffled about whether he even wanted Brexit, then saw political advantage in ramming it through, tearing asunder his country as if on a lark; a chap famously bored of detail, careless, irresponsible; a prime minister whose dithering over COVID-19 led to thousands more deaths; a habitual rule-breaker who condoned a culture of sleaze in the Conservative Party, caring only when he got caught; a fellow whose sniggering smirk became the face of Britain’s plummeting global repute.
Yes, quite surprisingly, this man wasn’t up to the job. On Thursday, after a steady stream of resignations, Mr. Johnson announced he would step down as prime minister.
By sheer coincidence, the outbreak of Tory MP morality coincided with polls showing that the country – facing soaring prices, a failing health service, police who hardly investigate, strikes that have crippled transport, a deflating economy and a bozo at the helm – longed to get rid of Mr. Johnson, including increasing numbers of members of the Conservative Party itself. Either he went, or they’d be done for.
According to the Great Man Theory of history, charismatic heroes appear now and then and transform the world. This needs an update. Lately, it’s the Hideous Man Theory that explains politics, with celebrity charlatans such as Mr. Johnson and Donald Trump selling revolution. To ascend, the egomaniac needs a single golden ticket: charisma. But eventually, they end up the same way, once the consequences of dishonesty outweigh personal charm.
Electorates are to blame too, having been sucked into a negative feedback loop, where outrage-peddling provokes a mad urge to smash the whole flawed system, which tends not to be a fantastic idea, producing a fresh mess, which leads to more outrage. Activism comes to look like nihilism, where fury itself is the point.
The former Tory politician Rory Stewart did warn his colleagues when Mr. Johnson ran for the party leadership. “I said: ‘Look, I’ve worked with him in the foreign office,” he recalled in a recent podcast. “I’ve seen absolutely up close and personal month after month that he cannot be trusted to do the simplest thing, that he will completely screw up our policy with Kenya in a single phone call, he’ll launch a Libya policy without noticing we don’t have an embassy active in Libya. We can’t have him as prime minister. But the answer was always, ‘Yeah, but he can win.’”
The cynical use of the charismatic Mr. Johnson to win was embodied in Dominic Cummings, a strategist behind Brexit who became a top adviser to the prime minister. Mr. Cummings, whose habitual expression is the sneer and whose attitude to government matches, had a bitter break with the PM.
After all, he openly compared Mr. Johnson to a broken shopping cart – the kind always drifting the wrong way, and that you must push so it ends up in the right aisle, rather than crashing over a pyramid of baked beans. Mr. Cummings and many powerful Tories saw fit to place this same broken shopping cart in charge of the whole country, through Brexit, through COVID-19. The results were predictable, and predicted.
When this type of egomaniac leaves office, he isn’t just gone; he leaves lasting damage. See post-Trump America. Thankfully for Britain, it’s not as combustible; fewer guns, for one.
What Mr. Johnson has bequeathed is the irreversible disaster of Brexit, which wouldn’t have happened without his salesmanship. Once in power, he shredded standards of decent behaviour, and worsened the already bleak public view of politicians.
As with Mr. Trump, Mr. Johnson refused to go when everyone wanted him out. He refused to admit plain facts. And like Mr. Trump, he embodied the very worst national caricature – in the British case, pomp and privilege and shallow indifference.
Thankfully, Britain includes more than that, a parallel tradition of charity and principle and good sense. The Conservative Party – for now – retains a majority in Parliament. After 12 years in power, and the obliterating effect of Brexit, the party is left with a ragged bunch. But the opposition Labour Party, led by Keir Starmer, never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Still, Britain is indeed faced with such an opportunity: to push back against the degradation of recent years, and rediscover its better self. If it fails, this outbreak of morality won’t last. And the fever will pass all too soon.
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