Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday 8 June 2022

The appalling autocracy of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson continues, thanks to Conservative MPs


It is common to talk about how UK Prime Ministers have become more presidential over time. Cabinet government, where the PM is first among equals, has gradually been replaced by a more presidential system where the PM is more influenced by those working in No.10 than those around the cabinet table. However, to describe the system as presidential, with an obvious comparison to the US, is misleading because Congress can severely limit the power of the President. A presidential PM with a large majority in parliament has much more political power over legislation than most US Presidents.

Is Johnson’s time at No.10 just another point on that steady progress away from cabinet government? In two important senses it represents more of a step change, a change which hopefully is reversible. The first is that Johnson has chosen a cabinet based on loyalty to him and an idea (a hard Brexit), both designed to elevate the less able to be ministers. That is the reason why there are no obvious candidates to replace Johnson in the cabinet. The second is that Johnson has very little time for a powerful parliament, as was very evident when he suspended it when he first became PM. He increasingly sees it not as a place where legislation gets initiated, amended and improved but as an audience for his Oxford Union style debating skills.

For this reason it makes more sense to describe Johnson’s period in office as an autocracy rather than as an example of presidential government. Unfortunately, autocracy comes naturally to Alexander Johnson. In his so far short term as leader he has passed legislation which requires evidence of identity before being able to vote, ended the independence of the body that runs elections and allowed the police to declare any demonstration illegal if they think it will be noisy. All these measures have been voted through by his MPs. He has installed friends or donors to countless positions of power, including running the BBC. As Robert Saunders writes: “The ballot box, the right to protest, and the equality of the vote are among the most powerful ramparts yet constructed against tyranny. We should not tamper with them lightly.”

Why does autocracy come naturally to Johnson? His ambition is driven by a belief in his own unique self-importance, yet in reality his performance in leadership roles is best described as incompetent. He masks this by being a congenital liar who gets away with lies because of a combination of privilege and charm. People who naturally tell you what you want to hear or what they want you to believe, when either may be the opposite of the truth, are always at risk of being exposed. Accountability is Johnson’s enemy, and his actions attempt to limit accountability as far as he can.

Alongside autocracy often comes corruption, and Johnson is no exception to this rule. Donors to the party who have deep pockets enjoy privileged access to ministers. Friends and donors also get fed contracts from the government, as became very evident with the VIP lane for PPE contracts at he start of the pandemic. MPs can, if they wish, get paid by companies to obtain access to ministers, or for lobbying ministers. For all these reasons Johnson’s government acts like a plutocracy, where influence comes from donations to either Johnson himself, ministers, MPs or the party. Money has always bought a degree of influence in the UK, but as with his own autocracy, Johnson has taken things to a different level.

The corruption that has come closest to threatening his position as Prime Minister is partygate. As Andrew Rawnsley points out, it is inconceivable that you would have had illegal party after illegal party in No.10 under any previous Prime Minister. To quote: “When that person is Mr Johnson, you get a culture of selfish, arrogant, entitled, amoral, narcissistic rule-breaking that combines, in the true spirit of the Bullingdon Club, snobbery with yobbery.” Cameron was also a Bullingdon member, but unlike Johnson Cameron chose his lies very carefully because he did not believe that he could avoid being found out or charm his way out of the consequences of doing so. That Johnson knew about the No.10 parties and knew they were illegal is beyond doubt whatever he or his ministers might say now, and the fact that he did nothing to stop them while the rest of the country followed his rules is quite shocking, and almost unbelievable. In addition, it was a terrible way to manage such an important part of government, as the many cases of COVID in No.10 or the Cabinet Office over the partygate period testify.

What is also unbelievable, if you hadn’t been closely following the Brexitification of the Conservative party, is that only a minority of Conservative MPs seem prepared to get rid of someone who could do such a shocking thing, let alone worry about the UK turning into an autocratic plutocracy. Yet Johnson ensured the Brexit campaign would be in his own image (almost nothing that was claimed for Brexit was actually true and was often the opposite of the truth) and he subsequently did his best to ensure that Conservative MPs bought into that culture of falsehood. For many MPs, therefore, if they get rid of Johnson they risk exposing the reality that their Brexit is responsible for many of the country’s current predicaments.

Ultimately, however, Conservative MPs are interested in retaining power, which is why so many decided electing Johnson in 2019 was a necessary evil. As Tim Bale wrote in April, for many Conservative MPs “Johnson has become what we might call a talismanic leader, one who, possessed by powers that sometimes seem superhuman, even supernatural, to his friends and foes alike will, whatever the current evidence to the contrary, supposedly see their party through the very worst of times and into the sunlit uplands.” They will also note that a combination of certain friendly newspapers and very rich donors remain steadfast defenders of Johnson (to such an extent that their copy could have been written in No.10) in part because Johnson has made a point of giving them exactly what they want in terms of policy and money.

Will enough Conservative MPs realise before the next election that the magic has gone, destroyed by a combination of partygate, Johnson’s own incompetence and the cost of living crisis? In any case the magic attributed to him in bringing down the red wall had rather more to do with longstanding but not immutable trends, a commitment to Brexit that has now faded, and the unpopularity of Corbyn. Or do they think that, despite Johnson's own unpopularity, a combination of their own money, media power and corruption will be enough to drag any opposition leader down to his level, enabling Johnson to still win an election? It is a testament to the current state of UK politics that we cannot be certain that this belief will prove incorrect. 

Unfortunately for this country, nothing that has happened or will happen under Johnson’s rule should have been a surprise. As I noted in 2016, a former boss of Johnson, Max Hastings, wrote that if Boris Johnson is the answer, “there is something desperately wrong with the question.” The question to which Johnson became the answer was how the Conservative Party could implement a hard Brexit, and there was indeed something very wrong with that question. Indeed all those that supported Brexit, from whichever political direction, should have foreseen that Prime Minister Johnson was a very likely consequence.

His Trump-like traits of habitual lying, incompetence and ruthlessness were all noted in my short 2016 post. The similarities between Johnson and Trump are many, as I noted here three years later. Let me just add one more to that already long list. Trump was notorious for ignoring briefing provided by the machinery of government, and instead getting his information from Fox. Likewise Johnson is hopeless at reading his red box, and before partygate at least, would start the day with senior officials looking at the daily press and the issues they raised.

I ended my 2016 post with this sentence:

“Boris Johnson plays the cultured aristocratic fool, and many love him for that. But if he becomes Prime Minister, as now seems almost certain, it may be the British public that ends up feeling played and foolish.”

I suspect that after Brexit and partygate enough of the British public now feel played and foolish to have ever entrusted Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson to such a powerful position. 

What I hope they don’t forget is that most Conservative MPs, who knew much more about him than voters did in 2019, seemed not only happy to have him as their leader, but have supported and enabled his autocratic style of government, and have now been remarkably reluctant to get rid of him after he knowingly broke a law he himself had imposed on others. Once upon a time the Conservative party used to worry about being seen as the nasty party. Today in flaunts its nastiness with pride, and a majority of its MPs have decided to turn our parliamentary democracy into a government in one person's image, a person who is way more corrupt, disorganised, authoritarian and dishonest than any previous post-war UK Prime Minister.  

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