Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 7 November 2023

How could Johnson have become Prime Minister?


The Covid inquiry has become a trial of Boris Johnson, showing how hopeless and harmful a Prime Minister he was. If you are unconvinced, read this from Andrew Rawnsley. Johnson is not the first political leader whose only virtue was charming (some) voters, but the combination of refusing to delegate and being completely indecisive was a disaster. Combine that with the selection device, Brexit, that he imposed, and you ensure that only the worst of MPs would become ministers or advisors. That is a recipe for a calamitous administration, with or without a pandemic.

As many have noted, Johnson’s unsuitability to be a cabinet minister, let alone a Prime Minister, was well known before his rise to power. If you look back at past posts on this blog (e.g. here for example) you will see this spelt out, and I’m hardly a political insider. Everything I wrote there and more was well known to most Conservative MPs. So what is so wrong with our political system that someone so ill-suited to the job could become Prime Minister?

It is tempting to answer this question very simply with a single word, Brexit. Brexit was Johnson’s route to power, and indeed he probably chose to back the Leave side because it would advance that cause. While there is a lot of truth in that answer, to leave things there would in my view be a mistake. It suggests that Johnson became Prime Minister almost by an accident of history, and crucially that without Brexit he could never have become Prime Minister. I think there are more fundamental forces that propelled his rise to power. .

The most obvious point is that winning the EU referendum in 2016 did not bring Johnson the job he craved. In the election among MPs to replace David Cameron, Johnson withdrew before the first ballot because he lost the support of his partner in arms during the referendum campaign. Michael Gove, in announcing his own candidature, stated that Johnson could not "provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead." At the time the Telegraph described this as "the most spectacular political assassination in a generation”, but the press cannot be trusted on this matter. Instead I suspect the absence of support for Johnson represented MPs doing their job of ensuring anyone as unsuited to being leader as he was did not get near No. 10.

What was rather more surprising than his failed leadership bid was that May appointed him Foreign Secretary. This promotion to what is traditionally regarded as a very senior ministerial position was unusual. As one commentator put it, this “made public what British diplomats have been trying to hide for years: The Foreign Office is a shadow of its former self.” May, who knew the Conservative party well, may have judged that Johnson’s popularity among the membership and press was a potential danger to her, and so it was better to have him inside the tent in a relatively harmless role.

Suppose Leave had not won the EU referendum, and Cameron had continued as Prime Minister. He may well have reasoned in a similar way, and given Johnson a senior post after the referendum. Even if Cameron had not held a referendum in 2016, and managed somehow to fend off calls to do so yet retained power, Johnson’s popularity with the membership and the press may have ensured that he would soon find himself in the cabinet. The key question therefore becomes why Conservative MPs, after failing to support him in 2016, changed their minds so dramatically within three years.

What changed between 2016 and 2019 was the obstruction by Brexit hardliners of May’s attempts to get a deal with the EU, and the electoral threat of Nigel Farage. After the disastrous European election results of 2019, a majority of Tory MPs decided that to defeat one hardline Brexit populist they needed another, and Johnson was the only candidate that could match Farage.

The combination of party unpopularity and a threat from Farage created by the inability of May to ‘get Brexit done’ was certainly intense. The key question again is whether it was a unique outcome that could not have occurred if Leave had not won the referendum, or if the referendum had never been called. A key reason that Brexit was popular was immigration, which was blamed by many voters for stagnant real wages and deteriorating public services caused by austerity. That would have remained the case even if Leave had narrowly lost the referendum (and a narrow loss was the only possibility given the campaign mounted by the right wing press), or if there had been no referendum at all. In either case the threat from Farage would have remained. It is not impossible to believe that without Brexit the government might have found itself losing many votes to Farage, and might have turned to Johnson as their best way of retaining power.

None of this implies that it was inevitable that Johnson became the leader of the Conservative party. For example, he could have made enough major blunders as a minister that his popularity among the Conservative membership could have waned. (Of course he did make blunders as Foreign Secretary under May, as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe found to her cost.) What I want to suggest is that it is more than possible that circumstances could have led Johnson to have become the leader of the Conservative party, despite most Conservative MPs knowing how unsuitable he was for that job. What we do know from 2019 is that when it comes to the choice between losing their seats or putting an incompetent into No.10, enough Conservative MPs will choose power over responsibility.

The argument so far has suggested that Johnson’s popularity among Conservative party members and voters, together with the active support of the right wing press, could have led to him becoming party leader without Brexit. [1] However that does not necessarily mean that he would become Prime Minister, at least for very long. We also have to ask why, given his known unsuitability for the post among political journalists and commentators, he was able to win a General Election.

Once again, I expect many would answer this with a single name: Corbyn. There was one last chance to stop Johnson being Prime Minister in 2020, and that was the 2019 General Election. I agree that Corbyn also had many faults as a potential PM, which is why I argued strongly against him during Labour’s 2016 leadership contest. However I also thought it was clear that he was preferable to Johnson. Even though expressing that view was enough to get me sacked from writing for the online edition of the New Statesman (here is the article they initially published and then quickly withdrew), I think I was right for two clear reasons. The first is that some form of hard Brexit was inevitable under a Johnson administration, but far from inevitable under a government led by Corbyn. The second was that there is no way Corbyn would have ever suggested that Covid was nature’s way of dealing with old people. Tens of thousands less people would have died if he had been PM. Now perhaps Corbyn would have done worse things than Johnson, outweighing the economic costs of hard Brexit and tens of thousands of UK lives lost to Covid indecision, but I have yet to hear any suggestions of what that might be that are at all convincing.

But this argument is really a distraction from the topic of this post. The reality was that in months before the election the media rightly spent plenty of time discussing Corbyn’s mistakes, particularly over the issue of antisemitism, but much less time talking about Johnson’s record, racist comments and past failures. If there were extensive discussions about how illegally proroguing parliament signalled an authoritarian style and a threat to parliamentary sovereignty I missed it. I also missed the constant questioning of whether you could trust someone who in the past had made stories up and had lost two jobs through lying.

Why did most of the broadcast media fail to warn the public about Johnson’s inadequacies? One reason is the power the government and their press have over the BBC in particular. The BBC’s obsession with balance rather than revealing the truth comes in part from the constant attacks on the BBC from the right wing press, attacks that are regularly backed up by threats from Conservative ministers and MPs.

Which brings me back to the Covid inquiry. Comments from various witnesses have shown us that perhaps the main influence on Johnson in government was the media, and in particular the right wing print media. He described the Telegraph as his real boss. Johnson was reluctant to lockdown in the autumn and winter of 2020 in large part because he read articles in the right wing press arguing against lockdowns.

Johnson’s premiership was the point at which the right wing press gained maximum influence. They knew Johnson would give them that, which is the main reason they boosted his career for so long. Prime Minister Johnson was in good part the result of a few press barons having immense power with little responsibility. The same press that was critical in giving us Brexit was also critical in giving us such a hopeless Prime Minister, and it was their influence that helped delay lockdowns leading to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

In any assessment of how our political system could have allowed someone like Boris Johnson to become Prime Minister, the role of the right wing press should play a prominent part.

[1] An alternative line of argument, which I also find persuasive, is that the Conservative party was eventually going to support a referendum and Brexit even if Cameron had not promised one in 2013.

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