Acton Institute Powerblog

Boris Johnson: The great survivor?

(Image credit: Associated Press)

British prime minister Boris Johnson has survived a confidence vote in Parliament after weathering months of bad press. He may still be standing, but is he crippled nevertheless?

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The vote is in. Boris survived—or did he?

The 359 members of the Parliamentary Conservative Party voted by 211 to 148 that they had confidence in Boris Johnson as the leader of the party and prime minister of the United Kingdom. That was a surprise. A much bigger margin of victory was anticipated. A higher proportion voted against the prime minister than voted against Margaret Thatcher as long ago as 1990 (in a formal leadership contest) and against Theresa May in 2018 (in a similar vote of confidence). Mrs. Thatcher was gone within a day; Mrs. May struggled on for six months.

David Cameron, the former Conservative PM, described Boris Johnson in October 2019 in these terms: “The thing about the greased piglet is that he manages to slip through other people’s hands where mere mortals fail.”

The “greased piglet” in this case being Johnson. Has he slipped through again?

In one sense, of course, one vote is enough. Yet in another manner of thinking, this vote is neither decisive nor convincing. What has led to such an extraordinary reversal of fortunes for the man who delivered such a convincing election victory in 2019, flipping 60 Labour-held districts, many for the first time ever, to give him a majority of 80 over all other parties combined? Brexit was certainly a factor, as was the unsuitability of the Labour leader. Yet Boris Johnson also managed to reach out to and connect with many electors voting Conservative for the first time.

What has gone wrong?

First is the matter of integrity. We do not need to rehearse every exhaustive, microscopic detail of “parties” in Downing Street during COVID lockdown—who attended, what they drank or ate, and who organized them. It has always been clear that Boris himself is largely incapable of organizing anything. The parties are, in fact, not the issue at all. Much of the attack was from predicted and predictable quarters, not least the media and those who would never forgive Boris for Brexit. The pictures of the events that Boris himself attended are mostly underwhelming: a glass, a jug of juice, and some frankly disgusting-looking supermarket sandwiches.

The real issues are the culture and chaos over which Boris Johnson has presided, the failure of coherent leadership, the lack of integrity and self-awareness, and the apparent absence of moral compass.

These are problems that have been known for some time about Boris Johnson. His relationship with his own party has always been essentially transactional—will he help us win or not?

Max Hastings, the former editor of the right-leaning Daily Telegraph, wrote in an article in June 2019 that he had been Boris Johnson’s employer at the Telegraph when Johnson was the Brussels correspondent. Hastings described Johnson as “a brilliant entertainer” but “unfit for national office because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.”

Boris Johnson has operated as if the rules set for others do not apply to him. This was true in respect of the Downing Street gatherings but also in a botched attempt to change the rules of the House of Commons to protect a friend who had transgressed those rules. His remorse was fleeting. And to add fuel to the fire, there is an allegation that he misled Parliament in denying the various gatherings, now being investigated by the Parliamentary Privileges Committee. His own ethics adviser, Lord Geidt, has said that Johnson needs to explain fully why he thinks he did not breach the ministerial code (which, of course, means that the adviser thinks he did). To make matters worse, on the day of the confidence vote, his anti-corruption champion, John Penrose MP, resigned, referring to failures of leadership and judgement.

Max Hastings, in his 2019 article, appeared to have the gift of prophecy when he wrote, “His premiership will almost certainly reveal a contempt for rules, precedent, order and stability.”

The cold reality is a loss of trust and confidence, a chaotic leadership, and a culture based on entitlement rather than integrity. This was not so much an organized putsch as a widespread loss of faith among a wide and disparate range of groups.

The there is the question of vision. Perhaps we could overlook a flawed character if there were a clear conservative vision. Unfortunately, Boris Johnson lacks any such vision and has taken to indulging the very habits the British people voted against—namely, the presumption that splashing government spending at any problem will solve it and, if necessary, increase debt (make the children pay) and/or tax (make the working people pay). The allegation against the Labour Party in the 2019 General Election was that they were making spending promises as if there were a “magic money tree.” Boris has been gardening and found that tree.

Public spending as a percentage of GDP will shortly be the highest in 50 years, the proportion represented by taxation the highest in 70 years. Neither the moderate, middle-class Conservatives of southern England nor the tougher-minded culturally conservative voters in the north of England voted for this. Here are just two specific examples of that loss of vision, particularly in the economic sphere:

  • Tax rises to fund unspecified reforms to health and social care

Boris buys into the divinity of the National Health Service like no other. The NHS is struggling, among other reasons, because too many people turn up at the Emergency Departments who don’t need to be there. This clogs up the system and causes significant knock-on effects in capacity. It is free to attend the ED. Many treat it like a family doctor’s office. At the other end there is the problem of care for the elderly and the accompanying issues of capacity, low wages in the sector, and so on.

Why not introduce a charge to attend the ED? A conservative vision would advocate personal and family responsibility as the starting point for the care of our seniors. Such a vision would look, at least, at ways in which insurance might assist with costs, and possible tax incentives for families and individuals that take responsibility and reduce the burden on the state.

Boris Johnson’s government simply increased a tax on all working people and all employers by 1.25% and stated that would fix the problem.

Stand by for the problem not to be fixed.

  • Cash handouts to deal with energy and cost of living crises

Undoubtedly, the rising cost of living and energy prices is a worldwide problem with challenges for all governments. The Tories have, strangely, failed to recognize that inflation is also a moral issue that arbitrarily redistributes wealth and disproportionately affects the poor. The exit from the EU gives the government the power to vary levels of taxation. For example, the government could remove the 5% VAT on fuel bills. Boris Johnson could then crow that Brexit made that possible.

Instead, Johnson’s government has announced a cash payment of £400 to all households to offset rising energy bills.

Keep your eyes peeled for the magic money tree. More inflation coming. More dependency.

It gets worse. On the day that Conservative Members of Parliament were voting on whether they had confidence in their own prime minister, the trades unions brought the London transport system to its knees. Add to that the fact that illegal immigration is moving at rates faster than it takes legal citizens to traveling though an airport. (Remember that illegal immigration is most unfair to legal immigrants.) And finally, the Net Zero Strategy to lower carbon emissions has become an expensive obsession.

The assumption even from the Conservatives is that the state is the answer to every problem. The lack of a coherent conservative vision of freedom, lower taxation, deregulation, and the reform of health and state bureaucracies is crippling for Boris Johnson and his government.

What happens next? History teaches us that the prime minister is fatally wounded. The longer he stays at No. 10, the more the pain is inflicted on us all, especially on his own party, weakening its future prospects. The loss of confidence and faith goes deep.

Boris was a man who caught a moment. Unfortunately, his flawed character and his abandonment of a truly conservative vision means he is not the man for this moment and not the person who can lead the Conservative Party to another victory based on integrity, economic competence, and a program for constructing a smaller state.

Richard Turnbull

Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull is the director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a trustee of the Christian Institute. He holds a degree in Economics and Accounting and spent over eight years as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst and Young and served as the youngest ever member of the Press Council. Richard also holds a first class honours degree in Theology and PhD in Theology from the University of Durham. He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England in 1994. Richard served in the pastoral ministry for over 10 years. He was also for 7 years the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He has authored several books, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.