Leading article

It's not too late for Boris Johnson

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

It is two years since Boris Johnson achieved one of the most remarkable election victories in modern history. The large Tory majority gave him personal power to a degree rarely seen in British politics, a chance to reshape his country and party. Having stood for office as a ‘liberal Conservative’, he would be able to govern as one. What has he done with that authority?

He ends the year with dozens of ‘red wall’ Tory MPs in open rebellion against him, rejecting his vaccine passports. During Tony Blair’s premiership, Johnson crusaded against the principle of identity cards, saying they were not just intrusive and pointless but represented a huge and unacceptable shift in the relationship between the state and the individual. He is unable to present any evidence for the need for vaccine passports now, but ordered his MPs to vote for them anyway. He had to rely on the Labour party for support.

The parliamentary rebellion might not have been as exciting as some of the year’s other political dramas, but it was telling: not so much Tories vs PM as Johnson vs Johnson. The Prime Minister is doing, saying and enacting many of the sort of things he spent his time campaigning against as a backbencher, journalist, editor and mayor. His transmogrification is baffling old friends and alienating new supporters. Polls suggest 60 per cent of Brexit voters no longer back him, not necessarily because they disagree with what he does, but because they have given up trying to work out what he stands for.

When he was seeking votes in 2019, Johnson signed a pledge in the Tory manifesto not to increase VAT, income tax or national insurance. He now intends to raise taxes to the highest level in 71 years — not to repair damage from the pandemic but to subsidise care-home costs for richer families. It is a breach of trust.

Johnson talks about ‘levelling up’ but refuses to find the money requested to repair the educational damage inflicted by lockdowns. This might make sense if he had a reputation for fiscal prudence, but when it comes to net zero or HS2 there is, it seems, no limit to his spending plans. His claim to be a liberal is impossible to square with his crackdown on the right to protest, his willingness to make it much easier for the state to take away people’s British citizenship or his suggestions about making Covid vaccines compulsory.

Time and time again, Prime Minister Johnson has introduced the type of illiberal, big-state policies that the journalist Johnson devoted his career to mocking. Are his supporters expected to join him on this journey, to perform an about-turn as quickly and unthinkingly as he does? For how much longer can they say that this is a blip and the ‘real Boris’ will be back in a minute?

Britain is bracing itself for the impact of the Omicron variant. Much is at stake and at such times trust in government matters a lot. There is widespread exhaustion with these nonsensical rules that change so regularly and are almost certainly being ignored by those who make them.

The chaos of the illegal migrant crossings in the English Channel and rising inflation are two more problems Johnson faces in 2022. Yet we are only halfway through the parliament and there is still time for the Prime Minister to right himself. He should start by rereading his 2019 manifesto and then some of the old articles he wrote and (as editor of this magazine) commissioned.

He needs to listen to his new northern MPs when they explain that they won their seats by selling conservatism to their constituents, not Labour-lite policies. High taxes, spending splurges and European-style dirigisme are precisely the ideas that new Tory voters were rejecting.

There’s a strong case that local infrastructure spending has been overlooked for too long and that funding needs to be more fairly allocated outside of the south-east. But such pledges come secondary to what Johnson’s liberal conservatism was supposed to stand for: taking back control. This is why so many red wall MPs are pushing back strongly on the ‘Plan B’ measures being ushered through parliament. They know that their voters reject the authoritarianism that is rising all over the Continent.

Who knows when the next Tory leadership contest will be? But if a challenge does arrive, there’s no doubt what the candidates would say: that it’s time to repair broken trust, to honour the pledge to cut taxes, to empower (rather than bribe or patronise) the north of England. Johnson promised all of this, until the Covid lockdowns blew him so far off course that he lost his bearings.

The pandemic would knock any leader off course. Significant and expensive mistakes were always inevitable and it’s naive to pretend otherwise. But what matters is that such mistakes are identified, corrected and that the sense of original mission restored.

Johnson’s enemies say that he is done for, that he is a buffoon stuck in a rut. But they have said so before and he has recovered. He should spend this Christmas looking over his old political writings — his critiques on power-hungry, overbearing government — and asking if he might have had a point. If he were to revive his original liberal conservative agenda, he would find his party back behind him.

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