The Hangover of Bullingdon Club Britain
Peter Jukes explains why the ongoing scandal about lockdown-breaking parties hit the Prime Minister’s core appeal more than crony contracts, personal expenses or his handling of the Coronavirus crisis
As someone who first voted in 1979, I’ve often warned my younger colleagues at Byline Times that – though it seemed insurmountable – Boris Johnson’s apparent lead in the opinion polls was his Achilles heel.
Understandably, they greeted this with some scepticism and I could never quite articulate the grounds for this paradox. But, two-and-a-half years into his premiership, it’s clear that Johnson vividly displays the problem of a populist prime minister who has no clear project or programme: he is completely dependent on the populace.
Compared to Margaret Thatcher and John Major, or Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the political project built around our current Prime Minister was always as sketchy and vapid as a morning mist on the Thames. Like the ill-fated Garden Bridge over the river that he promoted while Mayor of London (and which cost the capital in excess of £40 million without even being built), Johnson’s pies-in-the sky are always costly, impossible, and serve only one function: to increase his popularity. Once the appeal vanishes, so does the project. And now his whole career is beginning to melt into thin air.
As his former Telegraph colleague and biographer Sonia Purnell told me and Hardeep Matharu on Byline TV, Johnson hasn’t really changed since she first worked with him in Brussels in 1992. He rose through the ranks of the media through a mixture of egotistic ruthlessness, instrumental charm, and an instinctive sense of how to give an audience what they wanted. He then ascended the Conservative Party with the same insouciance, dumping friends, partners and principles along the way. Johnson’s ability to get away with it – which should have been his biggest demerit – became his ultimate qualification. As Purnell intuited, he attracted so many others, mainly men, who could only wish they could have gotten away with it too.
However, the Prime Minister’s ascendancy can’t just be put down to the sclerotic hierarchies of public school, Parliament, literary magazines and the right-wing press. He learned to tap into a much wider constituency that wanted to escape reality and appealed to the selfish, carefree six-year-old in all of us.
Back in 2004, Johnson was nominated for a BAFTA for ‘Best Entertainment Performance’ for his chairing of the BBC’s satirical news show Have I Got News for You. He carried on cultivating that comic persona carefully, ruffling his blond hair before public appearances. And it worked. Millions fell for it.
But we were also primed to react. An Etonian toff, inebriated by his own eloquence, appetent as a comic strip Billy Bunter, the ‘Boris’ persona expressed something about the English (if not the British) psyche. He was a national archetype, just as Donald Trump was to America. The brash New York real estate dealer and TV reality star recognised this and called him “Britain Trump”. And it’s not just the privilege and exceptionalism that worked for him, but Johnson’s genius at ‘improv’ and literary irony. In this, he carries more of the Oxbridge ‘Beyond the Fringe’, Private Eye and Monty Python mantle into politics than most of us would care or dare to recognise.
In the humdrum age of robo-politicians, technocrats and wonks, Johnson stood out as vivid and real. Like Trump, he provided a kind of personal authenticity against the calculation, caution and double-speak of standard political output. His former chief advisor Dominic Cummings might now characterise him as a crazy “trolley”, careening around the corridors of power. But Cummings must have known this cultivated chaos was seen by many as a breath of fresh air and was a big factor in the unexpectedly large Conservative majority in 2019 that Cummings helped craft.
That campaign was summed up in the simple clarion call ‘Get Brexit Done’. Whatever the harsh realities of actually delivering a hard exit from the EU, the underlying message was simple and anti-political: let’s move on. Even so-called Remainers joined Leavers in voting for that message, tired of the endless negotiations, legal challenges and split parliamentary votes. They wanted to get on with their lives and forget politics for a while, even if politics would not forget them.
The result was a stunning victory, particularly in former Labour-voting small towns and villages in the north of England. As Ben Walker pointed out in the New Statesman recently, “the Conservatives were more popular in the marginals than in the country at large”. And that was largely down to the character of the Prime Minister. In the December 2019 General Election, Walker explained, those swing voters “weren’t going to vote for the Conservative Party, they were going to vote for the Boris Johnson Party”.
Now everything has changed. The character of Boris Johnson, once the Conservatives’ greatest asset, is the party’s glaring liability. What the populace thought they liked about him, they have come to loathe. Last year, the Conservatives lost two by-elections to the Liberal Democrats. In Amersham and Chesham and then in North Shropshire, the ‘Blue Wall’ crumbled. Byline Times’ polling with Omnisis revealed that Conservative voters were even more dismayed by the crony contracts scandals than Labour voters. Perhaps the lack of competition particularly hit home with the small traders and businessmen men and women likely to support the Conservative Party. But the cavalier attitude is beginning to pall among his new voters too.
Having been used to getting the best of both worlds, Johnson must now get used to getting the worst. With the rolling revelations about lockdown-breaking parties, Labour’s lead over the Conservatives has moved into double digits, with some polls giving Keir Starmer the largest lead since the days of Tony Blair. And national polls hide an even bigger problem. According to Ben Walker, Johnson’s favorability numbers are now worse in the marginals than the country as a whole.
So why are his newest supporters so keen to disavow him?
The Party Animals Party
Before he resigned as chief Brexit negotiator, Lord David Frost tried to characterise Johnson’s lax approach to the Coronavirus as an epitome of “Merry England”. Within weeks, this support for the Falstaffian Prime Minister soured into contempt.
Many have wondered why ‘Wine Time Fridays’ and parties in Downing Street have been so toxic for Johnson, compared to many other examples of venality, corruption and self-interest. The key is in the name: it’s the party, stupid.
Johnson has tarnished his key asset; his ultimate pulling power; betrayed the very essence of what he once embodied: fun and conviviality, affability and impromptu humour.
The ‘right to partaaay’ element of the Conservative Party was certainly embedded in Johnson’s administration.
Lord James Bethell, who was appointed to the department of health and left the Government a few months ago under the shadow of various cronyism allegations, used to manage London’s most famous rave dance-floor at the Ministry of Sound. Ben Elliot, the Conservative Party co-chairman, adept at hauling in big donors, founded the concierge company Quintessentially (now up for sale for £140 million) which “arranges exclusive tickets, travel packages and events for busy, wealthy people and major companies”. Dougie Smith, the former senior Conservative aide married to Munira Mirza – Johnson’s head of policy formerly of the Revolutionary Communist Party – was behind the notoriously hedonistic ‘fever parties’ of the early noughties; ‘five-star’ swinger events in fashionable Mayfair townhouses and country mansions.
But Johnson was not the only prime minister in bed with well-heeled hedonism. Both he and his rival, David Cameron, were members of Oxford’s notorious fraternity, the Bullingdon Club. That we allowed that tendency to trash restaurants to take power and trash the country may reveal more about our repressed sense of revelry and riot than we care to admit.
The subject of Johnson’s forthcoming book, William Shakespeare, often remarked upon the drunkenness of the English and was apocryphally a victim of it himself according to the Vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon, John Ward, who claimed Shakespeare died of a fever in 1611 after “drinking too hard” during a “merry meeting” with his fellow playwrights Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton. “Everyone is in a hurry to drink themselves into insensibility,” noted the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky after a brief visit to London in 1861. Ten years later, the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine observed that “Londoners are noisy as ducks, eternally drunk”. The poet Wendy Cope ends her poignant haiku for Britain with the line: “The pubs are open.”
But through long periods during the lockdowns of spring of 2000, and the winter of 2021, they were closed.
The hospitality sector suffered badly. But we got through it for the sake of hospitals. Removing the pub and the drinking party from our lives was tough on a nation that could often only disinhibit itself through drink. But we did it out of duty, care and compassion. I personally cannot think of anyone in my immediate circle who did not lose a close relative during these terrible two years in which 170,000 people died of Coronavirus. Most starkly, the head of state, the Queen, had to mourn her husband of 73 years in isolation. We denied ourselves something precious – fun, conviviality, warmth, even collective grieving – for something more precious: life itself.
This is why Boris Johnson’s lockdown-breaking parties have stuck more than his failed ‘levelling up’ agenda, ‘pork barrel’ largesse to Conservative seats, or fast-track multi-million-pound Coronavirus contracts to donors and supporters. In this, the personal is political and these secret parties in Number 10, hit at the Prime Minister’s core message and significance.
For two decades, we were all invited to the Boris Party, as it was purveyed by his friends in the media. We could all laugh at the awkwardness of him getting stuck on a zip wire as Mayor of London during the 2012 Olympics, and turn into a triumph. We could all shrug our shoulders at his multiple partners, an unknown number of children, and turn a blind eye to the girlfriends who got public grants and VIP treatments on his trade missions. Whether it was bulldozing down walls, wrestling with cod in Grimsby fish markets, or sharing a pint with Tim Wetherspoon, Johnson was portrayed as the ‘politician we could have a beer with’.
But now everyone realises that they could never really attend the Boris Party. The promise was hollow: the invitation invalid. But he kept on partying while we were locked out in the cold. And now the scorn of the populace is insurmountable.
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The Limits of Libertinism
Lobby correspondents often observe that Johnson doesn’t really have strong support in the parliamentary party. For all his affability in a crowd, as many who have met him note, Johnson can be cold and awkward in one-to-one encounters. His Westminster base is thus weak, and very much purchased on the back of his electability. Beyond Parliament, the coalition he coalesced was always a ragbag of fractious elements: a mixture of liberals, libertines and libertarians.
Some elements of Johnson’s ‘rump Trumpery’ hold fast. The pub bores of Spiked Online or GB News, and their hot contrarian takes, still try to stoke the anti-woke ‘culture wars’ on Johnson’s behalf over race, identity, immigration and imperial measures and statues. He has outsourced most of this post-colonial ‘divide and rule’ to Priti Patel at the Home Office, whose combination of draconian legislation and complete incompetence, can only appeal to the hardcore UKIP vote for a short time. And it doesn’t win elections.
Big wheels have fallen off the Johnson bandwagon. Cummings’ departure within a year of the 2019 election victory was a sign that the techno-libertarian wing of the Vote Leave campaign was losing faith in him, and the resultant leaks about the Coronavirus era amplified by Cummings have become catastrophic. With the open rebellion of MP Steve Baker, the transatlantic lobbying wing represented by the European Research Group and Conservative Way Forward has been lost. It combines both the Anglo-American avatars of deregulation, with a strong right-wing Christian base. They barely tolerated both his failures to lower taxes and his lack of personal probity. Now they deplore him.
As ‘Red Wall’ voters are up in arms about the lockdown-breaking parties, so too are the old-school Tory voters in the shires who are also feeling ‘left behind’. They can hardly be impressed by the new glaring examples of Johnson’s lack of seriousness, duty or candour – resulting in his apology to the monarch for the parties held in Downing Street the night before her husband’s funeral. This can only compound the allegations he deceived the Queen over the prorogation of Parliament in 2019. More flag-waving will not impress them.
The Red Wall has gone. The Blue Wall is crumbling. US Trumpocrats can hardly help. The only glue holding this disparate alliance together was Boris Johnson’s popular appeal. And it’s now a self-enforcing spiral. With all virtue gone, all that is left of him are his vices.