It feels like only last week: the Conservative Party, with Boris Johnson as leader, charging to the most significant Tory election victory since Margaret Thatcher.
I remember sitting in the Daily Friend studio, in that gilded age of office-going and meetings where people actually met, and enduring the brunt of good-humoured collegial teasing: I’d just predicted with pompous exactitude that the Tories would win 368 out of 650 seats in the general election in the United Kingdom. I was wrong – they won 365.
There’s no denying that this stonking Tory majority of December 2019, since whittled down by resignation, by-election losses, and defections, was Boris Johnson’s victory to ‘get Brexit done’. While it was David Cameron who led the Tories out of the wilderness of opposition in 2010, and into slim majority government in 2015, it was Boris Johnson who had seemingly turned back the clock to days of single-party landslides in Britain.
It wasn’t difficult to see how he did it.
Johnson is a political beast of a different nature. In a word, he has learned to fake, if not sincerity, then at least authenticity. The entirety of his persona is designed to appear spontaneous, rigged to look organic: the oh-so-Winston jut of the jaw and stoop of the neck, the shock of chaotic hair, the bumbling deliberateness of this and that Latin phrase or obscure reference – to Ibn Khaldun, for instance, the Tunisian who beat Laffer to the identification of the Laffer Curve by about eight centuries – the Eton every-day man. In a remarkable achievement, he has cast himself as the toff of the ordinary people, one who is an extraordinary ordinary chap.
With this calculated eccentricity, Johnson constructed – like his hero Churchill – an anachronistic, familiar, yet nostalgic caricature of Britishness distilled into a man. If the slogan of the campaign to leave the European Union cashed in on the psychological voltage of the British national myth with the astoundingly brilliant and simple ‘take back control’, Boris Johnson encapsulated in his persona the most potent version of merging man and moment since Tony Blair understood the late-nineties, pre-noughties zeitgeist of the rather vulgar idea of ‘Cool Britannia’. Brexit as political and psychological moment, needed the stubborn, self-reliant optimism of a Churchill. Or a Boris Johnson.
Fascinating political phenomenon
The interplay between ‘man meet moment’ and ‘moment meet man’ found in the careers of politicians who make it to the top is a fascinating political phenomenon. Perhaps it’s a fiction conjured up in the effort to make sense of the currents of politics and opinion, but the notion of, at a given point in time, a shared attitude, a shared angst, a shared ambition, a shared anticipation held by the many individuals who make up a nation or country, is so fundamental to politics that we all, at some level, buy into it – we buy into the climate of thought.
When considering British leaders who have governed on the back of an electoral mandate, Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s injection of self-belief after the collapse of its status as a ‘great power’. John Major was the cool-headed safer pair of hands following the revolutionary fervour of Thatcher. Blair was the ‘Cool Britannia’ vigorous youngster that took over from the milquetoast Major. I suspect it’s no coincidence that David Cameron’s premiership lined up so neatly with the rise and decline of the ‘keep calm and carry on’ meme – Cameron exuded that sort of steadiness as the twenty-tens rolled in.
And Boris Johnson was the man to get Brexit done, a moment for the resurrection of British national mythology.
Influential leaders become the giants of their time because they are both formed by the moment and exert influence over it. As true as ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’ is, it’s equally so to say that ‘cometh the man who shapeth the hour’.
But when the moment passes, it’s practically inevitable that the man or woman of the moment passes with it. One could look at it so: the extent to which a leader shapes up to the moment determines the size of their initial victory in coming to power, while the extent to which they can shape the moment determines their staying power.
Perhaps it’s the rapidity of change in the era of social media, but the pendulum of public opinion swings so fast that political moments simply no longer last as long as they once might have. In fact, sometimes the pendulum becomes little more than a blur. Victim of the shortened lifespan of a political moment or not, Boris Johnson might well be yesterday’s man. He was, after all, elected to get Brexit done. Whether formally so or not, the British public believe Brexit to be done.
YouGov released a poll in October 2021 on the question “Regardless of how you view them otherwise, if you had to choose one British Prime Minister from the last forty years to have handled the Covid‑19 outbreak, who would it have been?” Only 9% said Johnson. 14% said Blair. Thatcher won out with 29%. It’s doubtful that Johnson would today score any higher than he did in October.
There’s an area of dead ground in history: the recent past. It is not ‘now’ enough to particularly affect the current moment, but not ‘then’ enough to offer insight through historic dissection. Perhaps this is why Thatcher won this interesting little poll. She’s history – but in the sense of her moment being far enough in the past that, in the broad public consciousness, she no longer affects the issues of the day. Yet, the impact she had on the moment and the extent to which she shaped the moment of her dominance still resonates like a low pedal note of a church organ.
Boris Johnson won the challenge to his leadership on Monday by a smaller percentage margin than Theresa May did a mere six months before her resignation as prime minister. The chances of Johnson leading his party into the next election are negligible. Soon, he is likely to be history – and a different type of history than Thatcher. He’ll be buried in the dead ground of the recent past, discarded technology not yet old enough to be considered retro or vintage. His moment passed; having lost his ability to shape it, Boris Johnson is now no longer the man of the moment but a creature watching his own demise.
In many ways, Boris Johnson doomed himself. As soon as Brexit was done, so was he. It could be said that Johnson extended his moment into the crisis of Covid-19, seeking to tap further into the Churchillian spirit. But then he chose a different ideological path from the stubborn, self-reliant optimism of British national mythology, opting for the massive expansion of the state, more Clement Attlee than Winston Churchill. In short, he lost his grip on the moment, and was unable to sustain the narrative that the hour had cometh and with it the man.
Hayek always warned against seeking to influence the moment, encouraging others to look beyond the issues of the day. And this is where ideology plays such a crucial part. It allows leaders to diagnose more than the problems of the day, and allows their governments to be more than symptomatic treatment.
Ideological identity and integrity is the only way for leaders to sustain their influence, the only way to extend the moment to which they are suited beyond the day.
This is where Boris Johnson allowed the moment to move on without him. Abandoning long-term vision and conviction for short-term symptomatic policy potions, he doomed himself. After all, if you seek to influence only the issues of the day, your relevance ends at sundown.
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