Boris Johnson has risen on promises of a glorious future. Now all he has left is a painful gift | Andy Beckett

Jhe future was Boris Johnson’s great friend. During his many years of maneuvering for the Conservative leadership, he used fantastic building proposals such as ‘Boris Island’ airport to keep his national fame alive. During the dominant first phase of his premiership, he won over voters with huge Brexit promises. And he persuaded a party that had been in power for a decade – usually too long – that its best days in government were yet to come.

In a country that often feels overwhelmed by the past and gloomy about its prospects, Johnson’s relentless optimism was unusual and powerful. After years of believing politicians couldn’t do much, many Britons persuaded themselves that he would be different, despite his terrible record as a minister and lack of significant achievements as mayor of London. Any democracy needs periodic infusions of belief from voters if it is not to crumble into cynicism and utter apathy, and the personality cult of “Boris” has provided one. For millions of voters, he was a superhero who would somehow transform the country.

For a time, focusing on the future suited Johnson’s abilities and personality. He is a poor administrator but eager to please everyone; an attention seeker but averse to responsibility; an advertiser of his own authenticity but also a constant liar. Its flaws and contradictions are so numerous and obvious that dealing with the present or the recent past – temporalities where its performance can be scrutinized – rarely sits well with it. On the occasions when he tries to be serious in public, he only really seems comfortable sketching out a glorious future.

Increasingly, his party also prefers this delay. With the Tories’ miracle cures for Britain’s ills, such as downsizing and leaving the EU, accomplishing so little and doing so much damage since 2010, now is the time to judge their effectiveness, according to conservatives, is increasingly distant. . In 2018, future Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “The huge opportunity for [gains from] Brexit is in the next 50 years. If the often elderly Britons who had voted for Brexit had been told in the referendum, the Leave campaign might not have gone so well.

During Johnson’s first year and a bit in office, this kind of conservative futurism – which is sometimes nothing more than procrastination – received a certain intellectual energy and credibility from his adviser Dominic Cummings. He aggressively promoted his plans to reshape the civil service and the economy as a dose of realism, as a way for Britain to adapt belatedly to the modern world. But their ambition and scale, the fact that they would take many years to achieve, meant that they were also a means of avoiding the government’s current difficulties. And even after Cummings’ disillusioned departure from Downing Street in 2020, the government’s tendency to retreat into the future has continued. Last fall, Johnson attempted to cast the trucker shortage and resulting supply chain chaos as mere roadblocks on our journey to becoming a “high-wage economy.”

Yet since then, the future has become a far less reassuring place for him and the Tories. With the police investigation into Partygate continuing, the upcoming Sue Gray report, the deepening cost-of-living crisis, the Tories lagging in the polls, and his authority on loosening the party, the coming months in less are shaping up to be very perilous for Johnson – assuming he stays in Downing Street that long. And as his position weakens, so does the pull of his promises. There are still likely to be plenty of greats in the Queen’s Speech next week – a government that regularly calls its policies ‘globalist’ is unlikely ever to become modest – but an air of unreality hangs over the agenda of any prime minister whose the days seem numbered.

As his future grew dim, Johnson retreated to his other comfort zone: the distant past. In his 2014 book on Winston Churchill – published when his rival David Cameron’s prime ministership seemed in trouble – Johnson’s intellectually old-fashioned and decidedly selfish central argument was that “one man can make all the difference” in the event of crisis. Predictably, his response to the invasion of Ukraine became increasingly Churchill-aware. This week, he even deployed one of Churchill’s most mythologized phrases from 1940, telling the Ukrainian parliament that their country’s resistance to Russia was its “finest hour”.

But unlike 1940, Britain is not at war. While the government’s handling of the situation in Ukraine is one of the few parts of its performance that voters broadly approve of, Johnson’s impression of Churchill did not improve the government’s overall standing in the polls. Despite the efforts of Johnson and the tabloids, World War II may simply be too old now for most voters to feel moved when its British legends are invoked.

Unable to refer to the past to any great effect and unable to speak primarily of the future, Johnson was ultimately forced to conduct his politics in the present. He doesn’t find it easy. With his bourgeois airs and old-fashioned language – “humbug”, “piffle” – he was always a retro politician, in some ways, but the popular assumption is that it’s all a shrewd act. Yet much of contemporary Britain may simply baffle him. This week he seemed neither to have heard of famous TV presenter Lorraine Kelly nor to know the difference between Tyneside and Teesside – not great when campaigning for local elections in an area which is supposed to be high on the agenda of your government.

Johnson seems trapped in the present in another sense, too: too damaged to dominate politics again, but too devoid of obvious successors to be quickly ousted. Instead, surviving from week to week, playing for time, relying on elaborate parliamentary procedures, its political existence begins to resemble – with delightful irony – that of the remnants of the Commons beleaguered for the first months of his term as Prime Minister, before the 2019 elections. Second, Johnson treated their delaying tactics with contempt, as an obstruction of the will of the people; yet now he may be beginning to realize how they felt.

Prime ministers often age quickly. But these days, Johnson sometimes looks surprisingly wrinkled and pale — almost haunted. It could be the aftermath of Covid, or it could be a belated realization, that in politics, making lots of promises is ultimately not enough, even if your party and many journalists and voters want to believe it. As Cameron once told Tony Blair, as the end of Blair’s premiership was in sight: “You were once the future.”


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Edward L. Robinett