The front page of Wednesday’s Daily Mail bewailed “a nation that’s lost all sense of proportion”. The paper remains a good barometer of opinion for a large chunk of the population, and many people will have nodded with approval at the headline.
The splash cited a political class fretting over the Prime Ministerial birthday cake while Russia prepared for war, but this was not the only incongruity at hand. Readers might also have wondered whether a lengthy investigation into alleged Downing Street parties was the best possible use of the Met’s time, especially given that this news emerged on the day a woman was murdered in broad daylight on a London street by a man who by all accounts ought to have been in its custody. Perhaps they also considered it curious that the fate of a leader who owed his position to nearly 14 million votes and an 80-seat majority in parliament seemed to depend so heavily on the judgment of a civil servant. If Boris Johnson survives it, the last few weeks might look quite bizarre in retrospect.
But that is not dismiss the charges against the PM. Many will be understandably aghast at reports that Johnson and his entourage ignored rules they had imposed on the rest of the country – or, to look at it from the other end of the equation, imposed rules on the country which they themselves evidently considered unnecessary. Even leaving aside the rights and wrongs, the political blunder is extraordinary: the government otherwise has a reasonably good story to tell on covid. After one of the most successful vaccination programmes in the world, Britain is the closest to any country in the northern hemisphere to being out of the pandemic according to Professor David Heymann of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (and if that doesn’t sound like something the government should get the credit for, imagine who would be blamed if the opposite were true).
Yet the party saga is only one reason for the slump in public approval for the PM and his administration. People’s relief and appreciation for the vaccines translated into double-digit Conservative poll leads that were never likely to last. During the crisis people were willing to suspend judgment and give ministers the benefit of the doubt, but the ebbing tide of the pandemic reveals what else is on the government’s agenda – or rather, what isn’t.
“Get Brexit Done, Unleash Britain’s Potential” was the crisp and effective slogan of 2019. No-one can deny that the first part was achieved in short order. We are still waiting for news on the second. Things were inevitably derailed by covid, but the Levelling Up White Paper – promised “later this year” in May 2021 – has yet to appear. The excellent aim of spreading opportunity and prosperity has been the driving force of the most successful Tory governments – promoting home ownership, encouraging new businesses, giving more people the chance to invest in industry, expanding university education and reforming welfare to make work pay all fall under that heading. What it means to Johnson remains an open question. Meanwhile, we see lavish spending on unreformed public services, higher taxes, and rocketing living costs spurred by the government’s own energy policies. The air of at least comparative competence that traditionally helps keep the Conservatives in office seems to have taken a sabbatical.
All these complaints are real and justified and help explain Johnson’s predicament. But at the same time, it’s important to recognise what isn’t happening. For the PM’s many detractors, the last few weeks have seemed a vindication. “See? Told you so” has been the theme. But disgruntlement with a leader is not the same thing as wishing you had never voted for him. Given the choice that was before them, vanishingly few will regret having helped send Johnson to Number 10. Still less will they repudiate the reasons why they did so. They really did want to get Brexit done, whether to see their own referendum vote honoured or to climb from the quagmire that politics had become. For many he represented a view of Britain that they shared, and which was a million miles from that of his opponents (he seemed to like it, for a start). Even Jeremy Hunt, whom I backed for the leadership, has said that only Johnson could have produced the amazing result.
Two years later, as the PM continues to give his many opponents the ammunition to eject him from office, they would do well to remember how and why he attained it. Some of them might also reflect that for all their talk of probity in public office, the thing they can’t forgive him for is that by delivering Brexit Johnson did was he was elected to do. But for his voters, that achievement was banked long ago. If they decide it’s time for him to go, it won’t just be because of warm Chardonnay in the Downing Street garden – it will be because there was so little else to remember.