Any minute now, no? Surely this is it for Boris Johnson. The party is over. He has managed to get away with it before, but, as someone yelled with relish at prime minister’s questions last week: “Not this time!”
The polls do indeed look bad for the first time in a long while, and a more troubling portent for the prime minister is how the “r” word – resignation – has become thrown about not as a far-fetched demand but as a real possibility.
But little of this should be confused with a meaningful and long-term change in voters’ attitudes towards Johnson and the Conservative party. That is an easy thing to miss amid the media circus of analysis and fortune-telling. The period after a large breaking political story involves such breathless commentary that it creates its own fables of fallen gods and a seething populace.
But look closer, and there appears to be much less pressure of the kind that we have been told has been “building” for days, weeks, months now, and which would be needed to topple Johnson. Listen to phone-in radio callers and you will hear people in despair at what they had to go through while No 10 was partying, but also many who, despite acknowledging that the optics are bad, do not think they amount to that much. “It’s disgusting,” a longtime Labour supporter who voted Tory for the first time in 2019 told the Guardian. “People aren’t going to stick to the rules when they hear stuff like that.” Then he added that he would probably still vote Conservative at the next general election.
To such voters, number 10’s parties can be infuriating but, at the same time, irrelevant. In the list of offerings that Johnson and his party make to the country, his uprightness did not feature in the brochure: moral fibre isn’t really what he and the government were elected for.
In that sense, Johnson is a contracted private service provider – as long as he delivers, then as clients, his supporters don’t really care what he gets up to outside of the tasks he has been hired for. Those tasks are broadly Brexit and a shiny, prosperous country where jobs and funds have been cut or confiscated from those less deserving.
Those two tasks, at heart, are about contempt for communal rule of law, and limiting sharing resources with others. They are about making our own minds up regarding which laws we would like thank you very much, and creating two classes of people. Flouting rules, and having a party because a privileged few enjoy rights that others don’t, seems not an aberration but quite in keeping with the English exceptionalism values that resonated with so many in 2016 and 2019. It is no wonder Tory supporters are not storming the gates of Downing Street.
In 2019, in the middle of a government shutdown triggered by Donald Trump’s demand for funding for a border wall with Mexico, one news report produced a chilling quote. Crystal Minton, an employee at a prison affected by the shutdown, told a reporter that she did not object to Trump’s objective of building a border wall with Mexico, just the way he has gone about it. “I voted for him, and he’s the one who’s doing this,” she said. “I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”
To Trump voters, there was a transaction, a sort of informal constitution, that ran parallel to all the codified principles of government and protocols of office. You take care of us, and reserve cruelty and disdain for others. At its heart, this transactional relationship is the one that binds many Conservative voters to Johnson, and his post-Brexit party.
The terms of this transaction are not even subtle or dog-whistled. “Taking back control” and “getting Brexit done” became the sum total of the government’s promises and manifestos. Over at the border, home secretary Priti Patel not only designs evermore cruel means of making life difficult for refugees, she performs that cruelty, marketing herself as a no-nonsense sheriff who is cleaning up this town.
The sub-clauses in the contract that flow from these two headline items all, one way or another, are about preserving the financial and cultural assets of Conservative voters. Maintaining an economy built on protecting private capital and property values, shifting the blame for low wages and unemployment on to immigrants rather than poor regulation of employers, and forging a synthetic supremacist national identity through relentless culture war posturing on colonial history, statues, flags and national anthems.
The strength of the deal is not just in its promises. Let’s assume partying in lockdown and cronyism do “cut through”. What is the alternative to this current Conservative contract? It might fray, but there is a vacuum in its absence. On the right, there is no other vision, other than perhaps one that only firms up the brutal terms of this transaction under members of the cutthroat Free Enterprise Group of MPs, who have none of the supposedly softening geniality of Johnson. So MPs will express disgust in private and come out to bat for him in public. The rightwing press will yell at him for letting the side down like a pantomime villain, but never contemplate a true alternative that will get in the way of their lucrative pushing of myths about the woke and immigrants. They will simply scold him then tell him to get his act together.
Even Labour has embraced the terms of the agreement, rather than challenged it. Keir Starmer’s criticism is laser-focused on Johnson’s character, but otherwise writes his own contract to the country around a cold financial logic that still trades in the same promises of deserved reward for hard work, where people get the share of the pie they are entitled to, rather than promoting an economy where dignity and prospects are a shared endeavour.
And then there is Johnson’s ubiquity – the way he seems to be everywhere in the country’s political and cultural life – and the numbed resignation that it breeds. In the same way that one death is a tragedy and millions are a statistic, one Johnson or Tory lie is a crime but several is just how things are, how the game is played. The impunity that got him this far normalises his behaviour, lends it an almost affectionate sense of familiarity, and results in even more indifference to what he does.
I make no prediction. Public sentiment is not a science, and things can change quickly. But I’ll make a wager. As long as the Tories hurt only who they “need to be hurting”, no frivolity or recklessness will be terminal. That is an indictment of Johnson and the Tory party, of course – but even more so of those who, whether comfortable in wealth or struggling in scarcity, have come to the conclusion that for them to win, others must lose.