The Opportunist Triumphant

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson; drawing by John Springs

In October 1922 Conservative members of Parliament voted to fight the next election as a separate party, calling time on their coalition with the Liberals, with whom they had governed Britain since 1915. David Lloyd George resigned immediately as prime minister, never to hold office again. Over the next twenty-four months, there were three general elections, four governments, and four prime ministers. So the recent turbulence of British politics, with its three elections and three prime ministers since May 2015, wasn’t unprecedented. In October 1924 the Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin swept away the first-ever Labour government in a landslide, and in December 2019 the Conservatives under Boris Johnson likewise routed the Labour Party. Baldwin was educated at Harrow and Cambridge and was at one time president of the Classical Association; Johnson went to Eton and Oxford and likes to parade the classics.

And there the comparisons end. Baldwin had damned Lloyd George—“A dynamic force is a very terrible thing; it may crush you, but it is not necessarily right”—in words that could apply to Johnson, who has been compared to Disraeli and even Churchill but may resemble Lloyd George more than either. “His rule was dynamic and sordid at the same time,” A.J.P. Taylor wrote of “LG”; “he repaid loyalty with disloyalty,” and, not least, he was “the first prime minister…since the Duke of Grafton [in the 1760s] to live openly with his mistress,” until now. “A very terrible thing” describes how his enemies and critics see Johnson, but he has certainly crushed them. By backing Leave in the 2016 referendum on British membership in the European Union, seizing the leadership of the Conservative Party last summer, precipitating an election, and then winning a large majority, he has achieved total command of domestic politics.

In October Johnson called for Britain “to be released from the subjection of a parliament that has outlived its usefulness,” which one commentator called “appallingly fascistic” words, but they worked. The parliamentary stalemate of the past three years is broken. Any forlorn hopes of somehow reversing the result of the referendum are finished, the Brexit legislation has been passed, and on January 31, after forty-seven years “in Europe,” the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

How did this startling turn of events come about? In 2015 David Cameron and the Tories confounded the pundits by winning a parliamentary majority. As I wrote in these pages at the time, a real portent at that election was the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the right-wing Europhobic party led by Nigel Farage.1 UKIP has only ever elected one MP to Parliament, but in 2015 it won 12.6 percent of the popular vote, and its candidates ran second in 120 districts, forty-four of them held by Labour. Farage has never himself won a parliamentary seat, but he has some claim to being the most influential British politician of…

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