In 1991 Margaret Thatcher accepted an invitation to speak in the city that had just ceased to be Leningrad and was now St. Petersburg again. As a demonstration of the ruthlessness that has made it so good at holding on to power, her own Conservative Party had deposed her the previous year as prime minister of the United Kingdom. She was, however, still a figure to whom Russians might look for advice on how to create a democracy. In her speech, she twice quoted Edmund Burke, the Irish thinker she called “the acknowledged father of conservatism,” invoking in particular his reverence for “ancient traditions, venerable institutions, and old identities.” She also warned her Russian audience that as they went about the business of creating political parties, they should remember the importance of personal character: “Politics always reflects the character and caliber of those who practice it—and of those who choose them.” If any of the budding Russian democrats who listened to Thatcher back then are still around, they may find some consolation in the knowledge that this warning has, of late, been as little heeded in her own country as in theirs.
At the end of July another recently deposed Tory prime minister, Boris Johnson, held a belated party to celebrate his marriage last year to his third wife, Carrie. Invitations to the event at the prime minister’s country house, Chequers, had already gone out, but a series of unfortunate events intervened. As Johnson’s hold on power became ever weaker, Angela Rayner, the deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, alleged that he was only staying on at 10 Downing Street because he wanted “a party at Chequers for his wedding.” To prove otherwise, a new, but suitably grand, venue was required. As has happened throughout Johnson’s career, a vastly wealthy patron came to the rescue.
The man who saved the day was Lord Anthony Bamford, whose company manufactures the JCB line of heavy construction vehicles. Bamford’s penchant for digging very big holes extends to politics. He is a major donor to the Conservative Party and was an important booster for and funder of the successful Vote Leave campaign that Johnson led in 2016. According to the Daily Mail, Bamford’s wife, Lady Carole, had her butler make regular deliveries of organic food from their country estate, Daylesford, to the Johnsons in Downing Street during the Covid lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.
Noblesse oblige: the Bamfords again took pity on Johnson and hosted his wedding party at Daylesford. The mood, reportedly, was one of “cheerful bewilderment,” lightened perhaps by Johnson’s joke that his ouster as prime minister was “the greatest stitch-up since the Bayeux Tapestry.” No one seemed to notice a far more poignant echo of the English past. Daylesford was the family residence of another once-powerful figure driven from office by allegations of lawlessness and venality: Warren Hastings, governor-general of India. In 1786 and 1787 Hastings was impeached by the House of Commons because, by his conduct in India, “the honour of the crown, and the character of this nation [had been] wantonly and wickedly degraded.” Johnson’s political epitaph could hardly have been more eloquently written.
Connoisseurs of historical irony may relish the identity of the man who drove the campaign to have Hastings put on trial for “publick corruption”: Edmund Burke. Burke himself regarded this as the achievement by which he wished to be remembered:
Let my endeavours to save the Nation from that shame and guilt, be my monument; The only one I ever will have. Let every thing I have done, said, or written, be forgotten but this…. Remember! Remember! Remember!
Or, as those who claim Burke’s mantle in today’s Tory Party would have it: Forget! Forget! Forget! It is not just that no one saw the joke in Johnson’s celebrating at the seat of a man the “father of conservatism” regarded as a disgrace to his country. It is that the Conservatives have become positively anti-Burkean in their embrace of amnesia. They forget Burke’s dictum in Reflections on the Revolution in France that “good order is the foundation of all good things.” They show contempt for “venerable institutions,” especially the rule of law and adherence to international treaties. Even more radically, they now base their claim to rule on the demand that the recent past—twelve years of Tory government and the glorious promises of Brexit—be forgotten. As they elect their fourth leader in six years, they have come to like a fresh start so much that they have made it almost an annual event. Burke, and indeed Thatcher, would find it hard to recognize those who claim to be their descendants.
Johnson’s elevation to 10 Downing Street in July 2019 was itself an exercise in willed oblivion. To pretend that he was fit for high office, his party had to forget everything it knew about him: his incorrigible mendacity, his lack of convictions or ideas, his notable incompetence as both mayor of London and foreign secretary, his personal and political disloyalty, his crass venality. The Tories bartered the Burkean values of good order and institutional propriety for the short-term popular appeal of the Boris brand. In return, they got a spectacular election victory in December 2019, and the extremist version of Brexit that the most zealous of them desired.
Yet one thing that can be said for Johnson is that he seems always to have had some idea that nothing in his political career was built to last. In his public mode of bumptiousness and boosterism, he insisted as recently as June, after 148 of his own MPs had voted no confidence in him, that he would rule until “the mid-2030s.” There are, however, in his nonpolitical writings, hints that he learned enough from his studies of classical Greece to know that hubris and nemesis are the closest of companions.
In 2007, when he was still a backbench MP, Johnson tried his hand at a children’s book. The Perils of the Pushy Parents: A Cautionary Tale is a weak imitation of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children (1907). In Johnson’s version the eponymous parents lament the casting of the child, for whom they have grand ambitions, as the hind end of a horse in a school pantomime:
We rather hoped the BBC
Would hire you as a news trainee,
And after that it’s our intent
To shove you into parliament,
Up the greasy pole and then
Propel you into Number 10!
But as it is, your school, God rot ’em,
Portrays you as some dobbin’s bottom.
Things do not go well for the parents. They end up rolling together off a cliff: “The voices of command are hushed./The pushy have become the pushed.” This last line may not quite have the majesty of Burke’s rhetoric, but it is a fine, and impressively prescient, summation of what happens when a horse’s ass is propelled up the greasy pole to Number 10.
In his bad but interesting novel of 2004, Seventy-Two Virgins, Johnson identifies himself with another, slightly more elevated pantomime character. His fictional alter ego, Roger Barlow, is quite sure that his political career is about to meet an abrupt and inglorious end on account of a scandal. He imagines his future:
By this time next week, he thought, there would be nothing left for him to do but go on daytime TV shows. Perhaps in ten years’ time he might be sufficiently rehabilitated to be offered the part of Widow Twanky at the Salvation Army hall in Horsham.
Widow Twankey (as the name is more usually spelled) is the archetypal pantomime dame and appears in burlesque versions of the Aladdin story. She is usually played by a cross-dressed man. When Sir Ian McKellen played her most recently in London, she complained of “my horrible ex-husband Donald J. Twankey.” It is not a bad name for Johnson himself, since the political persona he invented for himself was half Trump, half pantomime performer.
The thing about the panto, though, is that it is strictly seasonal. It is, for performers and audiences alike, a carnivalesque diversion from the routine and the serious. Johnson’s great triumph, the Brexit campaign of 2016, succeeded because he, more than anyone else, could make the act of leaving the European Union into a time of festivity. He made what was a decision of immense practical import appear to exist outside the time frame of the workaday British world. Philip Larkin once asked, “Where can we live but days?” Johnson succeeded, for a season, in giving an attractive answer: the British could live not in days or months or years but in epochs. In his first speech as prime minister, in 2019, he informed his people that they were now at the “beginning of a new golden age.”
For Johnson, Brexit meant that the previous fifty years of British politics, economics, and social change were, as he put it, “receding in the past behind us.” The country was “re-emerging after decades of hibernation,” or, to mix his animal metaphors, “leaving its chrysalis.” This was a holiday from history—not least, of course, from this century’s miserable years of Tory rule: the cruel and misplaced zeal for austerity under David Cameron; the challenges to the very existence of the United Kingdom from Scottish, Irish, and English nationalism; the fact that typical incomes in the UK are 19 percent lower than those in Germany, 10 percent lower than in France, and 6 percent lower than in Ireland. The notion that Britain had been in hibernation for decades before it was then awoken by the rising sun of Brexit was a way of putting that awkward recent past to bed. It is easy to see why this dreamtime is attractive to a party that has been in power for so long: the butterfly is not responsible for the misdeeds of the chrysalis.
This panto season of British politics could not last and neither, therefore, could Johnson’s premiership. His act ceased to be funny when ordinary people discovered that the joke was on them. Festivity turned sour when their real suffering during the pandemic was mocked by their prime minister’s egregious refusal to apply the restrictions they endured to himself, his family, or his staff, for whom Downing Street seemed to become a frat house where the party never stopped. Promises by his political enablers that a chastened Johnson would become a reformed character were undone (again with that strange honesty that he can sometimes summon from the mists of his mendacity) by Johnson himself, who told BBC radio in June that “if you’re saying you want me to undergo some sort of psychological transformation, I think that our listeners would know that is not going to happen.”
In this, at least, he was as good as his word. The proximate cause of his fall was his decision, when faced with accurate allegations that he had promoted a party ally whom he knew to be a serial sexual harasser, simply to lie about it. The deeper problem for the Tory Party, though, was not that he does not tell the truth—which they had always known—but that his dishonesty was becoming so petty and purposeless. Being so relentlessly untruthful about lockdown parties, or the redecoration of his Downing Street flat, or the sordid behavior of a minor political ally devalued the big lie of Brexit. For the Brexiteers, the proper use of Johnson’s talent for falsehood was in turning the leaden realities of leaving the EU into a golden fantasia. As a man for whom nothing ever had any consequence, he was the perfect medium for the message that Brexit, too, would be consequence-free. Yet now he was wasting his gift for extravagant fabrication on grubby little fibs—and making it clear that he would go on doing so.
In Johnson’s defense, it ought to be conceded that he might as well lie about the small things, because the big one is running out of road. For a hard core of English nationalists, Brexit will always be worth whatever pain it causes other people. For many of those who voted for it, a large part of its appeal was that it seemed so exciting. It is a genuinely historic thing to have done, a departure that will shape the lives of generations to come. But it has become tedious. On the political level, the argument has crystallized into a row with Brussels over the protocol on Northern Ireland that Johnson negotiated, claimed as a great victory, and then effectively repudiated.
Yet it has long been obvious that most English voters have very little interest in Northern Ireland. Putting its name together with that legalistic term “protocol” is quite the passion killer. And going to war with Brussels over a provision in the Brexit deal that Johnson assured voters was “done” does not cohere with the assurance that all difficulties would “recede in the past behind us.” Johnson promised a sweet amnesia, but his voters have been fed a dreary diet of leftover grievances.
At the more personal level, Brexit translates for most ordinary British people into the dull anxiety of declining living standards. In early August the Bank of England forecast a decline in real UK household incomes of 5 percent by 2024—the biggest fall since records began more than half a century ago. Some of the causes are common to other countries: the pandemic and the inflationary effects of the war in Ukraine. For the UK, however, these problems are exacerbated by Brexit, which, as the government’s Office for Budget Responsibility estimates, “will reduce long-run productivity by four per cent relative to remaining in the EU.” According to the Resolution Foundation, a nonpartisan British think tank, “a less-open UK will mean a poorer and less productive one by the end of the decade, with real wages expected to fall by 1.8 per cent, a loss of £470 per worker a year.”
The Brexit carnival is over, but its tents cannot be folded. This is a show that must go on. Historically, the genius of the Conservative Party is, as the political historian Tim Bale puts it, that it has “always been protean—shifting its shape, changing its colours like a chameleon to best suit the conditions in which it finds itself.” Johnson leaves it in a condition where it cannot change its colors because Brexit is written in indelible ink. The former Labour Party politician Denis McShane coined the term Brexternity, and it captures the paradox of Johnson’s legacy—his is a very short and flippant dalliance with power that will have very long and serious consequences.
Where can British conservatism go when it has rid itself of Johnson but cannot move out of the twilight monotony he created? Conventional wisdom last year was that the Tories would seek to reshape themselves around the young, sleek, photogenic, very rich Rishi Sunak, whom Johnson plucked from relative obscurity and elevated to the grand office of chancellor of the exchequer. Sunak seemed to have the right balance of ingredients. On the one hand, he was a true believer in Brexit and its mission to “remove the burden of Brussels bureaucracy.” On the other, his origins as the grandson of immigrants from India seem to soften the English nationalism that drove that whole project. He was loyal to Johnson through a series of embarrassments and outrages but jumped ship at apparently the right moment, when all but the most deluded could see that his time was up. Sunak exudes an earnestness and a technocratic competence that might, at other times, have seemed to offer both an antidote to Johnson’s fecklessness and a reassuring calm in the face of approaching economic recession.
Yet the membership of the Conservative Party (around 180,000 people, who are much older, wealthier, whiter, more male, more right-wing, and more likely to live in the prosperous south of England than the general population) will not choose Sunak. There are two big reasons for this and both are rooted in the mentality of Brexit. Sunak himself may have genuinely believed that the decision to leave the EU was all about the achievement of a standard conservative goal, economic deregulation. But Theresa May sang the real tune at the first post-Brexit Tory Party conference, in October 2016, when she railed against “international elites”: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”
Sunak naively believed that this did not apply to him, even though he embodies the international elite. He moved (after an acceptably elite education at an English private school and Oxford) to Goldman Sachs, to Stanford, to hedge-fund management. His vast family fortune comes mostly from shares that his wife, Akshata Murty, holds in Infosys, her father’s India-based IT multinational. Until earlier this year, Murty claimed “non-domiciled” status in the UK, saving her an estimated £2.1 million a year in British taxes even while her husband was in charge of the UK’s national finances. National-populist denunciations of footloose globalist elites may be intended, in contemporary conservatism, purely as fodder for the base. But the base’s appetite for this rhetoric is real and unsatisfied. When Secretary of State for Culture Nadine Dorries, a strong supporter of Sunak’s rival Liz Truss, tweeted about his “Prada shoes worth £450” and “£3,500 bespoke suit,” her meaning could hardly be called coded. Sunak has been burned by the fires of reactionary populism he helped to light.
Sunak’s second problem is contained in the most pointed sentence in the resignation letter he sent to Johnson on July 5: “Our people know that if something is too good to be true then it’s not true.” This was the elevator pitch for the Sunak succession: The British people are fed up with Johnson’s lies and crave an honest truth-teller like me. The difficulty is that what is most obviously “too good to be true” is the fool’s gold of Brexit. It is all very well, and undoubtedly welcome, to stop lying about wallpaper and sexual sleaze, but the promise to tell the truth is rather blunted when there is a far larger deception that must not be confronted. When the big lie remains compulsory, Sunak’s new era of honest Toryism could not but be stillborn.
The alternative to “too good to be true” is the strategy outlined to Katy Balls, the deputy political editor of the pro-Tory weekly The Spectator, by an unnamed MP who is supporting Truss, the woman who is almost certain to be the next British prime minister: “If people think there is an imaginary river, you don’t tell them there isn’t, you build them an imaginary bridge.” This imagery could hardly be more apt as an indication of Truss’s intention to carry on where Johnson has unwillingly left off. Building imaginary bridges—across the Thames, across the English Channel, even across the Irish Sea—was his signature fantasy of untrammeled power. But the quote in fact repeats advice given by one soon-to-be-deposed leader to another: Nikita Khrushchev said it to Richard Nixon. That Truss seems happy to take her cues from such sources is an indication of what might be expected from her premiership.
One way to think of Truss is to recall Larkin’s bleak lines about how your parents “fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.” Politically speaking, Truss’s parents are the last two Tory leaders, May and Johnson, and she has inherited many of the faults of both and few of the strengths of either. She lacks May’s integrity but has her strangely robotic persona—Truss speaks in the manner of an actor who has entirely forgotten her lines and is being fed them through an invisible earpiece. And though she is not, like Johnson, lazy (she is, if anything, manic), and lacks his charisma, she has his unprincipled opportunism, carelessness about truth, and habit of blaming everyone else for his own mistakes. Truss was a wild liberal before she became a reactionary. She strongly supported Remain in the Brexit referendum of 2016, before she became an arch-Brexiteer. In her leadership campaign, she suggested cutting the salaries of public servants who live outside of London, then flatly denied doing so and blamed the media for quoting her own press release. Ideas and truths matter to her only as servants to her ambition.
Truss will take the Tories further down the only path that is open to them, that of anarcho-authoritarianism. Like Johnson, she projects herself as a rebel against authority: “I hated being told what to do and that has driven my political philosophy.” She put forward the legislation that allows British government ministers to break international law by tearing up the Northern Ireland protocol. She has indicated her willingness to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights.
This outlawry is underpinned by the language of piracy. A chapter in Britannia Unchained, a 2012 book cowritten by Truss and other rising Conservative politicians, is titled “Buccaneers” and quotes Steve Jobs approvingly: “It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.” It concedes, with evident reluctance, that “law and order” are “on the whole beneficial.” But it hankers after an ideal of “capitalism as chaos,” the magic that happens “when nearly all society’s strictures are relaxed.” Hence the claim by Truss’s supporter David Frost, who led negotiations of the Brexit deal with the EU and is widely expected to have an important role in a Truss administration, that “what needs to be done [by the new prime minister] will be turbulent and disruptive.”
This promise of disruption is all that remains of Brexit. It can function now only as a fantasy of liberation, not from Brussels but from all restraint on the making of money. Truss’s language evokes a Britain whose only real problem is that its natural exuberance has been constrained by regulation. Hence the recurrence in her rhetoric of “unchain,” “unleash,” “unshackle.” But, as in current US conservatism, these images of freedom must go hand in hand with their opposite. When she is not talking of unshackling everything, Truss is promising to “crack down” on everything. The chains that are to be taken off the moneymakers will be clamped on much of civil society.
In her speeches, and in the way they are reported by her fans in the Tory press, she has promised, so far, to “crack down” on “militant” trade unions, on civil servants who are working from home, on Chinese companies like TikTok, on onshore renewable energy projects, on “unfair protests” by climate activists, on “antisocial” behavior, on illegal migration, and on the “excessive caution” of financial regulators. She is even promising to repress criticism of the dire condition of post-Brexit Britain, warning the democratically elected first minister of the devolved administration in Wales that “I will crack down on his negativity about Wales and about the United Kingdom.” In the pantomimes, it is customary for the audience to cry out against certain assertions made by the characters: “Oh, no, it isn’t.” In this next version of the show, those who dare to make that call will be ejected from the theater.
September 22, 2022
‘Hell, Yes, We Are Subversive’