How has Boris Johnson come to be in charge? Even committed Conservatives must have been asking this over their cornflakes as they watched their indefatigable leader being overpowered by a mop. They may happily overlook the casual racism, the sexism and the gaffes. But how can a man who can’t count his own children (or mistresses) or stick to a core party policy become prime minister? How can a deeply untrusted person, who cynically ignores the rules of public life, present as the de facto leader of the British establishment?
Perhaps the more important question is what does Johnson’s elevation say about the political and electoral conditions that have enabled his kind to rise ever upwards?
For one, his ascendency suggests that the Conservative party has simply run out of a set of ideas it can unite behind. Johnson’s post-Brexit economic plans are more nostalgia fest than grand vision. The manifesto offers little beyond the partial restoration of the public services that the party has been devastating for a decade. Can anyone recall an innovative Tory policy idea in the last three decades beyond basic Thatcherism 101?
But his rise also tells us that the UK establishment has become socially and ideologically incoherent. Globalisation severely divided their ranks. Eton and Oxbridge may be overrepresented in recent cabinets, as well as in the judiciary and other elite pockets – but such pedigree means less among the more transient ranks of today’s international CEOs and financiers. In those circles, economic capital is the only cultural capital one needs.
Decades of neoliberalism brought a shake-up of establishment winners and losers. While City players reached ever greater heights, the old Tory shire faithful were pushed to the margins. As private business consultants and magic circle lawyers flourished, BBC top brass and Whitehall mandarins saw their public servant status diminished. Brexit is likely to produce a new set of elite victors and also-rans.
What this means is that Johnson’s policy flip-flops are acceptable because there is no clear direction of travel that unites either party or establishment. His incoherence should be seen in the wider context of elite incoherence. The elite can however only agree on what they don’t want: a Corbyn government. For that they need “an election winner” more than they need a big thinker. Many Conservatives held their noses and picked David Cameron and Theresa May for that reason. As Johnson survived whatever Ian Hislop or Ken Livingstone threw at him, they believe victory will surely be theirs again.
However, Johnson’s rise is about more than his perceived electoral value to his wealthy establishment donors and the party faithful. He is also there because his personal failings seem to matter less, either to his elite backers or to many undecided voters.
This is part of a wider problem. The deterioration of expertise and knowledge stretches much further than Johnson. He is not the only frontline MP who doesn’t seem able to master a simple brief. Professional politicians, of the kind who have come to lead the main parties in recent decades, have gathered little experience or specialist expertise outside the Westminster village. They have moved rapidly from ministerial post to post, rarely staying long enough to understand their policy areas. Their networking skills and media savviness gave them quicker routes to the top – journalism and PR experience were useful political apprenticeships. Johnson and his on/off allies, David Cameron and Michael Gove, all followed such pathways to the top of their party.
In any case, “expertise” has become a highly devalued commodity. The term itself is almost an insult and not just because Gove has said so. For years, politicians and business leaders agreed on the merits of an economic policy consensus that neither predicted nor explained the great financial crash. While leaders lauded their policy triumphs to the public, and the ranks of the super-rich kept rising, a growing number experienced wage stagnation, unaffordable housing, precarious employment and debt. Inequality kept growing.
Similarly, Johnson’s willingness to lie and bend the rules of the game to breaking point is only an extension of recent trends. In the 1980s the economic victors of the Thatcher revolution were those who were the quickest to disregard the mores of gentlemanly capitalism. The old corporate and City leaderships were ruthlessly replaced by those ready to ignore business traditions and long-standing relations. In the 1990s and 2000s, New Labour’s spin machine was notorious for its elasticity with the truth, be it selling the Iraq war or the merits of big finance. Now, institutionalised lying, obfuscation and dirty tricks are the new normal.
For the voting public looking on, all this means that the political classes in general are no longer seen as credible. Nor are government institutions, business leaders or journalists. British electorates are as volatile and unaligned to parties as they have ever been. Trust in even respectable news content has reached new lows. Social media fabrications, PR spin and lying authority figures – against the backdrop of an industry struggling financially – makes the task of reporting even harder.
Thus, in a world where politicians bluster, where experts are proved to be wrong, where lies and deception are commonplace, where neither politicians nor commentators are trusted, why not pick Johnson? Such failings are far from terminal. They weren’t for Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or Benjamin Netanyahu.
On the contrary, Johnson’s skill sets are to be prized by those who just want a winner. Teflon Johnson, with his carefully honed media shtick, is able to deflect all comers with a ruffle of his hair, a classics reference or Brexit rallying cry. The public knows he lies but his open acknowledgment of that can seem almost “refreshingly honest”. He is happy to publicly ditch any Conservative ally or policy shibboleth if it contributes to a victory (while signalling his traditional Tory credentials). In the dishevelled void that is British politics, why not pick a ruthless, Churchill-style leader to guide us out of the national existential threat that is Brexit? Such “strong” leaders are gaining in public support, in the UK as elsewhere.
One big question remains though. In the glare of a real national election, one taking place outside the Westminster bubble, will Johnson prove to be the winner the Tories and establishment assume he is?
• Aeron Davis is professor of political communication at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the End of the Establishment