Johnson will survive these crises because he can turn them into a story about Britain
On the face of it, politics in England is in a weird, almost delirious state. The governing party has been in power for more than a decade and now claims to want to solve problems it has either ignored or worsened. Brexit is causing calamities that show no signs of easing; and the government’s handling of the pandemic has been largely awful, with a cost measured in tens of thousands of lives. Yet Boris Johnson and his party seem so full of confidence that the Prime Minister has flown off for a mid-crisis break on the Costa del Sol.
The Tories’ opponents, meanwhile, boggle at how a rightwing politics seemingly composed of stories and unlikely visions – as well as outright lies – can be so successful. Labour looks disoriented and downcast, its politicians aghast at the contrast between the government’s “fantasism” and hard reality. Part of 2021’s all-enveloping strangeness, they seem to think, is the fact that Johnson affects to be so upbeat while so many of the relevant numbers suggest chaos and uncertainty. In fact, looking back, this is the one bit of the current picture that should be completely familiar.
Fourteen years ago, the American psychologist and political consultant Drew Westen published The Political Brain, exploring the predicament of the US liberal left after the Democratic party’s successive defeats at the hands of George W Bush. Westen’s basic points were as much grounded in neuroscience as they were in politics, and continue to speak as pointedly to Britain as they still do to the US. “When reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins,” Westen said. As he saw it, one key problem was – and still is – that liberals and leftists tend to be unduly fixated with “policy debates, arguments [and] statistics”.
“The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children,” Westen wrote, “because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be.” As I watched the Conservative party conference last week, those words once again came to life. Whatever the surrounding mishaps and stupidities, the occasion gave Johnson and his allies the chance to prepare the country for increasingly tough times by launching a narrative about our present “stresses and strains”, rooted in the two watershed events in recent British history: Brexit and the pandemic.
Clearly, the script they have written is partly a frantic attempt to deny their own lack of preparation and competence; and, under the pressure of real-world developments, such as rising fuel bills, it may yet begin to fall apart. But for the moment, that is not quite the point.
One sign of the effectiveness of Johnson’s basic story is how easily it can be paraphrased. The country’s politicians, he tells us, have dithered and dallied around aspects of our economy that are both dysfunctional and unfair. The vote for Brexit was a revolt against all this – and all those queues and shortages are direct, tangible proof that something very fundamental is changing. Taking back control was never going to come without costs, and a measure of chaos may be what it takes to finally manoeuvre our way to what the prime minister calls a “high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy”.
To complete this perilous journey, we are told, Britain must marshal the same determination and vision that led to its trailblazing work on a Covid vaccine. The only alternative, after all, is a return to the high levels of immigration that the vote for Brexit so comprehensively rejected. What all this demands from our leaders is optimism and the ability to survive trying times: qualities that, conveniently enough, the prime minister has in spades.
Many people won’t believe that story. But among its fanciful elements it draws on a few hard realities – most notably, the fact that the cracks in an exploitative labour market really have been papered over by the use of cheap labour from overseas. The narrative has an appealing element of audacity, taking a picture of supposed chaos and national breakdown and recasting it as a sign of hope. It also brazenly strides into political territory usually dominated by the left, and thereby says something powerful. Labour, Johnson implies, averted its eyes from the economy’s basic unfairnesses while it was in government – and in opposition proved to be away with the ideological fairies, and therefore unelectable. It therefore falls to the Conservatives to finally do something.
As the government does its best to shift into post-pandemic mode, it will not be idle. Some town centres will be done up; here and there, people will see modest improvements to public transport and roads; new “deals” will be done with places that have so far not been helped by devolution. The so-called national living wage is reportedly about to go up by nearly 6%; even if rising prices eat away at living standards, some people will still marvel at the novelty of pay rises.
And even if the country’s problems deepen and Johnson’s narrative is undermined, there are aspects of recent history that will shore him up. The pandemic caused the kind of disruption many people considered beyond anyone’s control, so you couldn’t blame the man in charge (a view of things that seems to be lingering). Fatalism and a reluctance to point the finger, moreover, are very English traits.
So too are the deference and collective masochism that have sometimes opened space for people on the right to characterise pain as the proof of policy success. No Labour politician could get away with telling people they may have to suffer for their own good; but before he was prime minister, John Major’s time at the Treasury saw him excusing recession and unemployment with the priceless words, “If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working – an attitude also evident in the selling of austerity by George Osborne.
The inspiration for both was Margaret Thatcher and the arguments she used amid the chaos of the early 1980s: “The tough measures that this government have had to introduce are the very minimum needed for us to win through … There are those who say our nation no longer has the stomach for the fight. I think I know our people, and I know they do.” Johnson’s desperate desire to be liked makes him an unlikely pretender to Thatcher-esque obstinacy, but this is the spirit he seems to want to channel.
Thatcher is relevant in one other sense. Part of her project was the creation of a political culture in which those at the top could claim that huge issues were best left to the market. Ever since, we have tended to have low expectations of our politicians and what they can achieve, which has created space for the kind of performative politics Johnson excels at. His supporters talk of grand projects and a new belief in interventionist government. But his forte, clearly, is storytelling, built on the belief that offering big changes can be almost as effective as actually delivering them.
Keir Starmer, in response, tuts at a mere “showman”, predicting that reality will soon bite. Even if this winter turns out to be as bleak as some people are saying, I would not count on it.
John Harris is a Guardian columnist