Reconsider celebrations – consider the other characters
The government issued lockdown restrictions on 20 May 2020, calling on the public to limit their interactions to one-on-one outdoor affairs. Senior aide Martin Reynolds then emailed more than 100 Downing Street staff to invite them for a ‘bring your own booze’ garden party. Two leaving parties are also reported to have occurred on April 16th. Boris Johnson, though at Chequers for the parties on the 16th, claimed he believed the party on the 20th was a work event.
It’s fair to say that this doesn’t reflect well on the government. In response, there have been numerous calls for Johnson to resign, including from senior Tories, which he in turn has rejected. Other members of the party seem to be rallying to the Prime Minister, including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Dominic Raab – although even as I’m writing this, the latter has just admitted that lying to Parliament would be a resign-inducing offense.
If Johnson resigns, what then?
Here’s the thing: people might want to be less enthusiastic about Boris resigning.
Take your finger off the caps lock key for a second.
I know, I know, fight the power, what about your performative twitter activism, etc. Listen:
If Conservative MPs can trigger a vote of no confidence in the 1922 committee, they can oust the Prime Minister. If Boris resigns, they then start a leadership contest, consisting of several rounds of votes, until they’re down to two potential replacements. Tory members then hold a final election, and the winner asks the Queen to appoint them as the new Prime Minister.
The key take-away here is that you are getting another Conservative.
I have this notion that a certain, not insignificant, number of people might think they’re going to get a chance to vote the Conservatives out of office. There is a ‘vote of no confidence in the government’ process, but not only is this law being repealed, it requires that vote to be sustained for 14 days and half of MPs need to vote for it. Conservatives have a sizable majority in Parliament. If you think there’s a chance of a general election being called, I’d invite you to wake up. Although, honestly, does anybody think the Labour party has even the prospect of being an effective government? I can’t see it, can you? Let’s look at the realistic alternatives…
Another Conservative leader. Who’s on the dice?
Rishi Sunak has probably got the best chance. The Conservatives went to Boris because Boris has a personality that could win them an election. Since then he really hasn’t had a chance to utilise his popularity-focussed abilities during the pandemic. Sunak also has some of Boris’ people skills but doesn’t seem as gaff-prone. He made an incredibly effective charm offensive out of the Covid-19 furlough money, personalising checks and making sure he was directly associated with the government financial help. He clearly has ambitions to become Prime Minister, and he is a public name, despite his popularity falling with the inevitable tax hikes in the wake of furlough. On the other hand, he’s relatively inexperienced and if he’s being effective as Chancellor of the Exchequer, at a time of significant financial uncertainty, perhaps keeping him where he is wouldn’t be a bad thing?
Elizabeth Truss is a Conservative favourite and has an impressive track record that wouldn’t turn off the average voter from any political camp; arguing against the sell off of forests, ostensibly in favour of academic moves to promote social mobility, and the importance of science in education. On the other hand, Liz Truss does seem somewhat old fashioned – railing against the convenience of calculators and arguing in favour of farming in place of solar panels on agricultural land. You can imagine a prime minister who is dead set on clinging to a pre-defined view of a world that no longer exists, but serves as a sort of psychological tether in the rapidly permutating maelstrom of the twenty-first century.
Jeremy Hunt is most remembered for his role as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care under Cameron and May and presided over the junior doctors contract dispute of 2015, featuring the first industrial action of its kind in 40 years. The new contracts for junior doctors would have done away with overtime rates for work between 7am and 10pm outside of Sundays. Their basic pay was supposed to improve and whole thing was said to be cost neutral, but opponents contended that no evidence for any such thing existed, and instead the changes seemed to indicate an increase in hours and a relative pay cut of 40%. Nobody likes you if you go after the NHS. Nobody. That fiasco hasn’t been forgotten. Putting Hunt in the driving seat is political suicide.
Michael Gove has run for leader of the Conservative Party a couple of times, but no luck just yet. He’s possibly best known for his position as Secretary of State for Education under the coalition government. Much like Hunt, he was not particularly well liked in that position, managing to receive a vote of no confidence from four separate education-related associations. On the other hand, he did cancel a £5.9 million prison contract with Saudi Arabia, voicing concerns about government’s predisposition to “beheadings, stoning, crucifixions and lashings as forms of punishment.” You can’t fault the bloke for that. Gove’s an interesting option, with a what seems to be a weird mixture of traditional old school elitist ideas about the order of the world and society, and some pretty reasonable opinions on individual liberty and responsibility. However, in as far as you can trust a politician of any kind, Gove is one of those characters who comes across as being constantly involved in some sort of scheme and you get the impression that given enough power, he might do some serious damage and nobody would know until it was too late.
Sajid Javid, a name you always recognise, but nonetheless seems to be a bit of a non-entity. Which, in comparison to some of the others on this list, might actually be a good thing. He is almost a generic template conservative, likes Thatcher, agrees with Ayn Rand (of course he does…) and sees himself as an underdog standing strong against misguided popular opinion, and is a former banker. No major upsets, an occasional legal threat for running his mouth, so either he’s a good boy or he’s good at keeping his dirt buried. Does he get points for not being an Etonian-bred member of old money, instead coming from pretty meagre beginnings in Bristol? He has been notably successful over the course of his career, which is both respectable and marks him out as a potentially capable leader. The question is, do you want a capable leader who agrees with Ayn Rand?
Is there anybody on the planet who likes Priti Patel? The Home Secretary seems to be universally loathed. If it’s worth anything, YouGov cites her popularity as 17%, I don’t know who those 17% consist of, but I personally don’t think I’ve ever heard a good word said of her, nor read anything concerning her in which she isn’t doing something seemingly openly malicious. Patel might be more reviled than almost all other conservatives. That’s quite the achievement. A militant Thatcherite, she’s been called up for a string of ministerial code breaches, including in 2017 when she was caught arranging unauthorised meetings with the Government of Israel for which she had to resign, prompting staff to literally sing in the halls. She has been accused of bullying and staff harassment, voted against same sex marriage, and seems to hold working people in contempt, writing “the British are among the worst idlers in the world” in co-authored book Britannia Unchained, seeming instead to champion the repressive working conditions in Asia as some kind of ideal. Putting her up as PM would appear to the public as the conservative party giving up all pretence of the weird mask of civility projected by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and really embodying their collective psychopathy. It seems that if you wanted an authoritarian leader who holds open contempt for their own population, Priti is the girl for you.
I can’t get rid of the idea that Dominic Raab is a bit of a sociopath. A character comprised of a series of status signifiers and what seems to be a preoccupation with projecting strength. Or perhaps it’s just the media who won’t shut up about his enjoyment of Karate. Seemingly quite proud, as illustrated by his response to the whole holiday thing a few months ago, he might be too inflexible in a position that requires a lot of bending over backwards. Take, for instance, his bizarre response to the BLM symbolic kneeling: “I’ve got say, on this take the knee thing – which, I don’t know, maybe it’s got a broader history but it seems to be taken from the Game of Thrones – feels to me like a symbol of subjugation and subordination, rather than one of liberation and emancipation.” While subservience is to be avoided, on that general broad point I suspect everybody agrees, it might suggest one of two things:
Either he really didn’t connect with the issue of the moment, which is concerning, given the prominence and ubiquity of the movement in relation to his job. Or else, perhaps the general impression of him setting himself up as some kind of political firm hand is real. If we go with that idea, the key takeaway is that he’s decontextualised the gesture from its intended symbolism to no real purpose, and reflexively projected his own associations onto it. Which might suggest that the strong man image is covering for quite a significant insecurity – and this in turn instantly gives any and every opponent of his a big target to aim at. I’m not sure anyone is all that capable of dealing with the kind of flak that would be purposefully aimed at that specific target if it were revealed to be true. The general experience seems to dictate that beneath the visage of every strong man is a very thin skin, and they are prone to lash out when pricked.
What needs to be said about Jacob Rees-Mogg? A walking talking Dickensian caricature. I think it may say something alarming that an unnerving proportion of the UK population seem to consider him to be the representative of some kind of ideal British man. Apparently devoting your life to larping an Oliver Twist extra is what passes for ‘authenticity’ these days. What benefit could Rees-Mogg in a leadership role provide the country? A very polite if not endlessly condescending series of engagements in a horrifically overly pronounced RP accent. Jacob Rees-Mogg as Prime Minister is like the ultimate conservative fantasy of an openly regressive political party by old money for old money, traditionalist mannerisms and roundabout speech patterns obscuring a profound and fitting Victorian bigotry.
Boris, for all his fumbling and bizarre monologues lionising the virtues of Peppa Pig World, is in fact possibly the best candidate the British public have when it comes to the Conservative party. He is a useful idiot – both to his party and to the people. You can rely on him to be nakedly self-interested, to be involved in vanity projects, various scandals and miscellaneous dubious events. On the other hand, he hasn’t done a great deal of practical harm. That might just be a result of the fact that he hasn’t had the time to do a great deal of anything. He is an archetypal opportunist, not a web-spinner, and I think he still wants to have some kind of public persona at the end of all of this because public relations invite new opportunities that translate into money. At the end of the day, that’s what Boris is about. So there’s reason to believe that, despite the devil-may-care attitude, he’s less interested in doing the kind of damage that less people-focussed politicians might.
Power is a dirty game. Hobbes, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Bruce Beuno de Mesquita, amongst various others, seem to suggest that there is little chance of a world in which politics can be both clean and effective. The ‘real world’ – if you’ll excuse the term – does not seem to permit it. I wonder if the ethical panic going around right now might be overly focussed on nebulous ideas around ‘moral authority’, to the detriment of the practical question of ‘what is’?
Given that dynamic, people might have to consider ‘damage limitation’ to be the most effective route, if only because the other candidates are a sight less scatter-brained and, counterintuitively, I’m not sure that’s in the public interest. Stepping back, it’s worth considering whether in comparison to the potential replacements, and despite the current drama, Johnson might be the least harmful option for Prime Minister. There’s every possibility that he might be forced out.
Don’t celebrate too fast.