Robert Buckland gave the game away. The justice secretary was unlucky enough to get sent out for the media round this week, as the Matt Hancock scandal continued to pummel the government. And then, perhaps without meaning to, he accidentally revealed No.10’s operating principle.
It came on the Today programme, as host Nick Robinson read out a list of all the scandals which Boris Johnson saw no need to take action over: Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle, Priti Patel breaking the ministerial code over bullying, Robert Jenrick approving a development scheme in a way that benefitted a Tory donor, the No.10 flat refurbishment. On and on it went.
Buckland focused on the last story. “It was aired to death before the local elections and we saw the results there,” he said. “The public were not interested in the issue… The prime minister has his finger on the pulse of the nation and is supported, respected, liked and is a prime minister who is getting on with the job of delivering the people’s priorities.”
You have to get past the linguistic gibber-babble that typifies modern political communication, but once you do, the core message is right there for all to see. Buckland said the quiet part out loud. It doesn’t matter what the government does, because they have electoral support. The will of the people is the only principle they adhere to. And if that is secured, all other political values fall away: decency, integrity, transparency, standards in public life. None of it matters.
This didn’t happen by coincidence. It is the expression of a set political value which took hold of British politics during the Brexit referendum and has now become the default model of politics. It’s the consequence of populism.
The story of how this idea took over Britain starts, weirdly enough, with an 18th century Swiss philosopher called Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was a bitterly pessimistic man who was too pessimistic to be accepted by progressive thinkers and too eccentric to be tolerated by the authorities. Eventually, this pincer-movement of disapproval shattered his mind and he went completely insane.
He had an idea called the volonté générale – ‘general will’ – which sounds simple but is actually quite fantastically complicated. He believed that, in certain circumstances, voters would discover the right answer to the common good by a mystical transcendent expression of their collective consciousness.
Once it was arrived at, there was no need for further protections. You didn’t need individual rights to protect racial minorities, for instance, because that might contravene the general will.
You didn’t need to separate power into various functions like the judiciary, the legislature and the executive, because that would eradicate the purity of the general will. The general will was guided by a figure called the legislator. They would magically cultivate and understand it.
As you can see, it’s all the most terrible gibberish. Rousseau wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t even really proposing this as a way of organising society. Most of the people who have acted in his name have barely read him. But his theory evolved into a justification for an extremely primitive view of politics.
It stated that the will of the people was always right, that no other values mattered outside of this will, that a charismatic leader could magically channel it through popular intuition, and that liberal institutions like parliament and the courts were an illegitimate intrusion upon its expression.
The populist movement which has swept the world in recent years – from Donald Trump in the US to Brexit in the UK – functions according to the same principle.
Theresa May and Boris Johnson both framed themselves as a version of the legislator – the person who could interpret the general will. If judges ruled against them, they were “enemies of the people”. If parliament questioned them, it was prorogued. All these institutions – the judiciary, parliament, the civil service, the press – were surplus to requirements.
Johnson’s 2019 election victory seemed to offer the stamp of approval to this approach. Since then, strong Tory polling and local elections have provided all the proof that’s needed that, in Buckland’s words, Johnson “has his finger on the pulse of the nation” and is “delivering the people’s priorities”.
This is why the government is on a constant look-out for another culture war, whether it’s over statues, ‘white privilege’, free speech in universities, or the last night of the proms. Each of these stories helps them cement the sense that they represent ‘the people’ against an imaginary internal enemy encampment of liberals and cosmopolitans.
It’s also why they oppose the institutions who would hold them to account. At the moment the government is attacking NGOs and national heritage bodies like the National Trust for publishing material it disagrees with. It is launching a broadside against the judiciary in the form of judicial review reform and a long-awaited attack on the Human Rights Act. It is trying to silence protests with the policing bill. It is sidelining parliament by passing most Covid law without parliamentary debate. It is attempting to silence media scrutiny with an all-out war on the BBC.
And it’s why no other political value is seen to matter as long as the government enjoys electoral support: they can sabotage our trading status, impose a customs border within the UK, inflame tensions in Northern Ireland, catastrophically mishandle a pandemic, and engage in sleaze and corruption, as long as that electoral support continues.
Johnson is the perfect prime minister for the populist outlook. Throughout his career, journalists have marvelled at his ability to get away with things, whether it’s sleaze, or affairs, or lies, or even the complete inversion of his previously stated position on key issues.
A fish rots from the head and the entire government is now taking on the attributes of the man at the top. Nothing matters. No scandal or hypocrisy is pertinent. No act of national self-harm is relevant. Electoral support is the beginning and the end of all political values.
Buckland is far from the worst minister in this cabinet. In fact, he’s one of the best ones, although admittedly that is a laughably low bar. And yet even he has now fully internalised this world view: decency and integrity in public life only matter insofar as the public cares about them.
At the moment, there is a sense that they don’t. YouGov polling in late April found the prime minister had a trustworthiness rating of -22, compared to +9 for Keir Starmer. This complemented polling by Ipsos-MORI which found 35% of the public thought Johnson was trustworthy compared to 42% for Starmer.
And yet it didn’t seem to make any difference to people. Johnson’s net favourability remained unchanged that month, despite a barrage of stories about Downing Street flat refurbishments and ‘piles of bodies’ quotes. Starmer’s actually fell. The Tories enjoyed a 44% voting intention next to Labour’s 33%.
It’s easy to despair at this sort of thing. But there is a glimmer of hope. The public might not pay too much attention to stories about tendering contracts or flat refurbishments. But at certain key moments, stories cut through. And when they do, they cut through hard.
The Tory lead over Labour sank with extraordinary speed last year, from 26 points to zero during the Cummings Barnard Castle scandal. It recovered during the vaccine roll-out, but similar damage might have taken place over the Hancock row if he had not resigned. The Tory poll lead may be stubborn, but it is also shallow.
And just because the general polling seems unaffected by corruption stories, doesn’t mean the Tories can become complacent. On a more granular level, there are signs that it is inflicting localised electoral damage. Liberal Democrats on the campaign trail during the recent Chesham and Amersham byelection found that allegations of sleaze and hypocrisy were going down very badly with more traditional One-Nation Conservative voters in the south. They subsequently won the seat on a 25.2% swing.
The Tory lead is more vulnerable than people assume. And when it goes, they’ll have no other values to define themselves with. The fall will come. And when it does, it’ll be brutal and comprehensive.
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