During the 2008 London Mayoral election campaign my local paper, The Croydon Advertiser, asked a series of questions of then-Mayor Ken Livingston and Conservative candidate Boris Johnson about issues in the borough. Ken’s answers were as I recall perfectly adequate, but Boris’ I remember thinking at the time were written as if he had been a lifelong resident and his heart would always be in the town. Eight years later reading Zac Goldsmith’s answers to a similar set of questions, I thought he came over as if he had never been to the borough, had no intention of ever visiting, and the best we could hope for was he might mention the place to his staff in passing. Why am I writing about this? Well, it was clear Boris knew how to get a crowd onboard. Also, with Croydon being one of those outer London boroughs, a Conservative Mayoral candidate needs to pile on the votes to have any hope of winning. In stark contrast to the next Tory candidate, he or his team knew this interview mattered.
By the time Boris left office as Mayor, he had returned to parliament and was the leading light of the Vote Leave campaign. At the time it was often remarked he was one of only two politicians in the country who could stop traffic and would have cheering crowds wherever he went – the other being Nigel Farage. He delivered, at least in part, Brexit. The man who broke the Red Wall to win a stonking majority in the end simply ran out of steam.
What will be Johnson’s legacy? My personal view is I believe him to be the worst Prime Minister in British history. Johnson was the man who placed in a form of house arrest sixty-seven million healthy people based on a computer model. The evidence from Sweden, and across the United States where similar states had radically different lockdown policies shows his withdrawal of our freedom didn’t save any lives. Indeed, the economic calamity, social impact and changes to our lifestyles may well be responsible for the ongoing increase in excess deaths. A policy started no doubt with the best intentions, stole our freedom, crushed our economy, set a precedent which future governments may reuse, was implemented by this megalomaniac who partied while the locked-down people suffered. However, I am aware, all too many were willing to accept lockdowns. So how do I believe he will be more generally viewed?
Boris campaigned in 2019 to “Get Brexit Done”. In that election he not only saw off the threat of Corbyn, but he also cemented a new Conservative coalition that broke the Red Wall and enabled us to retain our nations democratic traditions by delivering Brexit. It’s worth thinking through a counterfactual on delivering Brexit. Boris was handed Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. He had two choices, make the best of that, or scrap it and try to get a more complete Brexit deal through a Remain voting parliament. With new parties being formed to stop Brexit, the Supreme Court and the House of Commons Speaker doing all they could to block the will of the people, Boris had little choice but to plough on with the deal he had. Once he had won that eighty-seat majority on a manifesto that included that deal, he had little choice but to deliver it. The Remain crowd arguably lost because they would accept no compromise. Their attempts to stop any form of Brexit meant we had to, at least for Great Britain, fully leave. Boris making the best of the cards he had been dealt, with help from the Brexit Party standing down candidates, took the only practical steps available to get us out of the European Union.
In winning that majority, Boris oversaw the completion of a journey that had been taking place for some years. Working class voters, who had traditionally voted Labour, moved from voting on predominantly economic grounds to more cultural and specifically patriotic grounds. Many of these voters had moved to the Conservatives, via voting UKIP or Brexit Party. With the Brexit Party stood down and UKIP imploded, Boris’ Conservatives rather than Brexit-betraying Labour became their natural home. At the time of writing, voting for the next leader is about to get underway. Whoever wins needs to retain that coalition of suburban and country middle class, and patriotic working-class voters for the Conservatives to win the next election. The children of the middle classes are increasingly voting Labour following their university educations, the Tories need working class voters to stay focused on cultural rather than economic issues. To secure this the next Prime Minister should act on the following:
- Immediately ease the cost-of-living crisis by suspending or better still removing Net Zero targets and reducing environmental obligations and VAT on energy bills.
- Get the economy going, by cutting taxes, speeding up the opening of free ports and opening fracking sites.
- Stop the cross-channel traffic of illegal immigration. No government can claim competence when it can’t even defend our sea border.
- Take a stand for free speech. Most areas of the culture war are a minefield, the Conservatives don’t want to be seen as the nasty party, but they can take a stand for free speech. In doing this they can pitch themselves as standing up for the little guy against the social media giants of Silicon Valley, which will resonate with direct speaking working class voters and older voters who grew up proud we were part of the free world.
Failure to act to retain the new coalition will not only see the Conservatives leave office at the next election it will destroy what little is left of Johnson’s legacy.
This article originally appeared in the Blacklist Press, Free Speech bulletin 18th July 2022.