People still think Boris Johnson is reasonable – as long as that myth is alive, he’ll sweep a general election
As campaigning heats up, going high while the prime minister goes low won’t be good enough. Remember, Berlusconi won three terms in office
Does anyone give a damn about democracy?
I’m not being rhetorical. Or even that facetious. I’m sure if Boris Johnson stood on a manifesto of, say, stripping under-50s of the vote, people would be cross. But when it comes to a general election and we are alone in our plywood booths, pencils hovering between the Devil candidate and the Deep Blue Sea party, how many of us are thinking: “Hmm. Well, the prorogation did set a dangerous precedent... on the other hand, the speaker did politicise the role... I mean this latest amendment, section 20a, paragraph IV, makes a valid point...”?
Clearly, plenty of people are worried about Grieve amendments, Cooper clauses, Boris babadooks and the whole noirish bookshelf of parliamentary shenanigans. There are people in the streets after all, talk of sending Johnson to HMP Belmarsh, lawyers and academics and experts experts experts going “won’t someone think of the constitution!” in the manner of the Rev Lovejoy’s wife in The Simpsons.
But it’s all beginning to give me flashbacks to June 2016. When David Cameron and George Osborne believed their own hype, assumed everyone had as much to lose as they did from their referendum... and created the mess we’re in now.
I don’t mean to trivialise.
People do give a damn about democracy, of course they do. But it’s all getting a bit MEGO, as in my eyes glaze over. “A true MEGO,” explained The New York Times in 1973, “is more than a soporific piece; it is an article written about a subject of great importance which resists reader interest.”
Or, as Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s strategist, told his team: “The more hysterical Remainers become with a campaign to arrest the PM unless he surrenders, the stronger our position with the country will get. Most MPs do not understand how much the country hates parliament and wants someone to sort out this mess.”
You might recall how Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s so-called genius, “couldn’t get enough” of American progressive types getting all het up about minority rights and gender-neutral bathrooms and black people being shot by the police. “The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em,” he remarked. “I want them to talk about race and identity every day.” Johnson and Cummings want their enemies to talk about prorogation every day. Their bet is that people in Crewe and Nantwich and Dudley North just don’t care about that stuff.
The instructive example here might not come from America but from Italy, long at the vanguard of post-modernist populism. Johnson’s squirming appetites have often been compared to those of Silvio Berlusconi, hence: “Borisconi”. But now that he is in power, the parallels cut deeper.
I spoke recently with a professor of European law working on EU citizens’ rights post-Brexit. He had lived in Italy when Berlusconi was in his Forza Italia pomp. He described how every week, Berlusconi would commit some constitutional outrage: denouncing judges, prosecuting opponents, exempting himself from prosecution. Every week, academics and lawyers would explain how dangerous this was. Every week, middle class people took to the streets in the name of democracy and decency. But it didn’t really change things. Their concerns were too abstract for Berlusconi’s core voters.
As it happens, in 2003 Johnson interviewed Berlusconi in Sardinia for The Spectator and wrote a spirited defence of the Italian “alpha male”. Berlusconi had just been attacked by Anna Lindh, the Swedish foreign minister, for undermining western democratic norms. Johnson found that his sword “instinctively [flew] from its scabbard in his defence”.
Yes, it was “unsettling” that one man should command such commercial and political power, he noted. But three hours of Berlusconi’s hospitality brought him round to the view that Berlusconi exempting himself from the rule of law was “quite the done thing”. Besides: “[It] was never our goal, in this interview, to establish the dodginess of his business practices,” he continued. “We were trying only to judge whether he was on balance a good thing. Our answer ... is an unambiguous yes.”
Berlusconi won three terms in office.
As election campaigning heats up, this is how Johnson’s team will hope to frame things. Is Johnson on balance a good thing? (Especially compared to Jeremy Corbyn.) For the sentinels of English populism – the Daily Mail, The Sun, etc – the answer always has been an unambiguous yes. And while Johnson is increasingly toxic for some (especially Londoners, especially Remainers) many voters still believe that he is, at heart, a centrist. A liberal. A pragmatist. Not like other Tories. The idea that he is a criminal seems silly. The anti-Johnson forces will cease to seem so united as campaigning heats up. But no faction – Labour, Lib Dem, Green, etc – should assume that going high while he goes low will be enough.
The first point that needs underlining in those Labour-Leave heartlands is surely that this is all a big Tory mess: the dire state of schools, hospitals, social care, Brexit, your local high street, parliament itself... that’s where nine years of this lot have left us. Johnson, Osborne, Rees-Mogg, Cameron: what’s the difference?
Meanwhile, the cost of no deal needs spelling out in relevant human terms. Livelihoods ruined. Factories closing. The return of Irish sectarianism. Communities hollowed. At least 10 more years of nothing but Brexit. The fact that 31 per cent of the British public see it as a “clean break” is damning – but it’s also ground to make up. It might not be pretty.
It might involve children crying on the News at Six because Dominic Raab wants to take their medicine. It might involve a few more memes of Jacob Rees-Mogg slouching.
But there also needs to be hope. People’s concerns need to be heard and understood and acted upon.
Eventually, Berlusconi was replaced by an EU technocrat. That EU technocrat was in turn replaced by the even more unstable populism represented by the coalition of La Liga and the Five Star Movement. Italy’s problems haven’t gone away. Careful what you wish for.