This article originally appeared in our Elevenses newsletter.
Good morning. On the evening of December 12th, 2019, I sat at my computer and penned an obituary. Moments earlier exit polls had been released indicating that a sizeable Conservative majority was on the cards, with Red Wall seats turning blue in places like Bolsover and Wakefield. It was my belief that the results set a precedent that you can lie, cheat and evade scrutiny and get away with it, with the run-up to the vote being mired by missed interviews, doctored videos, fake fact-checking stunts and phoney manifesto tricks. It felt as though a small piece of democracy had just died, one that we would have to wait years to get back.
Of course, Boris Johnson’s long march to becoming prime minister started many moons before that crisp winter’s evening in December. In fact, it had started on 16th March 2016 when he filed the ‘Leave’ version of his column to the Daily Telegraph, citing “ludicrous EU rules” concerning age restrictions on blowing up balloons and blocks on recycling teabags among his reasons for wishing to leave and playing down “exaggerated” concerns that the split might have any kind of negative economic impact. In the months and years ahead, he would allay similar concerns over whether there would be a border down the Irish Sea – over his dead body – and continually sweeten the pull factors by pledging to give the ‘£350 million’ we send the EU every week to the NHS, something he could never or would never do.
But Johnson has always been a shrewd and talented campaigner, and it was his ability to package complex issues into easy-to-digest packages that allowed many of the big issues to remain shrouded. People voted to ‘Take Back Control’ in 2016 and then voted to ‘Get Brexit Done’ in 2019. They understood ‘Levelling Up’ and ‘Build Build Build’ and the litany of Covid slogans that were festooned on government lecterns throughout the pandemic. But they were merely icing sugar on what was otherwise a very rotten cake. While Brits were being ordered to stay at home at all costs, Downing Street staffers were wheeling suitcases of booze into Number 10. While borders were being drawn down the Irish Sea, Republican parties were being elected in Stormont. Often, no sooner were manifesto pledges drawn up had they been broken, with tax rises, pension locks, ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ projects and hospital promises all binned. The slogans, ultimately, were empty ones.
Yet in the end, it was the ‘gates’ rather than the slogans that hammered the final nail into Johnson’s coffin after a long and drawn-out exit which saw him peppered with so many resignation letters – ‘use them as wallpaper’, was the common trope – that he had no option but to step down. Partygate, Porngate, the Owen Paterson affair, the Chris Pincher affair, the illegal prorogation of Parliament, the Covid inquiry that hasn’t even started taking evidence yet. Each on their own merit would have been enough to take down an administration in any normal time. But these are not normal times we live in – his historic 2019 election win should have warned us of that. Truth and decency have been ripped from our democratic systems and until they are restored we will continue on this ruinous cycle until we face up to the facts. Our relationship with Europe isn’t a three-word slogan, our economy is tanking and public sector services are on life support. No matter how uncomfortable, the job of the next administration is to get real with the public about that.
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