There is a hypocrisy to my profession that I find especially galling; the rush to protect at all costs the feelings of mediocrity. All too often, those who are analytically on the money are pressured into somehow not mentioning this salient fact, if only to spare the feelings of the legions of inept snake-oil salesmen out there. On the other hand, the third rate disappear into a sea of one another, a school of fish of the overrated, who as quickly as possible change the subject from their egregious errors.
This is a terrible way to get better at anything. Political risk analysis resembles nothing so much as method acting. At the height of his powers, even the great Marlon Brando knew that he could continue to get better only if he dispassionately addressed what he did right in his performances, as well as what he had gotten wrong. In our case, as regular readers of this column well know, in getting “partygate” right months ago, there is much to be learned.
This past week’s Conservative Party leadership vote in Britain greatly favored the incumbent. First, with only a few hours between the referendum on Boris Johnson’s leadership being announced and the vote itself, rebels had almost no time to organize. Second, the prime minister started with the support of the 140 Tory MPs who were already on his government’s payroll — members of the Cabinet, junior ministers and parliamentary private secretaries. As Johnson needed only half of the MPs plus one to side with him (180), this was a monumental advantage. Third, the rebellion was largely leaderless and without focus, so there was no single person or idea to rally around.
Despite these awesome advantages, the result was a disaster for the PM. In the end, fully 41 percent of Tory MPs (148) voted to remove him. To put this in the proper historical context, his Pyrrhic victory came by the exact same percentage as that of Margaret Thatcher in 1990; two days later, she was unceremoniously turfed out of No. 10. Strikingly, it appears that fully three-quarters of Tory backbench MPs, who were free to vote as they chose, opted to rebel. As we have said for months, and again just last week, the prime minister was always likely to win the vote “ugly,” and be mortally wounded while carrying on. All of this has come to pass.
The UK PM’s present difficulties come down to the fact that the world changed, while he stayed the same
Dr. John C. Hulsman
What did we see that so many missed? A real understanding of Greek classics, Johnson’s personal biography and the history of the British Conservative Party were essential. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it so well: “Character is destiny.” A person making it to the top of politics in any country does not change their spots upon getting there. More often, overconfident in their abilities, they instead double down on seeing their character as an essential advantage that explains their worldly success.
In the case of Johnson, this classical way of looking at the world is confirmed regarding partygate, when he was on the one hand urging people not to visit their dying loved ones, while on the other he treated No. 10 as a nightclub. Yet, speaking just before the vote was called, the prime minister astonishingly said: “I’d do it again,” in reference to a drinks party he attended for a leaving colleague while the rest of the country was locked down. The gloomy Greek notion that people tend to learn nothing about their failings gave us a unique insight into how Johnson would react to partygate.
Second, the prime minister’s biography made it crystal clear that partygate was merely the foreground — Johnson was always overwhelmingly likely to get himself into some sort of moral difficulty. Whether being fired for lying while a high-flying journalist, his famously chaotic private life or his breezy, well-documented unconcern for the details of governing, his track record showed this was a train wreck always waiting to happen. In the end, Johnson’s present difficulties come down to the fact that the world changed, while he stayed the same. A cavalier disregard for the rules seemed interestingly eccentric in quieter days. During the mass tragedy of the pandemic, it instead seemed elitist, hypocritical and almost diabolical.
Third, knowledge of how the Tory party works is essential. It has been the most successful political party in modern history for one quality above all: A ruthless unsentimentality. Johnson’s ties to the Conservative Party have always been transactional. He did not work his way up through the ranks, but (as ever) jumped to the head of the line for the simple reason that he brought them electoral success in leftist London and broke the parliamentary logjam over Brexit in 2019. Now, with his winning ways deserting him, as Labour has an average eight to 10-point lead over the Tories in opinion polls, look for the party to defenestrate him within a year.
We cannot count on Johnson to do the decent thing and resign because, all his life, he has never done the decent thing. Instead, an enervating war of attrition is likely to follow, which could well gift the Labour Party victory in the next general election. All of this has been clear for a while, but only if we look at political risk through the right lenses.
• John C. Hulsman