Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson recently celebrated a full year in office. It’s been a pretty eventful year, starting with the culmination of a long battle to remove the previous incumbent, through a fraught general election (which he of course won handsomely), the official departure of the UK from the EU and now a global crisis of historic proportions.
It’s a job he always wanted, apparently from early childhood, and so achieving the goal should have been momentous. And maybe it was for a short while, but it seems the enormity of what he had taken on hit him early, and hit him hard.
The arrival of Johnson into Number 10 and the subsequent defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party heralded a new dawn in a politics that had been characterised by thin margins and difficult backbenches for the previous 10 years. He could govern freely. But what was it all really for? Why did he want it? For what point and purpose was he to obtain this office and level of power?
We all know who and what Jeremy Corbyn was. He never hid it and never really changed, even as the decades went by. It’s not difficult to imagine what a Corbyn premiership would have looked like, especially if he had a whippable majority the likes of which Johnson now enjoys. Whatever your view on the guy, he had principles and plans. We can imagine the country’s relationship with Israel would have changed significantly, rail companies would have started to move into public ownership, taxes would have risen, wealth taxes introduced, private schools abolished, the works.
But turning back to the chap who actually won – what does he stand for? What does he believe? And why does he want this job? When he got into Number 10, what was the driving vision, the force, the true goal of being there? What troubled him so greatly about the state of the nation that he was determined to lead it? What made him tick? Well, it’s difficult to pinpoint. But surely there are clues in his background and writing?
Most notoriously, he apparently penned two articles for the Telegraph before the referendum campaign kicked off – one in favour of Leave, one in favour of Remain. There are charitable readings of this, there are slightly less charitable ones. But the plain fact remains – he didn’t know.
In fairness, once he had chosen, he stuck to it, and continues to do so. But this is surely due more to political reality than any real conviction on the matter. He had readily and viciously attacked Britain’s membership of the EU in the past – but it suited him just fine back then, when it was all easy and hypothetical and grew his audience. Then it became easier to be its defender when he obtained office, so he did that. Does it bother him that much?
And then we come to the latest drive to ‘combat obesity’. I make no remark on the validity of this strategy, the requirement for it, nor even whether this is something that should or should not be happening. But again, less than a year into securing the top job, he shows all his previous utterances to be mere vapour.
One would have got the impression from his many columns and writings on the topic that Mr. Johnson was not just an advocate of the freedom of the individual, but positively rabid on the subject of so-called ‘nanny state’ intervention. Yet the second he takes a briefing from PHE on the matter, he’s a convert. What drives this? And how did that happen so fast?
As recently as July of 2019, he promised a review of so called ‘sin taxes’, vowing to end the “continuing creep of the nanny state”. He said the new taxes would “clobber those who can least afford it”.
Looking back to his column history, in 2004 he wrote a piece headlined “Face it: it’s all your own fat fault”. In it, he argued that “the more the state tries to take responsibility for the problem, the less soluble the problem will become”. Seems pretty straightforward. But years ago, right?
A couple of years later, he attacked Jamie Oliver for trying to introduce more nutritious food into schools. “If I was in charge I would get rid of Jamie Oliver and tell people to eat what they like”. Well now you are in charge, Mr Johnson. He allegedly also said of mothers who were pushing ‘unhealthy’ food through the railings of their children’s schools, “I say let people eat what they like. Why shouldn’t they push pies through the railings?”
He also used his Telegraph column to rail against the ‘cack-brained’ EU plan to introduce compulsory child booster seats up to the age of 12, claiming they were “poking their noses into the back seats of our cars”. Compulsory face coverings anyone? No state intervention there, no siree.
Perhaps an inkling as to how he might deal with a national health emergency came in 2012 when he penned a column headlined “To swim, perchance to drown, is an undeniable human right”. He was responding to a Port of London decision to ban swimming in the Thames without a permit. The driving message was that risk taking is part of life and that people should be allowed to do so without the nanny state wagging it’s bony finger at us. Ahem…
His flowery language, as has been typical of Johnson over the years, didn’t hold back: “this river-swimming ban is of a piece with the namby-pamby, risk-averse, mollycoddled airbagged approach that is doing so much economic damage to Britain”. Does this sound like the kind of man who, if ever trusted with power during a pandemic, would impose a lockdown, restrict freedoms, ‘mollycoddle’ and ‘airbag’ a ‘namby-pamby’ and ‘risk-averse’ population? Again, I make no comment on those policies such as they are, but why did Johnson, of all people, impose them when he has always set himself up as a defender of liberty against the strong arm of the state? If he really believed the state does more damage than individuals free to make their own choices, why did he not stand on that principle when it really came to a head?
This is not an argument for or against lockdowns or masks or anything like that. It’s a point about what different leaders would do when faced with these challenges. Lockdown wasn’t inevitable, nor compulsory face coverings. Other options were, and still are, available. You may believe these things to be vital, but ask yourself: why would a libertarian styled leader take these routes?
It goes without saying that having had Covid-19, and had it badly, that that would have an effect on him. A close brush with mortality would be enough to scare anyone. I have no wish to take away the impact that would have had.
But principles long held are typically difficult to shake. Those previously mentioned ‘nanny state’ columns were written when he was hugely overweight. He is still overweight – so what else changed? At the moment it feels like the walls crumble just a little too easily. As though the typically pro-immigration PM might suddenly become a Farage-style drawbridge puller, or become a puritanical religious believer, or start believing that Churchill was really a racist and should be erased from our collective memory.
Is this uncharitable? Perhaps. It’s just hard to watch this without imagining that it would simply not have happened with any number of other leaders. Imagine for a second that Corbyn had become the PM and secured a healthy majority. The way Johnson has behaved since taking office is like Jeremy Corbyn agreeing with Netanyahu that the West Bank settlements should be annexed, introducing a tax cut for the wealthy, repealing the sugar tax and sending a birthday card to Donald Trump. Maybe even writing a leader for the Telegraph, reintroducing grammar schools, expanding Trident and outlawing industrial action. All completely anathema – but of course, we always knew who he was and what he thought, so that would all have been crazy and straight of the blue.
Yet with Johnson, we just nod along. As though this is always what he thought and that it’s ok to, not just slightly bend your principles for the purposes of realpolitik, but turn fully 180degrees without a second’s thought and act as though this is normal. What is an anti-nanny-stater doing talking about sugar taxes? How can he think nobody has noticed?
Maybe because in reality, it actually doesn’t matter any more. Because political tribalism is so deeply embedded that nobody is voting for anyone any more, just against the other guy. It’s easy to scoff and point at those who had hope in the guy, who voted for him because they took him at his word. It’s difficult to feel sympathy, especially when it has been obvious to many just what kind of politician he is. I mean him no ill will, I’m sure he is perfectly pleasant company and, by all accounts, a rather personable chap.
But relying on his principles and sense of duty, his sense of driving purpose? Sorry, but he has never provided any evidence that he should be trusted to maintain a certain set of holding principles against all weathers and all comers. So why would we expect him to do so when push came to shove?
So there we have it: Al Johnson, from rebellious child to Chief Nanny. Who’d’a thunk it?