Opinion Boris has left his party with a tough choice - a leader to the right or hard right

Peter Flanagan says the new leader of Britain will be decided by a small number of people and the choice isn’t great.

HE WAS SUPPOSED to be the Conservative answer to Tony Blair. His landslide general election win was the sort not seen since New Labour’s triumph in 1997. Brexit was his Britpop.

In the same way that Blair co-opted Cool Britannia and the renaissance in British pride of the mid-90s, Boris Johnson’s eccentric boosterism captured the zeitgeist of a nation yearning for change.

He made mincemeat of the opposition and purged the doubters in his own party from cabinet. Peerless as a campaigner, there was talk in the beginning that he could reign for a decade. But while Blair’s downfall took almost ten years, the Iraq War, and a lacklustre 2005 election result, Johnson has barely outlasted Teresa May.

Presiding over crises

Pirouetting from crisis to crisis like a toff Tasmanian devil, his time in government will be remembered as a time of chaos. Government indecision over lockdowns led to the most recorded Covid-related deaths in Europe.

The hard Brexit which has been pursued has soured Britain’s relationship with the EU and threatened peace on the island of Ireland. The deluge of sleaze which has followed Johnson and his cabinet – from corruption allegations to pandemic-rule breaking – has undermined public trust in government and its institutions.

Given how short a time his stint as Prime Minister has lasted, it is remarkable how much damage he’s managed to inflict.

Johnson hoped his unambiguous leadership on the Ukraine-Russia crisis would give his popularity a lift, in the same way his early vaccine rollout did last year. But the weight of his poor character and inability to change proved too much for his colleagues to bear.

His resignation speech will surely go down as one of the most remarkable pieces of political theatre in British history. He apologised for nothing, self-aggrandised, and declined to thank any of his co-workers except his security detail, whom he praised for “never leaking”. The implication was clear – the problem wasn’t that he’d misbehaved, but that he’d been ratted out.

Sunak or Truss?

What’s more troubling still is that his replacement is likely to be a continuity figure. Both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss held the most senior cabinet positions in his government and enabled his worst tendencies.

Truss is an unapologetic Boris-loyalist, while Sunak ultimately resigned over personality, not policy. The style of leadership may change, but the contempt the Tories have shown for Europe is baked in.

The implication of this for Ireland will be severe. As foreign secretary, it was Truss who introduced the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which if passed will tear up Britain’s agreement on the Irish Sea border as though it were a Johnson marriage certificate.

Sunak is the less hawkish of the two, reportedly urging caution over conflict with the EU behind closed doors. As the richest man in the House of Commons, he can probably think of better ways to spend an evening than flying to Belfast to deal with the creationists and hard-line Republicans who dominate politics there. Truss on the other hand, infamous for her Thatcher-inspired thirst traps on social media, would likely relish the opportunity.

Not much choice

The choice facing the Tory party membership is essentially between the right and the hard-right. Sunak is a classic fiscal conservative and Brexit true believer, however, his enemies consider him not only a high-tax Chancellor but a Judas for betraying Johnson. Truss, paradoxically, is a former Liberal Democrat and Remainer who attended anti-Thatcher demonstrations in her youth but is a darling of the party’s Brexiteers. Her inconsistent political values have been the centre of much discussion in recent weeks.

It is said that someone who isn’t liberal in their youth has no heart and that someone who isn’t conservative in their old age has no brain. The concern is that Truss may have neither. Gaffe-prone and tainted by her close association with Johnson, Labour would surely prefer to face her in a general election.

This leadership contest however will not be decided by the British public. Instead, votes will be cast by the Conservative party membership – roughly 160k older white men living in the south of England. Truss’ promise to slash taxes will be very popular with this demographic.

If she succeeds, it will be a testament to the dearth of fresh thinking in conservative politics. In the private sector, a middle manager without any new ideas will often pursue cost-cutting as a path to promotion. The outcome is usually diminished customer service and battered workers’ rights, albeit with a short-term boost to shareholder value.

Similarly, Truss’ proposed cuts threaten public services and a return to austerity. If she succeeds, Britain could end up like European airports this summer: understaffed and awash with unhappy people desperate to leave.

None of this is Johnson’s problem anymore. Once he gets over the initial humiliation, he’ll enjoy a lucrative career as an after-dinner speaker, shock-jock journalist or whatever else he feels like doing.

Most people never achieve their dreams, but he has proven himself immensely capable of getting what he wants. His tragedy is that he lost his dream job not because his policies were unpopular but because the country finally decided that he was a lousy leader. His successor will do well to wash off the stink.

Peter Flanagan is an Irish comedian and writer. You can find him on Twitter at @peterflanagan.

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