Daily, we are told that Boris Johnson cannot possibly survive. Daily, he does. That is the major story. That is what needs to be understood. The serial scandal and blunders are newsworthy. But they are not the most interesting thing about the Boris Johnson saga. What is interesting is his survival. Not what has happened under his premiership, but how it has been allowed to happen. Not what he has done or what has been done in his name and with his authority or consent or knowledge, but how he and his accomplices have got away with it. And continue to do so.
When was the first time you saw a headline in The National declaring that Johnson’s days were numbered? My bet is that it was closer to two years ago than two weeks or months ago. The predictions of Boris’s imminent demise are now part of the daily fare served up to us by Scotland’s only pro-independence newspaper as well as the SNP, the First Minister, the Scottish Government and an army of social media parrots who unthinkingly and endlessly repeat these declarations apparently oblivious to the fact that they said precisely the same thing yesterday and the day before and the day before that and….
Everybody is asking how long can Boris Johnson hold out. The much more probing question asks how has he managed to hold out as long as he has.
If The National’s editor, Callum Baird, is looking for a truly sensational headline – made all the more startling by its veracity – he could do a lot worse that a big, bold, shock-horror banner stating that there is no sign of Boris Johnson either resigning or being removed from office. The commentary and analysis below this headline would focus on questions such as what Johnson’s against-all-odds survival tells us about the man. And what it tells us about the British political system. Granting that the customary headlines are correct insofar as they imply that Johnson should fall, the intriguing and telling speculation relates not to the question of when this will happen, but why it has not happened already.
Rather than opining with an all too familiar smug complacency that Boris Johnson won’t be around much longer, our politicians would do better to wonder what it would actually take to bring about the downfall of a Boris Johnson. Not because his departure has any significant implications for Scotland or the fight to restore our independence, but because his continuing reign says something very significant about the nature of executive power in the British state. Consider this! If, as is evident, we cannot set any store at all by the oft-repeated assertion that Boris is about to go, how much trust might we sensibly invest in the perhaps even more often rehearsed assurance that he/they cannot possibly continue to deny Scotland’s right of self-determination?
There is nothing overtly Machiavellian about Johnson’s remarkable capacity for survival. Unless the Machiavelli in question is an Italian bulldozer-driver rather than the political operator of great renown. He gets by not with deft dodging and weaving but by barging through his days in office as if oblivious to the scandal that surround him and seemingly impervious to them. If he has one of those inspirational plaques on his desk it should read ‘IGNORE IT AND IT WILL GO AWAY!’. Mostly, he ignores the ugly revelations. Mostly, they go away. Or at least reach the limits of the public’s attention span. We’re told he’s doing this and/or that to divert attention from this and/or that scandal. He doesn’t have to. The next scandal serves well enough as a distraction from the last one. Which suggests that all a corrupt and incompetent British Prime Minister needs to survive against all odds is a never-ending series of scandals. Which seems to accord with what we are witnessing.
Is it Johnson’s bulldozing abilities alone which allow him to survive? That seems unlikely. Surely it would also require a political environment in which such an approach could operate and be effective. The political system would have to lack the checks and balances on executive power that would normally be expected to block the path of the bulldozer and unseat the driver. Boris Johnson’s continuing survival can only be possible because the machinery of British democracy is too badly broken to prevent it.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the news gets worse. Because while the serial scandals might be expected to weaken Johnson’s grip on power, this is more than compensated for by the fact that surviving those scandals makes him stronger. His ability to survive improves with every day he survives. Surviving one more day is all he needs to do to win the support of colleagues who admire the ability to survive infinitely more than they abhor the incompetence and corruption. Building a formidable reputation as a survivor also deters would-be challengers. Few things will hinder a political career more effectively than having gone against the individual who is still in a position to help or hinder a political career.
As I write, and whatever the media may be saying to the contrary, there is no good reason to suppose Boris Johnson won’t remains British Prime Minister for as long as he wishes. at some woefully belated point people will start to realise that they’ve seen the headlines predicting Boris’s doom before. More than once! This realisation might provoke revolution against the system which enables such as Boris Johnson. But it is much more likely to prompt weary resignation and moving on to the next distraction.
Here’s another question to trouble all but the terminally complacent. If the British Prime Minister has the power to survive as Boris Johnson has, what is to stop them doing as they will with Scotland?
EDIT: As I wrote the above earlier this morning the thought occurred to me that it would be amusing if Callum Baird pre-empted my advice. Well…
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