The Boris conundrum

“Our next Prime Minister will now almost certainly be Boris Johnson. He himself now seems the only man who can stop this from happening”

Manchester Square
(Illustration by Michael Daley)

Standpoint has been going for 11 years and 113 issues, the first 107 edited by our founder Daniel Johnson. We will be on our fourth Prime Minister while this issue is on sale. If we had launched in June 1979 instead of that month in 2008, we would still be on our first Prime Minister at this point in our trajectory. Both eras are likely to be seen as equally transformative of our economic and political life. The Thatcher years broke with the post-war consensus and modernised the British economy. The new economic consensus—the neo-liberal consensus as its opponents at the British Medical Journal (see Theodore Dalrymple) and elsewhere like to term it—ended, just as this magazine was  being launched, with the global financial crisis of 2008.

In our 11 years we have become used to coalition government and once again to low-majority or no-majority governments.  Since 2015 both Brexit—or rather the lack of it—and the election of a far-left Labour leader surrounded by a Marxist coterie are leading to what could still be the biggest transformation of our political landscape since the emergence of the Labour Party early last century.

Our next Prime Minister will now almost certainly be Boris Johnson. He himself now seems the only man who can stop this from happening, perhaps via some not-yet-revealed past private indiscretion or a disastrous mishap on the campaign trail. Prime Minister Boris: and other things that never happened—a 2011 collection of political counterfactuals (edited by Duncan Brack and Iain Dale for Biteback)—is set to become a collector’s item for connoisseurs of the esoteric.

The actual road to Number 10 which Boris looks highly likely to be following would have seemed a much more preposterous path to power than that sketched out in the book. It is more difficult to predict what a Johnson ministry will do than it has been for any other incoming Prime Minister since the war. Ardent Brexiteers have great hopes of Boris—but then Richard Cockett, a self-identified Remoaner, sets out in this issue why he believes Boris is the last great hope for Remain, or rather the softest Brexit possible.

Boris has been embraced by Conservative politicians who, in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum, regarded him as very much beyond the pale. Nick Cohen, in an essay in praise of political heresy (page 32), shows how conservative critics of Donald Trump in the US have for the most part fallen silent since his election. Max Boot, David Frum, George Will, Bret Stephens and Bill Kristol among others remain ardent critics from the Right, but the Never Trumpers, a movement of conservative thinkers and a smattering of politicians, has very largely withered away.

Will we see a similar phenomenon in the UK once Boris is ensconced in Downing Street? It seems rather less likely in that Britain’s conservative commentators have rarely fallen into line with the then ascendant Tory politician. Perhaps the only exception to this was at the height of the Thatcher years, when conservative intellectual critics of the then Prime Minister were rather muted.  A lively debate within a political tradition points to the health of that stream of thought; the lack of it is a bad sign. As Cohen notes, perhaps one of the most worrying aspects of what has happened to left-wing  thought since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader is how quickly those who challenge some aspect of the new creed are anathematised.

This trend towards a rigid political orthodoxy predates Corbyn, of course. As Josephine Bartosch points out, movements supposedly celebrating tolerance can become extremely intolerant. Gay Pride marches have become an uncomfortable place for lesbians unwilling to accept that gender is mutable at will. Standpoint will continue to challenge received opinion and enforced conformity of thought, whether from Left or Right.

After the most torrid period in politics most of us have experienced, exhaustion means that many will want a break before battle recommences in the autumn. Our summer double issue has much to take one’s mind off today’s machinations, including Alice Dunn’s short story “Framed” and Patrick Heren’s account of his 1980 hitch-hiking trek from the Mexican border to New York City. Heren, a long-standing friend of this magazine, discovered an America he would never otherwise have seen, a country also explored in the photographs of Chris Arnade, featured in this month’s Drawing Board, with commentary by former Standpoint staffer Oliver Wiseman.

With so much more excitement promised—or threatened—in the autumn—a new Prime Minister, what will happen with Brexit, Labour’s continuing fissures over Europe, and renewed rows about anti-Semitism—we should all follow the Dung Beetle family, brilliantly drawn on our cover by Miriam Elia (two of whose paintings feature in this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition) to the seaside. Whether we should be reading Boris’s biography of Churchill on the beaches, or indeed in the fields or in the hills, is more debatable.