The Conservative & Unionist party is no more. He ceased to be. He expired and went to meet his maker. He kicked the bucket, shook its deadly envelope, pulled down the curtain and joined the invisible choir. He’s an ex-party.
He was replaced by the Borisservative & Johnsonist party. This is the conclusion I draw after observing the worshipers at Borisfest in Manchester. Everything revolved around him. Even when it was not visible, it was everywhere. He was there with the devoted eyes of activists ready to queue at six in the morning to secure a place for the triumph of Boris who concluded the debates. He was there in the clenched eyes of ministers calling him “the boss” or “the king” even when they weren’t in front of the camera. The tone was set on opening day by Oliver Dowden, not so much the party chairman as the prime minister’s representative on Earth. “We’re all just little players,” Mr. Dowden said, telling everyone they weren’t relevant, before naming the main player as “our award-winning stallion, our raging rhino.” Animal worship has been a feature of religions since primitive times. In Mr. Dowden’s imagination, the deity that is Boris is a composite super-beast with (I’m assuming a little here) the horn, skin, and mace of a rhino and the mane, legs, and maybe be another appendage of a stallion.
The worship of Boris involves human sacrifices. We have witnessed the humiliating degradation of his cabinet colleagues, mere mortals supposed to run important departments. I’ve been at Conservative conferences since the mid-1980s. The leader has always been headlining, but there were opportunities for the supporting roles to share the limelight. Margaret Thatcher had divine status with her party when she was at her zenith. Even then, high-ranking figures in his government were allowed to deliver substantive speeches from the main stage so that they had a chance to make their mark and the party could assess who might be its rising stars. No one knows better than Mr Johnson that the conferencing platform can be harnessed to advance leadership ambitions. There is only room for one great poppy in his government. Thus, the cabinet was ruthlessly leveled down.
The main stage, a large arena custom-built for the great artist, was reserved exclusively for the performance of the leader. Those in the cabinet who were allowed to speak – many of them didn’t even have this courtesy – were only allowed a truncated time in a small auditorium with horrible acoustics. The Chancellor of the Exchequer only got 19 minutes and the Minister of Foreign Affairs less than 12 minutes. Rishi Sunak had to fight against Tannoy’s announcements and the noise from the adjoining showroom. Can you imagine the Conservative chancellors of the past – Ken Clarke, say, or Nigel Lawson – enduring such degrading treatment? Accepting this, Mr. Sunak and the others had to do, as nothing was going to be allowed to distract from the one act that mattered. The Prime Minister’s speech was a panting and confusing race through slogans, puns, swagger, metaphors and jokes, jokes and more jokes. Some of them were very good, but never before had I heard a chef’s speech in which virtually every second sentence was a punchline looking for a laugh.
One of Mr Johnson’s tricks is to let his audience understand that he knows his act is absurd. He’s so cynical that he laughed at his own conference slogan even though he was expressing what is supposed to be his big idea. After a stint on rewilding, he shouted, “Build Back Beaver.” Trade with the United States has been made: “Build Back Burger”. Those who were looking for a common thread or a coherent argument were disappointed. So are those who might have expected to hear how the Prime Minister intends to resolve Britain’s many problems. You wouldn’t know there are lineups for gasoline, bare supermarket shelves, soaring energy prices, welfare cuts and impending tax hikes due to its windy boosterism. It is in the nature of cults to be detached from reality. I asked a former Tory if he knew what Johnsonism was. He sighed, “We have surely come to the point where we realize that there is no Johnsonism. That’s all that works for him that day.
The Conservative Party had a set of values and a body of convictions. These have evolved in response to changing times and electoral needs, but they have always had a certain cohesion. The cult of Boris is not like that at all. It revolves around a capricious character with few deep beliefs and no fixed ideological abode. When he takes positions, it is not in the service of a higher purpose than following his instincts, quenching his appetites, and promoting his interests as he sees them on a day-to-day basis. The only goal he has consistently committed to is to stay popular and in power.
There are consequences in putting a party in the grip of a single mercurial figure. American Republicans discovered this when their party fell into the hands of Donald Trump, who began to trash many of their previously cherished principles. Something similar, if not quite so dramatic, is happening to the Conservatives. They were the party of businesses and farmers. If they were anything, they were it. Not anymore. Mr Johnson casually raises the plight of farmers and attacks businesses because he thinks it is to his advantage at this particular time.
The shortages of workers and essential goods that disrupt daily life may well have something to do with the severity of the break with the EU. But this is not recognizable because it would be admitting that the Brexit prophet is fallible. Companies must therefore be fiercely blamed for unfilled jobs, crippled supply chains and the threat of a Christmas without turkeys.
Many Tory MPs I spoke to in Manchester expressed bemusement that, as one of them put it, ‘we are going from crisis to crisis while still maintaining a calm lead in the polls. “. For followers of the cult of Boris, this is not a paradox. It is a confirmation of their belief. Such is his witchcraft, he can levitate on any calamity.
Except he can’t. Not forever. What we do know about cults is that they tend to end badly. We can’t say for sure when this one will crumble under the weight of its contradictions, but we can gather clues as to why it will eventually do so. Some were in Manchester.
While the adulation of activists who applauded his speech seemed genuine, many MPs in attendance were pretending. They still see themselves as representatives of the Conservative Party, and not as devotees of the Johnson Church of Borisology. The typical Conservative MP entered politics believing in low taxes, low government spending, free markets, a stable society, and a modest state. They are bewildered, when not horrified, to find out that they are members of a government that presides over chaos, raises taxes, denigrates businesses and encourages wage inflation while having no serious plan for it. mitigate disruption, promote economic growth or improve productivity.
Speaking of tax hikes for both employers and employees, a former Conservative minister remarked to me: “Businesses are unhappy with them. The backbenchers are unhappy with them. Party donors are unhappy with them. They are grinning and supporting him right now as the Tories are leading the polls and many still believe Mr Johnson has a special connection to the electorate that no one else can match. The belief that he is a winner is the cult’s core belief. He was the leader of a successful Brexit campaign when expected to fail. He then obtained the best parliamentary majority for the Conservatives in more than 30 years. His continued challenge of political gravity encourages faith that he will win again next time. A Conservative MP told me confidently: “Boris is going to be at least eight years old as Prime Minister. “
No one can know for sure. The patience of the public will wear out and break. In stealthy corners of the conference, Conservative MPs questioned whether the bubble would burst before or after the next election. The public will one day turn against him, as against all leaders, and then his deputies will do the same. For the sect only worships a hugely imperfect bit of mortal flesh that is much better at joking than it is at ruling.