“They’re Tories. They do Tory things.” This is the favoured response of a good friend of mine every time someone gets angry about politics. “But they’ve just cut benefits for the disabled!” “They’re selling off the NHS to their mates!” “They’re hanging our steel industry out to dry!” Answer: “They’re Tories. They do Tory things.” The implication being that you’ll never stop them, so rather than get angry about it, do no evil yourself and, in the words of many an inspirational social media post, “be the change that you want to see”. It’s a strategy that’s good for the blood pressure.
The problem is, that when the Tories used to do Tory things, at least they did them very well. Wars, state sell-offs, backstabbing of their own – they were ruthlessly organised and efficient. Their acquisition of power, whatever it took, and their ability to turn that power to their own ends was devastating.
However, the events of the past few days have shown how ruinously cavalier they have become. The party that were born to rule have just shown they couldn’t organise a toke in an Amsterdam cafe. And at the heart of this calamity? Boris Johnson, a character dropped by the Beano for being too “cartoony”.
It is impossible to be too critical of Johnson. His venality, his selfishness, his cynicism are all well known. His lies, his affairs, his “inverted pyramids of piffle”, his waffle about “wiff waff” make him an entertaining newspaper diary piece, a hideous and aged fop, not a statesman.
But this weekend he displayed flaws for which he should never be forgiven by the public – utter cowardice and self-preservation in a time of crisis. From his grim-faced speech on Friday morning to his repetitive Telegraph article late Sunday night, we heard nothing from the man who got us into this mess. He left the nation swinging with a noose round its neck, and rather than fetch a chair, he scarpered so he couldn’t be accused of tying it.
The man thinks he’s Churchill, when he’s not even Eden. All he had to do was turn up on camera over the weekend, explain what he was doing and appeal for calm while he did it. Churchill would have done that. Macmillan would have done that. Even Margaret Thatcher, when she spectacularly failed to grasp she was about to be slung out of power, was at least observably at work on, ironically, European business, and had the gumption to speak to the cameras. Boris was playing cricket, and didn’t.
The paternalistic, high-minded Tories of old are dead and buried. Their descendents are shallow, grasping playboy princes, drunk on their own imagined brilliance, and this one the most brattish, over-indulged of them all. He is the Paris Hilton of Conservative Politics.
The most telling indication of the Johnson family mindset came not from Boris, but from his father Stanley (a Remain supporter) on Channel 4’s The Last Leg on Friday night. “What can we do to heal the rifts?” asked Adam Hills. ” *jowly posh mumbling* … game of cricket … *more jowly posh mumbling* ” At first, this could be dismissed as the jibbering of an old wreck, the Major off Fawlty Towers. On reflection, he probably thought he was answering a different question – “How will you heal *your family* rifts?” Our country’s most chaotic hour, and still this was all about the Johnsons. The lives of millions reduced to a knockabout on the village green and a pint of Bombardier in the clubhouse.
Johnson, and his power base, should not be spared any amount of our wrath.
The immediate consequences of a Brexit vote were obvious. Not obvious in hindsight. Obvious from before the campaign began. Increase in hate crimes? Obvious. Plunging markets? Obvious. Companies threatening to leave? Obvious.
Not only were the consequences obvious, but Brexit itself was reasonably likely. For most of the campaign, Brexit hovered around 7/2 on betting markets. That’s roughly a 20-25% probability of happening. That’s flipping two coins and them both coming up tails.
The public woke up on Friday expressing disbelief, even Leavers claiming they never thought it would happen. That’s understandable, but as anyone who knows horse racing will tell you, shorter priced favourites than that get turned over with wallet-damaging regularity. It beggars belief that something that likely to happen, with such huge consequences, was not prepared for in excruciating detail, certainly by the civil service, and probably by Leave’s advisers. It may be no coincidence that the party best prepared for Brexit was the SNP, given Salmond is a betting man.
And because all this was obvious and reasonably likely, and because it was his campaign that caused it, Johnson should be made to form a government, and form one now, and deal immediately with the painful consequences. No Teresa May compromise figure. No waiting three months. Get the Article 50 notification sent with Johnson, Gove, and Farridge (pronounce it how you’d pronounce “garage” he says) to deliver it, like naughty schoolboys confessing to the next door neighbour they’ve just put a football through their greenhouse.
Most people don’t want them doing that. Tragically, a majority of people might now want to stay in the EU. If we must go through with it, people want a sensible government put together in our own good time and a non-humiliating and mutually beneficial, partial, even negligible exit arranged. But it is done. We’ve shat our bed. We owe it to ourselves to push Johnson and Gove’s faces in it, and send them to be humiliated in Brussels on our behalf.
Their defeat needs to be total and final. It should be their final act in public life. They should come back with what they’ve secured from Brussels (it will be nothing meaningful) and put it to a vote in the Commons and be utterly humiliated there as well. When their government falls, it will take their humiliation with it to the grave, and a rebuilding coalition can be put in place to restore England and Wales (Scotland and NI having gone) to a near palatable place to live. A modern Attlee government rising from the ashes of this calamity to restore decency to a diminished country.
The alternative – some fudged semi-departure, negotiated over years – will only extend the problems. The boil needs lancing, and it needs lancing quickly. We are in a bubble now, much like some of us were after the Conservative election victory, uncertain but thinking the worst has already happened. It hasn’t. There is now slim chance of bringing England and Wales back together now without some major upheaval – race riots, food shortages, mass house repossessions – refocusing the mind. That – or worse. Extending the Brexit process over years allows time for those things to happen. Better to unite the country immediately behind blind hatred for the men who did this, and let them attract all the bile that’s built up in the country. The best way to do this? The best way to destroy them? Force them to renegotiate now without a leg to stand on, not once they’ve had time to shore up power bases and prepare the ground. We need them only to do the dirty work, and never to have the chance to rebuild the country to their own specification.
The consequences of Brexit are unknown and will be for decades. But maybe some good can come of it right now. Let this be the last time an old Etonian uses these islands as a personal play thing. Let it finally dismiss the notion that these men are the best of us, that they are born to lead, that they are in power by merit. Let us revel in rolling them round in their own shit, and then kick them, and then roll them round some more. A hundred years ago, men like these sent the likes of us over the top to a certain, brutal and bloody demise at the hands of the Germans. We now need to dispatch them to their European fate with similar callousness, while we back home prepare to rebuild.