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Wednesday, August 04, 2021

An 'infantile brand of tyranny'

I very much recommend Rafael Behr's column on Boris Johnson and his disregard for normal rules in today's Guardian. He argues the libertarian Tories arguing for an end to Covid restrictions are out-of-touch with public sentiment, with the threshold of national goodwill' being tested not by the draconian law but the perception that it was selectively applied.

He says, as has been noted here and elsewhere, that Dominic Cummings’ excursion to Barnard Castle and Matt Hancock’s extramarital office snog damaged Johnson more than any other feature of his pandemic record; more than the deaths that might have been avoided by better decision-making from Downing Street:

The prime minister does not escape blame for the fatalities, but that anger is strongest among people who were ill-disposed to Johnson before the pandemic. The same goes for corruption. Voters who were already primed to think the worst of any Tory government find their sourest expectations vindicated by the chronicles of venality: contracts awarded to cronies; Whitehall capture by lobbyists; secret cliques of high-rolling donors; cash for access; opaque funding schemes for the prime minister’s flat and foreign holidays.

None of the chumocracy charges have detonated with the force of stories that lockdown rules were flouted. That isn’t surprising. The Cummings and Hancock adventures were personal – a punch in the guts to everyone who had abstained from hugging their grandchildren or buried their dead by Zoom.

But there is a slow burn to sleaze. The common theme is arrogance with power and a view that following the rules is for little people and mugs. The whole business of VIP fast lanes for public procurement and backstage passes to Whitehall cuts against a sense of orderliness and decency that is baked deeper into British culture than the abstract freedoms that Rees-Mogg would trace back to the Magna Carta.

The main thrust of his argument however, is that despite the Prime Minister's political incoherence, his lack of attention to detail, and his inability to follow rules being at the centre of his popularity, it is these very features that will be his undoing:

The prime minister is sincere enough about liberty and too inattentive to detail to make a consistent authoritarian. His is a more infantile brand of tyranny that demands control yet is afraid of responsibility. It is a trait that flows not from any doctrine, but from the temperament that sees rules as a personal discomfort and treats duty as an invitation to defiance. Johnson wears the responsibilities of his office much as he wears his clothes: askew for theatrical effect.

That performance is integral to his appeal, but the quality that voters first find attractive in leaders can be a predictor of their undoing. There was a maverick charm in disregarding protocol and cutting legal corners when the purpose was getting Brexit done. The same ethos is more obnoxious when applied in service of Tory donors or indulgence of rule-bending allies.

No violation of constitutional principle could appal the British spirit more than queue jumping. That tendency may not be the most prominent aspect of Johnson’s government, but it is a persistent enough feature to breed resentment over time. It is a problem that will outlast the present policy dilemmas of the pandemic. The current challenge is choosing the right rules. But the origin of uncertainty and incoherence, as with corruption, is a prime minister who is himself governed by the principle that rules do not really matter.

The problem is that those grown-ups who might take over are even more unpalatable.
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