Johnson must go – but it will take more than this to restore trust in democracy

Published by The i paper (27th June, 2022)

The wedding I attended on Saturday could not have felt more English, the mood more upbeat. It was a joyous event filled with friendly young professionals, some starting their own families, in the grounds of a big old house amid bucolic Kentish farmland. Yet even in such serene surroundings, at an event filled with hope, love and optimism, there were disturbing conversations that underline the intensity of the problems bubbling away in Britain.

One relative, a successful businessman in his sixties and lifelong Tory supporter, declared he was so fed up with “Boris and Brexit” that he was never voting again since “they’re all useless”. Such dismay is understandable given the Prime Minister’s deplorable antics and grotesque deceptions. Although his daughter, like me, argued that in a democracy we have a duty to cast our ballot however dire the choice, this man was unconvinced. Yet he is far from alone in being so disillusioned with our leaders. More than one in four of Britons now point to “lack of faith in politicians” as a key issue confronting the country, according to Ipsos Mori.

Later I sat next to a woman who had moved to New Zealand and was returning to Britain for the first time since the start of the pandemic. When I asked how she found the country, she grimaced before questioning if I really wanted to know. Then she went on a tirade about systemic failures, officials hiding online, the inability to talk to human beings and the hours wasted trying to obtain a passport, sort a driving licence and fix a minor local problem with her council. She was left stunned by the speed of deterioration in our digitalised public services.

Her view was expressed at an event, like many, affected by the latest rail strike. It took me almost three times longer than planned to reach the venue, thanks to the clogged roads. The dispute has sparked talk that Britain is slumping back into the 1970s, with threats of industrial struggle spreading to schools, rising inflation and public services falling apart, a feeling only accentuated by Paul McCartney playing Wings songs while headlining Glastonbury. 

The Prime Minister constantly proclaims British greatness but our planes and trains do not work, patients struggle to see doctors and dentists, the care system is collapsing, the courts have chronic backlogs and mental health services are in disarray. 

This was the backdrop to last week’s double by-election disaster for the Tories, which exposed their leader’s toxicity even in two very different Brexit strongholds of Tiverton and Wakefield. Boris Johnson is so loathed that he has become a powerful electoral asset for his opponents, whether Labour or Liberal Democrat.

However much he ruffles his hair, a growing number of voters have seen through his act. Now they are repelled by the bumbling boosterism, the smirking apologies, the phoney claims to be listening and the jocular dissembling in interviews when it is clear that this deceitful creature is focused only on clinging to his job, regardless of any damage to his country, party or allies.

It is amazing only one cabinet minister, Oliver Dowden, has sufficient respect for either themselves or the electorate to resign. The rest, their morality corroded by ambition, stay loyal to a leader who treated the nation with contempt during a pandemic. They serve in a government that demonstrates how much has gone astray with Westminster. The Prime Minister is seen as a serial liar. Their party flails around all over the political spectrum, destroying its brand and credibility while pumping out “initiatives” that do little to solve the grinding problems confronting this country.

These people pretend Brexit has been a boon despite self-evident economic harm. Then they try to divert our attention by using refugees and transgender citizens as weapons in crude cultural wars designed to stoke divisions.

Far from showing humility after the damning verdict of former Tory voters in Devon and West Yorkshire, Johnson arrogantly states that he is focusing on a third term in power. Given the speed at which he is shredding Tory support, this seems unlikely. Yet while public dislike of the Prime Minister is clearly calcifying, there is not much discernible enthusiasm for the alternatives on offer.

Sir Keir Starmer is serious and deserves credit for hauling Labour back into the mainstream, yet he is crippled by caution as he tries to tiptoe his way into Downing Street. His biggest problem is not lack of charisma but lack of any identifiable policies, offering no sign to voters that he possesses answers to the problems plaguing our nation.

Both parties are shackled by the past. The Tories, dusting off dismal ideas such as grammar schools, imperial measures and Right to Buy housing, are torn between traditional and new constituencies while trapped under a hollow celebrity leader who simply wants fame and power rather than to shape the nation. Labour, terrified by the ghost of Jeremy Corbyn, thinks it must follow the old Tony Blair playbook even though times have changed.

Collectively, they prove only the failure of such dismal politics at a time when we need honesty to debate issues such as how to run public services, control corporate greed, protect vulnerable citizens and heal societal wounds.

The irony for me is that I attended that wedding after spending 17 weeks this year reporting on the struggle of our age between democracy and dictatorship taking place in the bloodstained fields and towns of Ukraine. Meanwhile the United States, the world’s leading democracy, shows the dangers of letting these divisions spiral out of control. Yet while Washington and Westminster performed well on this international stage, their own political systems are struck in a tragic rut, imperilled by toxic tribalism and ignoring the real battles that need to be fought on behalf of electorates. Ultimately, Johnson’s survival shows how our politicians have become divorced from their citizens, but it will take much more than his ousting to restore faith in this relationship.

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