WORLD: Under pressure from his own Conservative Party, Boris Johnson announced his resignation on July 7th. How do you analyze this political crisis?
David Goodhart: In some respects, this shows that the informal, unwritten constitution works well. We needed a very outspoken politician to break the Brexit impasse. He accepted the job but then proved unsuitable as prime minister in ‘peacetime’ and was consequently sacked by his own party.
He pulled Brexit through – with his adviser Dominic Cummings – but was then unable to build a new policy that draws on the Conservative Party’s new electoral base, which includes the poorest voters from the Midlands and north of England. That’s partly because Boris Johnson is an intuitive politician, not a strategist or intellectual. In the end, his government had neither direction nor priorities, in part because it was constantly torn between events – Brexit, Covid-19 and then Ukraine. Part of the blame was his own carelessness and lack of respect for rules.
WORLD: Is Boris Johnson the victim of his own affairs and lies or of the conformism and vindictiveness of the establishment?
Goodhart: A little bit of both. His propensity to circumvent rules meant the government struggled to establish itself and formulate a clear strategy. But his fall is also a result of the fact that the liberal, pro-European and pro-globalization establishment has continued to rule the country for the past 30 years, while only a small group has used this paradigm in the name of national sovereignty and political priorities of more conservative and less educated individuals refused. I call this group Somewheres. Basically, Boris Johnson belonged to both groups.
WORLD: His behavior and personality were questioned even more than his actual politics. In this era of transparency and political correctness, is it still possible to do politics at all?
Goodhart: That’s a good question. One must not forget the role of technology in making life even harder for someone like Boris Johnson who breaks the rules. There are just too many people with phones, cameras and microphones in their pockets – you can’t keep anything secret anymore. This is exactly why “Partygate” has become such a hot topic. If it’s also someone who doesn’t follow any rules by nature and tends to deal with the truth in a childlike way – according to the motto: The truth is what I say – then you can understand why the media take pleasure in it had.
WORLD: Could Churchill still be in politics today?
Goodhart: I’m not so sure about that. His drinking would certainly have been scrutinized, although he didn’t seem overly interested in sex.
WORLD: Johnson’s “populist” political course, which was very different from Margaret Thatcher’s, for example, was never really able to assert itself in the Conservative Party.
Goodhart: After a reluctant acceptance of Brexit after the 2016 referendum, after the 2019 election the Conservative Party found a common ground with the new middle-class and working-class coalition. Boris Johnson has failed in that he has failed to combine priorities and political language in a way that satisfies the two classes. The new globalization skeptical and culturally conservative approach of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove, who, unlike Boris Johnson, are capable of strategic thinking, has not been consistently pursued.
As such, he had little appeal within the Conservative Party, and even less appeal to the general establishment. The Conservative Party is a mixture of many very different tendencies. The question that will arise after the election of the future party leader is how far the new direction will be maintained after 2019 and to what extent the more traditional Tory concerns of lower taxes and a less interventionist state will reassert themselves .
WORLD: Boris Johnson had conquered a constituency that otherwise traditionally voted for the Labor Party. Now, isn’t the Conservative Party hurting itself by getting rid of Johnson? Doesn’t she prove ungrateful here?
Goodhart: Not really. It just goes to show that their sense of self-preservation is still very strong. The permanent quarrels surrounding the appearance of Boris Johnson only conveyed the image of an aimless government. It’s also important to remember that in 2019 Labor was still led by hard-left Jeremy Corbyn, and at the time the country was desperate for a way out of the Brexit impasse. This election really wasn’t hard for the Tories to win, although Boris Johnson’s anti-political and rather entertaining personality likely doubled that success.
WORLD: Is his failure an indication of how difficult it is to reconcile the “Somewheres” with the “Anywheres”?
Goodhart: In fact, that was the most frustrating thing about the Johnson administration. Finding common ground between the Somewheres and the Anywheres is exactly what the government should have focused on. I had hoped Boris would defend equality from the top, convincing well-off southern Britain that tackling our extreme regional disparities was a national mission. An excellent report on the possible “alignment from above” was published in February, but since then interest in it has seemed to wane. Instead, Boris Johnson’s behavior and style became the dominant theme.
WORLD: What conclusions can be drawn from Boris Johnson’s shortened mandate? Will he remain the ‘man of Brexit’?
Goodhart: The lesson we have to learn is that political misfits need discipline and strategy, and once the story focuses solely on their behavior, they are doomed. Boris Johnson can certainly boast of having achieved some important things. For example, he successfully completed Brexit, even if certain details still need to be clarified, such as the Northern Ireland protocol. He has achieved some success in the fight against the pandemic, following his own instincts, but above all thanks to the successes of the first vaccines. He also launched the “Leveling up” initiative to reduce economic imbalances between areas and social groups, and has acted as a frontrunner in international support for Ukraine in recent months. Much of the establishment never really accepted him as the legitimate head of government, and he then gave them too many arguments that proved them right.
WORLD: Johnson has resigned, but has not announced the end of his political career. Does he still have a future as a political leader?
Goodhart: He definitely has a bright future. Still relatively young, he leaves his post with a sense of injustice. We will certainly be hearing a lot more from him, and it is not unthinkable that he will remain a driving force within the Conservative Party. He could even stage a comeback of sorts, especially if the Tories lose in the next election. But it is more likely that he will continue to have a lot of power – albeit away from the political arena.
The British journalist and essayist David Goodhart has published, among other things, “The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics”, a theory on the opposites of “Somewheres and Anywheres”.
The interview first appeared on Le Figaro. Translated by Bettina Schneider.