Boris in the Last Chance Saloon Again

Boris Johnson survived a vote of no confidence among Tory MPs by 211 to 148 votes earlier tonight and thus remains Leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. His share of the total vote amounts to fifty-nine per cent of the Tory Party in Parliament—a decisive victory in most circumstances—and the circumstances in this case are quite favorable to Boris. Under the party’s leadership rules, no further vote of no confidence can be lodged against him for another year.

On paper, therefore, Johnson is safe from a challenge until the middle of 2023, which will be eighteen months before Britain’s next general election has to be held. And the nearer the election, the more nervous MPs become about changing their party leader—or, worse, trying to change him and failing.

Yet immediately after the result was announced, most commentators and a good many anti-Johnson Tory rebels were declaring their belief that Johnson had simply not done well enough, would continue to face additional unrest, and was still at risk of being ousted as party leader well before a general election.

Of course, it was because the rebellion against Johnson had been plotted, nurtured, and pushed to last night’s no-confidence vote by more or less the same coalition of anti-Johnson Tories and media commentators that many Tory MPs had rallied to his support despite their serious misgivings about the apparently aimless drift of his administration.

The so-called “Partygate” mini-scandal had played out over months. Photographs showing Johnson and civil servants sharing a drink in Downing Street—apparently taken by someone inside—appeared on the front pages in a calculated succession of leaks about boozy government office parties during the Covid lockdown. Johnson was accused of breaking the rules he imposed on the whole country, and then of lying when he denied the accusations. An official report found that he had been present at only one party—a surprise birthday party for him that had interrupted a business meeting—but that partial exoneration only led to further charges of a “cover-up.”

This whole farrago of suspicion and accusation went on for all of 2022. With its relentless depiction of Johnson as a “serial liar,” it undoubtedly weakened him. At the same time it deeply angered Johnson loyalists who declared that the media must not be allowed to mount a “coup” against a democratically elected prime minister. It also caused bitter conflicts between Tory rebels and loyalists at Westminster. And it may even have won Johnson some support from Tory backbenchers otherwise disappointed by his record who felt that he didn’t deserve to fall before this campaign of personal destruction.

For the main threat to Johnson in last night’s vote is that the 148 dissidents who voted against him came from all wings of the Tory party, including some he thought he could rely on—Brexiteers, Tory traditionalists, free-market supporters, small business people, and the rest. They see a drift to statist and costly government programs, a failure to effectively oppose the take-over of important British institutions such as the British Museum and the National Trust by woke left-wing radicals, a taste for grandiose utopian enterprises such as Net-Zero which will impose huge energy costs on ordinary citizens until they have a fatal crash with reality, neither an ability nor an interest in controlling government spending, the breaking of explicit promises to control immigration, and the imposition of higher taxes in contravention of manifesto pledges.

It's a serious indictment. A former senior colleague, Lord (David) Frost, who had earlier resigned from Johnson’s cabinet because of the government’s “direction of travel,” tweeted in response to last night’s vote:

If the PM is to save his premiership and his government he should now take a different course - bring taxes down straightaway to tackle the cost of living crisis, take on public service reform, and establish an affordable and reliable energy policy for the long term.

Moreover, Johnson needs to embark on this conservative turn more or less immediately. His opponents are hoping that the Tories will lose two special by-elections coming up in a few weeks. Those elections are in safe Tory seats, and if the current opinion polls are correct, they will fall to the Opposition—and undoubtely set off a new round of demands for Boris’s departure by the media and internal Tory dissidents.

The smart money says he’ll go. So he will he probably stay. Here are a few random reasons why:

  1. Given the shellacking that Boris and the Tories have received this year, the opinion polls asking “which party will you support in the next election” aren’t that bad. The Tories are a mere four points behind Labour. Two-and-a-half years before an election need be called, that’s actually a favorable position—at least it is if he adopts policies that succeed.
  2. Boris is offering extraordinary international leadership in the Ukraine crisis. Not only does that justify Brexit because it shows what Britain freed from E.U. control can achieve independently, but also most Brits strongly support Ukraine and are proud of what Boris is doing. That will influence their opinion of him on domestic issues too.
  3. He’s still popular with the Tory faithful in the constituencies—unlike Theresa May in 2019, whose weak Brexit approach caused Tory associations to pass votes of no confidence in her and Tory voters to flee to Nigel Farage’s party in the European elections. And Boris's high standing with Tory activists is important to MPs because they're the people who will choose candidates next time.
  4. Margaret Thatcher resigned as Tory leader because her cabinet colleagues broke her will to fight when—in a long night of betrayals--one after another told her that she couldn’t win the next round of the leadership election. Boris’s will has not been broken or even much bruised by the opposition of colleagues. And it's hard to dispatch a prime minister who is absolutely determined to stay on.

The final reason is also the reason he won last night: Boris is a synonym for Brexit. He’s the reason why Brexit finally happened, and Brexit is the reason why the Remainers in the Tory party and in the wider political and media establishment hate Boris. They hope and believe that if they can get rid of Boris, they can reverse Brexit in time. And because the Leavers in the Tory party also believe that if Boris goes then Brexit may go as well, they therefore turned out to vote for him one last time.

One last time? Probably. Unless he delivers the other policies to make a post-Brexit Britain succeed too, he’ll bring down Brexit all by himself. In the end, everybody finally runs out of chances at the Last Chance Saloon.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: Boris in the Wrong

When the great 19th-century Tory leader, Benjamin Disraeli, came to his friend (and fellow-novelist) Edward Bulwer-Lytton and asked for his political support in a forthcoming parliamentary debate, Lytton said: “Well, I will support you if you're right.”

“That’s no use to me,” responded Dizzy. “Anyone can support me when I’m right. What I want is people who will support me when I’m wrong.”

That’s the unenviable position in which the U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson finds himself today. He is seeking support from MPs in his own Tory party when he’s in the wrong. And not just mildly, mistakenly, accidentally, or partly in the wrong, but massively, seriously, undeniably, and stonkingly in the wrong.

"What have I done?"

How wrong this particular wrong is—well, that’s a matter of dispute. What Boris Johnson did was to impose a series of tough anti-Covid regulations on his fellow-citizens—staying at home, wearing masks, social distancing, not going to marriages, funerals, or the deathbeds of dying loved ones—while ignoring the same regulations himself when he attended parties in Number Ten Downing Street (his official home as well as an office) where “alcohol was served.”

On top of that, the truth had to be prised out of Boris’s possession by a series of damning tweets, Downing Street memos, Fleet Street scoops, and eventually an official report by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, who made strong criticisms of the behavior of Downing Street staff but whose report had to be heavily redacted until the police determine whether any of them, including Boris, will be charged with the criminal offense of drinking in company during a pandemic.

It’s clear from all this that Boris broke the rules he was imposing on everyone else. For most of the last few weeks, his denials of this made matters worse when they gradually disintegrated under the weight of evidence. His popularity—which two years ago was enormous when he won a landslide election, fell ill, and then emerged from hospital having almost died from Covid—collapsed in recent days to below sea level. He faced demands from all sides, including Tory M.P.s and ordinary party members, that he should resign in disgrace. Many of his critics as the week ended were still hopeful that Boris would feel the policeman’s hand on his collar when they checked the evidence and found an armory of smoking guns.

Even then Boris might leap free with a single bound. Until now we’ve been assured by Boris’s media and opposition critics that “the Prime Minister must be treated like anyone else who’s broken the law.” But it now transpires that those charged with illegal partying are not hanged, drawn, and quartered—as the Labour Party, the tabloids, and Remainer Tories seem to have been hoping—but merely informed of their offense by the cops, asked to pay a modest fine, and let go without being properly “named and shamed.”

'What would Disraeli do?

Naturally, the forces of political morality have switched lines and now declare that a prime minister should be treated as an exceptional case and arraigned in such cases. But Boris refuses to make that promise; there doesn’t seem to be a way of forcing a change of mind on him; and any leaking of his hypothetical criminality would probably be a worse criminal offense than having an illicit drink with a maskless man.

By the time that Boris stood up to make his parliamentary statement “accepting” the criticisms of the civil servant’s report this week, there was a growing sense that Boris might well get away with it. He then lived uncomfortably through the worst two hours of any politician’s life as he had to apologize and grovel in response to a torrent of attacks, insults, gibes, flouts, and sneers.

But he survived, however unheroically, and later the same day he glad-handed his way around the 1922 committee of Tory back-benchers where he received a friendly reception. Though his approval ratings are low, they’ve stopped sinking, and there are signs in the opinion polls that support for the Tory Party has not fallen as far as most pundits expected because “shy Tories,” embarrassed by the Boris scandals, are getting over them and returning to the fold. And though the Telegraph tells us that a steady stream of MPs are still calling for Boris to go, its own list of them stops at twelve (or did at the time of writing) and one of them has since removed his letter of no confidence.

Boris meanwhile jetted off to Ukraine where he met the president and encouraged the Ukrainians to stand firm against Russian threats. He was pursuing the usual tactic of a political leader under fire of “getting on with the people’s business.” The Downing Street machine also let it be known that he would be installing a whole raft of reforms to improve the government's delivery of prosperity. In particular he would light a “bonfire of regulations” to take advantage of the U.K.'s “Brexit freedoms” now that it’s no longer bound by E.U. rules. Normality was returning—that was the message on Wednesday.

The Ukraine is nice this time of year.

On Thursday four senior Downing Street aides resigned. On Friday another aide followed. They included Johnson's chief of staff, his director of communications, and his principal private secretary--all key members of his entourage. The papers carry stories suggesting that at least some of the resignations were examples of "going to avoid being pushed" following less than stellar performances in office. One official had supposedly spent two days watching cricket in the week Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.  Whether or not such stories turn out to be true, the leaking of them is a standard operation by the government press machine to protect the boss. For the moment, therefore, keep a grain of salt at hand.

But one resignation may have a wider significance than the others. Munira Mirza was the head of the Policy Unit in Downing Street with a government-wide brief to advise on policy and strategy. She was not a civil servant who came with Downing Street but a personal friend and long-time aide to Johnson who served with him in his two terms as mayor of London. Johnson called her a "powerful nonsense detector" and relied considerably on her judgment and intellectual support.

Why did she jump? It's hard to believe that her stated reason—Boris's parliamentary gibe that opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer had failed in his duty a decade ago to prosecute the serial child molester and BBC disc jockey, Jimmy Savile—as the sole or even the main reason, though she doubtless disapproved of it. She certainly had other possible motives for resignation. In particular, she had set up a committee of distinguished social scientists of different ethnic backgrounds and national origins to report on racial and ethnic disparities in the U.K. It produced a thorough and well-documented report essentially arguing that though racism still exists in Britain, the "claim the country is still institutionally racist is not borne out by the evidence.”

That was controversial and strongly attacked by Labour, the wider Left, and "the race relations industry." It was also well-argued, supported by other social scientists, perfectly defensible, and a necessary attempt to ensure that race, ethnicity, and migration can be honestly and fairly debated. But the government failed to give the report its full backing. It was allowed to die. That must have pained Ms. Mirza, and it was probably not the last occasion on which her boss disappointed her by failing to fight important political battles in which "the Blob" would have been against him.

Sherelle Jacobs in a Daily Telegraph column noted that though public anger was fading over “Partygate” itself, its long term impact might be a more dangerous one: to suggest to voters that the Tories are faking it when they promise conservative policies or strike conservative attitudes.  Many voters—indeed, not a few Tory MPs themselves—feel exactly that. Nor will Boris’s latest promise of de-regulation comfort them. Here’s a quote from a Telegraph report the day after Boris promised his bonfire of regulations:

The Government watered down plans for a post-Brexit bonfire of Brussels regulations – often cited as a major benefit of leaving the EU – and opened fresh divides between the embattled Prime Minister and his backbenchers. A plan devised by Lord Frost, the UK’s former Brexit negotiator, to cut two retained EU regulations for every rule written was dropped. It was said not to fit in with Mr Johnson’s ambitions to cut Britain’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 .

As the old saying goes: You couldn't make it up.

Stiff upper lip, and all that.

Notice in particular that what seems to have blocked the government's program of de-regulation is its commitment to Net-Zero. For though there are undoubtedly other causes contributing to Britain’s growing energy crisis (with its immediate threat of energy prices rising one third this year), Net-Zero is the single most important reason. That truth has been denied and wished away for years, but its breaking through at last. Today's papers report that senior cabinet ministers in the U.K. now favor scaling back Net-Zero plans and encouraging more production of Britain's plentiful natural gas.

All  that stands in the way of this commonsense is Boris Johnson's zeal for Net Zero. But the prime minister’s resilience will not save him when the public is angry not over a few parties but over fuel bills they can’t pay and blackouts that chill their homes when both of these disasters are direct results of government policy.

Either Net-Zero goes, or he goes.

Covid, 'Climate Change,' and the Theory of Everything

Since classical physics seemingly clashed with quantum mechanics, scientists have tried to find an overarching theory. Searching for the Theory of Everything is the catchiest way to describe the grand quest. My quest is more base than grand, being steeped in political calculation. Yet it has a commonality of sorts with the theory of everything. I’m after a common factor which explains the loss of public support for three political leaders. Each quite different from one another.

My three subjects are Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, and Scott Morrison. According to the polls, support for each of them has plummeted since they were elected. If elections were held today each of them and their respective parties would be routed.

On the political spectrum, Biden has gone from (supposedly) moderately left to green-new-deal junkie. Johnson has gone from an irreverent, freedom-loving Brexit hero to a tax-raising, Covid-panicking, climate zealot. Morrison, true to expedient form, has embraced net-zero to appease wets among his colleagues, to assuage corporate carpetbaggers and, so I understand, to please Scandinavians.

Nobel Peace Prize here we come.

In the past, the issues of the day were more bread and butter than they are now. Generally, the state of the economy determined whether a government was returned or kicked out. "It’s the economy stupid," used to be the theory of everything.

Clearly, inflation is affecting the popularity of Biden. A touch of the past there. But that certainly isn’t playing out in the U.K. or in Australia to nearly the same extent. Nor does the dreaded Wuhan virus tip the balance either way in my view.

My impression is that those seeking safety, and astonishingly they are in their legions, are happy enough with their government. That’s because all three leaders have reacted with feckless paranoia at the least sign of sickness. Moreover, those hardy folk who are prepared to take a risk or two for freedom’s sake have largely been battered into submission by media and government propaganda machines. Being constantly told that your freedom poses a deadly risk to the vulnerable is unnerving.  Who wants to be accused of recklessly killing grannies and grandpas? No one. Game, set and re-election.

Biden has a border problem, as does Johnson to a lesser extent. This undoubtedly affects their popularity. But among which voters? That’s key, as I’ll come to.

Australia has the advantage of being an island continent. It’s easier to keep so-called asylum seekers out. Boats have to travel a fair way. Still, you have to be prepared to turn them back. Under Tony Abbott, prime minister from 2013-2015, they were turned back. If they scuttled their boats, hoping to be rescued and brought ashore, they were provided with life boats and pointed seaward.

As foretold by prophecy.

Of course, the usual suspects were outraged. However, no political party, except the delusional Greens, has ever risked going to an election promising to overturn the policy of turning back boats. They would like to. But they sniff the votes. The votes they’re sniffing are not those of the inner cities, the professional and corporate types, the public servants, the educators. They’re all now overwhelmingly left-cum-green voters. The votes at risk are in blue-collar outer suburbia, and in regional and rural towns.

John Howard, Australia’s prime minister from 1996 to 2007, won repeatedly by attracting the “Howard battlers.” Voters who in days past would have voted for the Labor Party. This section of the voting block also brought Boris Johnson his victory in 2019, as the so-called “red wall” of Labour constituencies in the Midlands, Northern England and in parts of Wales fell to the Tories. This story applies in similar measure to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 and also to Scott Morrison’s come-from-behind win in 2019.

It’s not so much the issue as the constituency. Trump appealed to America first; in other words, to old-fashioned patriotism. A lot followed from that. Defending the southern border; protecting American industry from predatory international competition and from onerous regulations; and withdrawing from draining foreign military engagements.

Johnson also keyed into patriotism. Brexit was won on patriotism not on financial calculations. Who's patriotic anymore? You’d mostly search in vain in white-collar inner-suburbia. Patriotism lives among blue-collar workers and in regional and rural communities.

It wasn’t patriotism per se that Morrison tapped into in 2019 but it was related and the constituency was the same. Climate-change apocalypticism threatened the coal industry in Northern New South Wales and Queensland and, with it, the livelihoods and way of life of surrounding communities. The common factor in the victories of Morrison and Johnson and Trump before them was their appeal to the national interest. Their thinking was spot on.

Learn to code, bro.

From spot on to derangement.  Climate-change apocalypticism has finally had its way. Nobody illustrated that better than Biden in New Hampshire at the end of 2019:

Anybody who can go down 300 to 3,000 feet in a mine can sure as hell learn to program as well...Give me a break! Anybody who can throw coal into a furnace can learn how to program, for god's sake!

Of course, the extent of Biden’s derangement is a special case. Nonetheless, the common factor in the falling popularity of all three leaders is their embrace of globalism in the place of the national interest. And, hence, their willingness to sacrifice the well-being of multitudes of their citizens in a quixotic quest to cool the planet. Maniacal, inexplicable, but true.

Maybe Biden didn’t really have much of a choice with AOC and Bernie Sanders snapping at his throat. Not so with Johnson and Morrison. Though I suppose, in part excuse, Johnson has his leftist wife, Prince Charles, and David Attenborough to deal with. I can’t find much of an excuse for Morrison.

Enemy of the People: Scott Morrison.

Last time he did a Trump and put Australia first. There was a big contrast between his Party’s climate policy and the opposition Labor Party’s. Now they are both aiming for net-zero; bizarrely dependent on unknown future technologies. In the meantime, onward with wind and solar boondoggles; and to blazes with Australia’s fossil fuel industries and the communities which live off them. There will be a comeuppance. As the votes of such communities drift away to conservative-minded independents, Morrison can forget about winning.

By and large, most Republicans understand today’s political landscape, I think. Johnson and Morrison seemingly don’t. Johnson has more time to change course. He won’t. His party needs to change him. Morrison, having swallowed the poisonous climate bait will likely meet his doleful fate. Dispatched to the opposition benches in the forthcoming May election.

Extremism in the Pursuit of Economic Madness

You don’t know it yet, although you think you do, but there is a great smash-up ahead of us when the extremist green policy of “Net-Zero” hits the West’s voters square in the solar plexus. The reason you think you know about this smash-up is because a vast array of Green pressure groups and activist organizations have combined to persuade you that you are already facing a completely different kind of smash-up.

They preach that unless you give up eating meat, fly less (or not at all), abandon your car for a slower and more expensive one, throw out your gas heaters for electric storage heaters that don’t actually keep you warm, and in general live more like a mendicant Buddhist, then a horrendous climate emergency will ensure that the world will end last Tuesday.

Last Tuesday? Surely not. But the correct answer is yes. We have already passed the dates of several environmental Armageddons and Goetterdammerungs that had been predicted by a long list of people and organizations from Extinction Rebellion  to Prince Charles to the New York Times (passim) to the United Nations to the CIA. Here's one of several lists of such false predictions:

And here’s the Guardian in 2004, waxing gleeful that President Bush will be embarrassed by a report from the CIA that Britain will be suffering a Siberian climate along with many other ills across Europe and the world by, er, last year.

No one apologizes for these self-confident errors when the world fails to experience the catastrophes they have forecast, and a week later another warning of imminent doom is posted to a loud chorus of demands for action NOW to prevent it. Anyone who points this out is condemned as a science denier, and nothing he says need ever be listened to again.

Do that voodoo you do do so well.

This would be a comedy of sorts if these false alarms had not persuaded governments and international agencies to prepare hugely expensive programs designed quite deliberately to make their industries’ costs much higher and their citizens poorer in order to ward off the anger of Gaia. Net-Zero is the name of one of those programs and as governments concede, it will require a very considerable belt-tightening on the part of ordinary citizens (aka voters.)

In short the real smash-up looming ahead of us will be what happens when the Net-Zero program actually reduces the living standards of the voters, some very substantially, starting in the next decade with the U.K. phasing out of petrol-driven cars, effectively compelling them to switch to more expensive electric vehicles.  For though voters have seen their living standards cut before by foolish policies, this would be the first time that a government has done so deliberately and boasted of doing so in advance. They won’t be able to claim ignorance or bad luck when the roof falls in.

That’s a very odd situation for democratic governments to find themselves in.  It runs counter to the usually strong survival instinct of politicians. Why have they almost all signed onto the “climate emergency” theory and to the Net-Zero policy response to it?

Look at the record. Only five MPs voted against the Climate Change Act that launched this policy in the U.K. parliament, and all the “respectable” parties in Europe and most of the world are passionately devoted to it. The U.N. has been its cheerleader since the Rio de Janeiro conference in the 1990s. China’s policy consists of promising to cut carbon emissions without actually doing so for as long as possible.

Indeed, except for the U.S., there’s an international consensus of governments in favor of Net-Zero (though not one in favor of paying for it since it costs a lot of money to make people poorer.) Now the election of President Biden signifies that Washington will join the consensus. So the question naturally arises: why are governments setting themselves up for a massive political clash with their own voters?

One very obvious reason is that global warming is a genuine problem, potentially a very serious one, which governments feel they must address with effective measures. Almost no one denies that, however. The supposed climate “deniers” such as Bjorn Lomborg, Michael Shellenberger, and former U.K. finance minister Lord Lawson, all accept the reality of the problem. Where they differ from the (semi-enforced) political consensus is in believing that the problem is serious without being an emergency and, more importantly, that there are better solutions to it that carry less damaging side effects than Net Zero. Their arguments and policy proposals are supported by impressive evidence. They deserve a hearing—and the world needs an open debate—rather than exclusion from debate by the establishment’s own cancel culture.

Shut up, they explained helpfully.

As that culture indicates, however, not all of the causes of the governments’ adhesion to Net Zero are respectable ones. A reason why they believe they can afford to risk and probably survive a serious clash with their electorates is that all the respectable parties have signed onto the deal. If all their rivals have publicly pledged support for Net-Zero, governments calculate, then there will be no one for the voters to vote for if they want to vote against the policy.

That calculation has proved successful in the case of the Euro. It has survived all the disasters it’s inflicted on Mediterranean Europe because no parties there were prepared to break with the European establishment’s pro-Euro consensus—and when one arrived in power that was half-prepared to do so, namely Syriza in Greece, it was bullied into acquiescence with threats of ruin and isolation.

But that kind of enforced consensus, as well as being a brutal thing that requires an illiberal silencing of debate and the hunting down of heretics like Lomborg, risks keeping bad policies in place because it protects them from criticism. For the moment at least, the Euro is a disaster but a secure one.

But such moments might be significantly extended by the cooperation between governments, establishments and activists to manufacture a Potemkin public opinion in opposition to the real reactions of voters to the economic consequences of both the Euro and Net-Zero.

Two new reports—Ben Pile’s monograph for the Global Warming Policy Foundation on the undemocratic tactics of the UK's Climate Assembly  and the Spiked article by Roslyn Fuller on the billionaire takeover of “civil society” NGOs—between them illustrate how a new kind of astroturf activism is attempting an end run around democracy by misrepresenting what the voters think to the media and public opinion. How is this done? That's something I'll return to next week.

All hail Unanimity.

But is anyone fooled by such tactics? Many people are, and as Pile has suggested, the problem is that governments, politicians, and the media are among them--though want to be fooled and cooperate in the folly. To be sure, they are likely to be shaken out of that folly by the raw reactions of anger and incredulity of voters over policies intentionally impoverishing them. Nothing persuades people more quickly than that.

But the politicians will then be facing a serious crisis as they have to decide between defying the electorate or reversing a policy in which they have invested large sums of taxpayers’s money along with the public trust.

If they had better memories, they would have recalled another recent case in which all the political parties felt secure in supporting the same unpopular policy, ignoring and dismissing signs that large numbers of their voters disagreed with them, only to discover that it had been surprisingly rejected in a referendum and they had invited a crisis that lasted for the next four years: