There is often a gulf between what the media think matters about Boris Johnson, and what the public think matters. For the political journalist, any sign that things are not quite as they should be in Downing Street – that war is raging between different factions, or the prime minister has offered to fix an industrialist’s tax affairs, or the exorbitant cost of redecorating the flat might have been met by some plutocrat – demands the most energetic investigation, carried out in the belief that this could be the scandal that brings down Johnson.
The public, or the larger part of it, tends to be less excitable. It has no desire to change prime minister every five minutes and is generally disposed to give whoever has that role several years to show what he or she can do. Nor does it find the latest scandal quite as shocking as the press does.
Both attitudes are correct. The feral beasts of the media should indeed chase after every hint of wrongdoing. Parliament has in many ways been distressingly supine since the general election of December 2019. Johnson got his mandate, and his majority, and pushed Brexit through with almost no parliamentary scrutiny. No sooner had he done so than the pandemic broke upon us, which meant we were reduced to a virtual House of Commons, in which it was much harder to hold ministers to account, even as the government imposed, without anything which could be regarded as adequate debate, drastic restrictions on personal liberty.
In such circumstances, a free press assumes even greater importance. Day after day, the parliamentary lobby asked the questions which needed to be asked. In this form, scrutiny was more continuous than it could be in the chamber itself. The answers the lobby obtained might not have been up to much, but there was a relentless search for the weaknesses in the government’s case, and in its conduct, including the conduct of the prime minister and his staff in Downing Street. The fear of being found out has continued to operate as an effectual check on the abuse of power. But for this, we would have found ourselves living in something not far short of an elective dictatorship. Adversarial politics requires a press, as well as an opposition, which is ready to hold the government to account.
There is, however, a price to be paid for such scrutiny. It is predicated on the belief that those in charge of our affairs are scoundrels. Those who already regard Johnson as a criminal, a view which for many Remainers hardened during the 2016 referendum campaign into a settled conviction, cannot understand why anyone continues to give him the benefit of the doubt. To them, he has become a moral outrage.
On Twitter, I see journalists whose work I respect expressing disgust and despair at the thought of the prime minister. So too do various eminent columnists. Nor do I suppose that anything I write will alleviate their anguish or persuade them to think differently. During the lockdown, I have been for walks in my local park in north London with various friends who condemn Johnson, and I have noticed that they do not modify their verdict when I venture to suggest that in order to understand him, and to see why people might be inclined to vote for him, it is necessary to approach him in a spirit of sympathy.
‘He’s a liar’, is often the first thing said about him: a declaration which precludes any examination of whether, as his supporters believe, he sometimes tells the truth. He has been written off as someone with whom no decent person can have anything to do, and to challenge this verdict is to share in his ignominy. The greater the rhetorical punishment one can inflict on Johnson, the more righteous one shows oneself to be. It is also much easier to write an amusing column of abuse than an amusing yet balanced appraisal.
But does one sometimes detect, in these denunciations, a hysterical attempt to suppress the columnist’s own doubts? And is not another problem with such anathemas that they can so quickly start to sound coercive? ‘Unless you agree with me, you too are an evil person’ is the message that is conveyed, and to people of a live-and-let-live disposition it is repugnant to be told what to think. They prefer Johnson’s fallibility, and desire to entertain, to the infallibility, and insistence that life is no laughing matter, of his opponents, whose morality can so easily develop into an attempt to control the lower orders. In such circumstances, voting for Johnson becomes a blow for freedom struck against a bunch of middle-class prigs.
The writer is a former parliamentary sketch writer and has written books about Boris Johnson, British monarchs and prime ministers, and American presidents.