Tory Cancel Culture: can Boris “the greased piglet” Johnson wriggle free?

After working hard to bring American-style culture war to the UK, Boris Johnson discovered that cancel culture is very much a thing. Only surprise, surprise — it’s the Boris Show on the chopping block and Conservatives wielding the sharpest blades. Tories always knew Johnson was both party animal and chronic liar. Why the sudden outrage over the very traits they once found endearing? Don’t be fooled by the faux outrage. The real political drama lies beneath the sound and fury of Boris Johnson’s “partygate”. It goes by the name of Brexit.

Party? What Party? Nothing to see here — just work-events with free food & booze

In just the last few weeks Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of The United Kingdom, has been called “dead man walking”, said to be in “the last-chance saloon” and declared “more or less finished as prime minister”. That’s just a small sampling of Tory opinion. Don’t write him off yet though. The finest skill in the Boris arsenal is his ability to escape tight spots. David Cameron once said of him:

The thing about the greased piglet is that he manages to slip through other people’s hands where mere mortals fail.

The “greased piglet” now wriggles for his political life. What a difference a year makes. Not so long ago Johnson was riding high in the polls and prized by the entire Conservative Party for his achievements. Top of the list was Boris stealing a bunch of northern “red wall” seats from Labour during the 2019 election to claim a parliamentary majority of 80 seats — enabling him to “get Brexit done”. Never mind that Brexit has been an economic wrecking ball, with British trade to the EU down by nearly 16% and long-term UK GDP expected to decline by 4%. Brexit has since lost the public as well, thanks to knock-on hardships of a sinking economy — from empty supermarket shelves to long lines for petrol. Only 38% of Britain now thinks Brexit was a good idea (as of Jan 12, 2022). But don’t say that to a Tory. Brexit remains the party’s political lodestar. To exactly what destination is the sticking point, but I’ll come back to that in a moment.

In case you’re blissfully ignorant of “partygate”, here’s a quick summary. Just before Christmas, Boris was practicing his favorite stock-in-trade: lying. In this case it was lying about a boozy party held at №10 Downing Street the previous Christmas in violation of covid lock-down rules. These were rules Boris himself had created and announced to the nation. He first denied there had been any parties in Downing Street. Then ITV got a year-old smoking gun tape of Allegra Stratton — Boris’ press secretary at the time — joking off-camera about said party. At least she thought she was off-camera. Boris was outraged. OUTRAGED! He promptly fired Stratton while still insisting there had been no party. Maybe a small wine and cheese get-together but certainly not a party. An ensuing drip-drip-drip of Downing Street leaks revealed party after party.

Ryannair got into the fun with this post on their Twitter feed.

All in violation of covid rules. Perhaps the leaks were orchestrated by Johnson’s vindictive former advisor, Dominic Cummings. Perhaps not. It was all quite awkward, forcing Boris to invent fresh excuses/lies for each new bombshell — while continuing to deny parties had happened. The mob of critics grew to include not just the opposition Labour, SNP and Lib Dems, but Tories and Tory tabloids as well, forcing Johnson to “apologize” to Parliament for having attended a “work-event” without realizing it might have been a party. He followed it up with an apology to the Queen after news broke of another party (a №10 disco-dance affair) the night before she buried her husband while sitting alone in church. Because the Queen did follow Johnson’s covid rules. There are at least15 known parties, the latest being a Boris birthday bash at №10 that his aide claims was just 30 people gathered round a cake to sing “happy birthday”. Comics and social media funsters are in 7th Heaven with Boris work-event/party memes and jokes . My favorite is a video mashup where Line of Duty TV cops interrogate Johnson. Brilliant.

Partygate is an excuse for Tory in-fighting over Brexit

Some ministers stand by their man while others manage only “mealy-mouthed support” of the Prime Minister — looking at you Chancellor Rishi Sunak. It’s hardly surprising that Rishi is loath to jump into the fray since he sees blood in the water and Chancellor is a traditional launch-pad to PM. But most have forgotten the real earthquake in the cabinet. That came when David Frost quit Boris’ government right before Christmas. Frost wasn’t just any cabinet joe schmo. He had negotiated Brexit, after which Boris made him Lord Frost and Brexit Minister to boot. Frost is the very personification of Brexit and his resignation didn’t come because of any partying. It was the covid rules against the partying that soured him. Plus how Boris was doing Brexit. Lord Frost’s words:

Brexit is now secure. The challenge for the Government now is to deliver on the opportunities it gives us.

You know my concerns about the current direction of travel. I hope we will move as fast as possible to where we need to get to: a lightly regulated, low-tax, entrepreneurial economy, at the cutting edge of modern science and economic change.

The Frost resignation immediately set abuzz the 100 plus Conservative MPs who make up the “Clean Global Brexit” Whatsapp group.

Thersa Villiers: Very worrying the Lord Frost has gone.

Andrew Bridgen: Worrying? It’s a disaster. Lord Frost was concerned about the policy direction of the Gov. So are most of the Conservative backbenchers.

Marcus Fysh: Frost is a hero and 100% right on this. The whole point of Brexit is radical supply side reform and moving away from the EU model, yet Ministers are happy just to give hard won power put in their hands to achieve this to officials who will do the opposite.

Think about that:The whole point of Brexit is radical supply side reform”. Brexit isn’t about more money for the NHS or “leveling up” to make Britain a more equal place. It’s about bringing “radical supply side” economics to Britain.

The underlying fissure among Tories is the Boris approach to Brexit. He sold it to the British public as a fantasy about all the goodies Brits could get if they gave the boot to EU meanies who didn’t want them to have nice things. But the desire of Hard-Brexiteers was a return to the path Margaret Thatcher had blazed: unlimited capitalism with limited government. In other words a privatized NHS, developers in charge of planning, etc etc. Hard-Brexiteers care about “partygate” only because the public is turning on them because of it. Conservatives now trail Labour by 13 points with two-thirds of the country saying Boris needs to go. But their deeper concern is that of Lord Frost. Johnson may have got Brexit done but then he went soft. Where is the mass deregulation? What about privatizing the National Health Service? Why the hold-up on white paper reforms needed for big developers to bulldoze the English countryside and build American-style suburbs? Where is the American-style industrial farming that could open the door to a US-UK trade deal? These are the things the rich need and want after financing Brexit. It was never about the little guy.

Tory Brexiteers who do fight for the little guy

The rub for the Tories is that the Hard-Brexit crowd is only one part of the Brexit coalition. The other part — a crucial part — is the former Labour constituencies that supported Brexit and turned Tory in the 2019 Johnson landslide. The voters of these new Tory “Red Wall” seats believed the Johnson promises/lies that Brexit was about “levelling-up” Britain, making it a more equal place. Putting more money into the NHS. Building schools. Getting new buses, train lines and infrastructure in long-neglected parts of Wales, the Midlands, and Northern England.

Instead Johnson cancelled a crucial northern rail link when his Thatcherite Chancellor refused to pay for it. Treasury also slashed the Boris “bus back better” plan. Adding insult to injury Boris told northern business leaders last fall that government “cannot fix everything” and that “the true driver of growth is not government but the energy and dynamism and originality of the private sector”. In a bizarre Johnsonian twist he went on to praise the Peppa Pig theme park (based on the Peppa Pig children’s cartoon) as an example of said private sector dynamism. Here’s a snippet:

I was a bit hazy about what I would find at Peppa Pig World, but I loved it. Peppa Pig World is very much my kind of place. It has very safe streets, discipline in schools, a heavy emphasis on mass transit systems I noticed, even if they are a bit stereotypical about Daddy Pig.

The business leaders listening at the CBI conference in the Port of Tyne were bewildered. As was the rest of Britain. Why is he talking about Peppa Pig? I should note that Peppa Pig world is in the south of England, near the Channel coast. Very far from the CBI conference where Boris was speaking — supposedly to shore up the Tory vote in the North. One on these new “Red Wall” MPs was Christian Wakeford. The broken promises combined with endless Tory corruption and sleaze stories were pushing him to the wall. And not just him. All forty-five Tory “Red Wall” MPs are in danger of losing their seats thanks to “partygate”.

Labour announcement welcoming Christian Wakeford into the party.

Wakeford finally quit the Tories altogether, crossing the aisle in the House of Commons and joining Labour benches. Pushing Tory “big beast” David Davis to stand in the House of Commons and thunder at Johnson:

‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. In the name of God, go.’

This line was last used to boot Neville Chamberlain from PM in 1940 in favor of Winston Churchill. The first minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, best summarized where things stand now:

Conservative MPs have been fighting each other like ferrets in a sack this week, and it’s very hard to see how the prime minister survives.

Where do Boris & Brexit go from here?

Boris was a Remainer before joining the Leave Campaign. He famously wrote opposing drafts for a Brexit opinion piece, before sticking his finger in the political wind and publishing the pro-Brexit version. Funny isn’t it, how the same Brexit that gave him power now factors into him losing his PM gig? But Brexit won’t ultimately determine Johnson’s fate. That’s just emotional muscle animating Tory passions as they decide how to handle the key thing: “partygate”. The public is outraged and a decision must be made. Are they better off with Boris? Or do they chuck him out a Downing Street window? In the early days of the scandal Boris tasked a civil servant loyal to him, Simon Case, with “investigating”. That was the best way to make sure it was swept under a Downing Street rug. Unfortunately Case had also been to a party, albeit not the same one he was to investigate. In the face of much howling, Johnson was forced to pass the job to Sue Gray, apparently not realizing she had a “fearsome reputation” for diligence and getting at the truth. Tories were anxiously awaiting her report. More to the point they were waiting to see public reaction to the Sue Gray report before deciding Johnson’s fate. That was before police opened their own “partygate” investigation on January 24, meaning Johnson’s government has been gifted an excuse to delay Sue Gray’s findings by claiming it interferes with the Met’s work. Which sounds lame excuse because it is. The Met says they don’t care, Sue Gray says she WILL release the report. So who knows?

In the meantime №10 has been desperately trying to save Boris by throwing red meat at hard-core Brexiteers. In fact Boris even named it “Operation Red Meat”. In short, defund the BBC. Use the navy to chase down refugees in the English Channel before they land, then ship them to Ghana for processing. (For real, I’m not making a joke). He also promised to ban alcohol in Downing Street, and end all covid restrictions — a nod to Lord Frost and the pro-covid Tory crowd. In a sop to the soft-Brexiteers, he promised to get on with “Levelling Up”. Ghana summed up the reaction of everyone when they refused to take part in “operation dead meat” while noting that no one had consulted them about taking British refugees.

Whether Boris lasts weeks, months or to the next election is hard to say. If I were a betting man I’d go with two weeks. But I wouldn’t bet much. He is slippery and ruthless as a snake, as shown by recent news detailing his willingness to blackmail any MP who stands in his way. Still, something has to be done with chaos sinking Tory poll numbers and Boris is the chaos-cheerleader-in-chief. Tories have a tradition of defenestrating leaders who tank their popularity. Ask Margaret Thatcher.

Brexit is another beast. It’s unlikely to be undone. How it’s done is the question. The two top Tory contenders for PM — should Boris go — are Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liss Truss. Sunak is a high-tech libertarian in the mold of Silicon Valley tech bros — he spent his formative years at Stanford University. He’s also one of the richest men in Britain and has a penchant for Thacher-style tax-cutting and small government. Which might not be the best political fit for a nation with rising inflation, a sinking economy and a flailing health service. The civil servants working for Liz Truss nicknamed her “the human hand-grenade”. Not a term of endearment but Liz is fond of it and the Tories in her corner hope she’ll blow-up remaining obstacles to a red-meat Brexit. Here’s a handy list of all contenders for the PM job. One thing is clear. Whoever wants to win a Tory civil war has to first win the hard-men of Brexit. It’s not just voting MPs in that crowd, its also the rich who back them.

Brexit will likely stay even if Boris goes and his successor is beaten in the next election. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has vowed to “make Brexit work” if he becomes Prime Minister, pledging Britain would not rejoin the EU and adding he would also keep the UK out of the single market. I never thought Brexit was a good idea since it was always a right-wing project designed to benefit the very rich. But there was and is a left-wing argument for Brexit, one which would create a very different Britain from that envisioned by Boris Johnson and his Brexiteer pals. Whether Sir Keir Starmer is the man to take them there is both puzzle and question for another day. For now it’s party-on with “party-gate”.

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Kent Moorhead is a Mississippi documentary filmmaker & writer living in Stockholm, Sweden. You can read more about his work on his Passage Film website.

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Kent Moorhead

Kent Moorhead

Kent Moorhead is a Mississippi documentary filmmaker & writer living in Stockholm, Sweden. You can read more about his work on his Passage Film website.

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