How British Conservatives Lost Their Way

LONDON — British Conservatives, who have ruled the country for longer than any other party in recent history, are in an agonized, self-flagellating panic. Should they get rid of Boris Johnson, their populist leader, whose deceit and breaking of lockdown rules has infuriated so much of the country and embarrassed his party? Or stick with a man who, so far, has kept them in power?

This may be a British story but the Tories’ choice will resonate among many political parties across the democratic world. As American voters learned with Donald Trump in 2020, the choice of keeping or replacing Mr. Johnson — and the matter is now on a knife’s edge in London — will affect not just the future of the Conservative Party but Britain’s standing in the world. For the party, it’s about being respected again as a coherent ideological force, led with decency. Essentially, it’s about self-respect. In terms of Britain’s standing internationally, the question is whether the Conservatives are ready to get rid of a leader who has done a proud country so much damage.

The damage done to the Tories is clear enough in opinion polls. Following Mr. Johnson’s 80-seat general election victory in 2019, and the strong support he maintained afterward, even during the grimmer moments of the pandemic, recent polling now shows the Tories lagging behind the Labour Party by anything between three and 14 points. For many Conservative lawmakers, those are serious tea leaves, and represent the possible loss of their seats.

But this goes nowhere near capturing the grief and shame convulsing much of this fundamentally traditionalist party. The scandals over boozy parties during the Covid lockdown, and the lying that followed them, ripped into the Tories’ sense of themselves as essentially decent followers of “the people’s priorities.”

In defending himself, Mr. Johnson compounded the problem by trying to smear the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, by association with a notorious pedophile, Jimmy Savile. In a devastating rebuke to Mr. Johnson, his long-serving and close adviser Munira Mirza publicly resigned, telling him “there was no fair or reasonable basis” for what he said, and calling on him to make a proper apology. “It is not too late for you,” she said, “but, I’m sorry to say, it is too late for me.”

Her pain has been widely shared by senior Tories. Baroness Ruth Davidson, the former and highly successful Scottish Conservative leader, broke down in tears when she was asked on television about Mr. Johnson’s behavior. Charles Walker, one of the leaders of the Conservatives’ backbenchers in Parliament, said he would leave politics, telling a news program there was “a lot of grief and pain” in Britain, which could be assuaged only by Mr. Johnson stepping aside. A previous Tory leadership contender, the former diplomat, soldier and writer Rory Stewart, tweeted about “the sheer tawdry Trumpian shabbiness of the whole thing — it is difficult to see how much more of this the party or our political system can survive.”

But the brutal truth is that Conservatives shamefully squinted past Mr. Johnson’s very-well-known flaws as long as he was doing well at the polls. For many years, in journalism and politics, Mr. Johnson has shown a cheerful contempt for ordinary norms, expectations and rules, leaving a scattering of scrapes, denunciations, broken friendships and irate foes behind him. These range from the comparatively trivial — a blizzard of parking tickets — to the deeply serious, such as his 2019 attempt to truncate Parliament’s sittings during the bitter battle for Brexit, an act that drew the queen into political controversy and that was later ruled unlawful and void by the Supreme Court.

Alongside this, Mr. Johnson has always shown a never-surrender determination. The instinct runs through him in great issues and small ones. I chaired a big public debate between him and the classical historian Mary Beard about which was the greater civilization — ancient Greece or ancient Rome. Mr. Johnson entranced a several-thousand strong crowd with his account of Greek civilization. But he was then verbally slaughtered, diced and sliced by Ms. Beard, and he lost the debate. There was supposed to be a dinner afterward. Mr. Johnson didn’t show. One family member who did told me Mr. Johnson would be padding around central London like a wounded bear — he hated to lose.

Both of Mr. Johnson’s Tory predecessors, Prime Ministers David Cameron and Theresa May — the latter attacked him publicly in the Commons last week — seem to largely agree that Mr. Johnson’s record should have ruled him out for the top job. So why did the Boris Johnson premiership happen?

The obvious answer is because he won so many millions of votes — and, like Mr. Trump in 2016, he performed well in some places that the left usually carried. Alongside the evasiveness and clowning, Mr. Johnson has extraordinary charisma and a professional comic’s sense of timing. He is exceptionally clever, including emotionally: He projects the subtle suggestion of underlying personal pain, an appeal for understanding, even love, that so many authoritarian leaders have shared. And he understands the rhythms of political life. He exploited the fierce emotions caused by the referendum to leave the European Union, and then in 2019 he won the passionate support of voters who found conventional politicians pious, dreary and remote.

But the more he embodied a cult leader, the more the Conservatives allowed him to distort traditional norms on which Britain, like so many older democracies, has relied. Throughout the 20th century, political competition in most major democratic countries depended upon big, vaguely ideas-based political parties. They were always riven by internal splits, and they were baggy coalitions of interest, but there was essential agreement about the size of the state, taxes, liberty and economics.

In younger democracies, political parties have more often been like machines for leaders. Populism, or the cult of the angry leader, has dressed itself in conventional party clothing in countries such as Zimbabwe, Argentina or India.

Now, something similar is arriving in the West. Mr. Johnson is not, and never was, “Britain Trump” — he is much more liberal, a believer in the virtues of some immigration and a consistent believer in the reality of man-made global warming. He is, most of the time, less menacing toward his opponents. He prefers to joke rather than to goad. But he has been like Mr. Trump in his readiness to bend rules, and bend the truth, to gain and hold power; and like Mr. Trump in his almost mystical connection with voters who had previously thought themselves shunned by the political establishment.

Democracies with leaders who possess a cult of personality have been spreading around the world, whether in India with Narendra Modi, Hungary with Viktor Orbán or Brazil with Jair Bolsonaro. They depend on a more passionate identification between voters and the single leader, on whom hope, prosperity and security depend. It produces a more overheated political atmosphere — at times more the mood of an evangelical chapel than of a town-hall meeting.

The great weakness is that when the leader fails, or is exposed as fallible, everything fails. Britain is being mocked from Moscow to Washington; across the European Union, cartoonists, satirists and commentators delight in ridiculing Mr. Johnson.

Conservatives now ask themselves who they really are. Socially liberal as Mr. Johnson was when he was London’s mayor — or socially conservative like many of their new working class voters? Defenders of elite bankers and big corporations — many top Conservatives come from business — or champions of their new, poorer, post-Brexit Tory voters, angry about economic unfairness?

For decades under successive leaders, as different as Margaret Thatcher, Mrs. May or Mr. Cameron, theirs had been a self-confident party, based on support for business and the projection of a strong security identity abroad. Conservatives were hostile to high taxation and an overmighty state. But Brexit, the arrival into the fold of so many former Labour voters, and the Johnson style of government has shaken all of this up.

One former minister under Mr. Johnson told me last week that he thought the Tories were becoming more like Labour under the socialist leader Harold Wilson of the 1960s and ’70s. So, are they the high spending, pugnaciously patriotic party of Mr. Johnson and his new voters; a party of fiscal rectitude and small government … or what?

This too should feel familiar. The victory of Mr. Trump bent the Republican Party into strange shapes. His behavior, and ultimately the storming of Congress, saw America derided around the world — and diminished for a while the soft power of the West. Voters in democracies with several generations’ experience can be as susceptible, it turns out, to a cult leader as voters anywhere else.

Luckily, many democracies infected by the contagion of populism can still cure themselves. In John Kenneth Galbraith’s phrase, the countervailing powers — in this case, parliamentary accountability and a free media — can limit and even reverse the damage. The 2020 U.S. election, the congressional committee on Jan. 6 and attempts at electoral system reforms have begun the process in the United States; official inquiries and the looming pressure of the potential Conservative Party leadership contest can do the same in Britain.

If Mr. Johnson goes, most of the likely replacements are people of a very different cast of character: the impeccably polite chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, for instance, and the experienced former foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt. A Britain under someone other than Mr. Johnson would feel, remarkably quickly, like a very different place.

Would they be able to heal the party after the alpha male antics of Boris Johnson? Has British politics become addicted to strident, provocative rhetoric and the emotional appeal of the big leader? Or is there, perhaps, even at this late moment, a way of walking back? That’s the dilemma confronting Conservative lawmakers right now. The answer they choose will echo far beyond the Tory Party itself.

Andrew Marr is a contributing Opinion writer. He is a veteran British journalist and political analyst, and was a longtime television and radio host for the BBC.

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