How to Be Prime Minister

William Davies on Johnson and Corbyn

Where to start with the sheer strangeness, let alone the danger, of the current situation in British politics? One place would be with the three characters at the centre of events. As the tectonic plates of the British state rumble ominously, take a moment to register quite how strange it is that the headlines should be dominated by the figures of Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Dominic Cummings. Absent the idiosyncrasies of these men, and the way they determine their interactions, the present crisis would be playing out in a different way entirely.

The central fact of Johnson’s political career is that he has harboured a desire for high office since he was a child (we are told), but had scant interest in what he might do with it should he get it. David Cameron explained that he wanted to be prime minister ‘because I think I’d be good at it’, but this is something Johnson has never maintained about himself. The evidence to the contrary is already accumulating rapidly. And yet, there he sits, unelected but in office, a wish fulfilled.

Johnson has no ideology and no philosophy. It isn’t even clear he has ambition, beyond making a point of having got where he’s got. His residence in 10 Downing Street represents a personal triumph, which he will want to prolong as long as possible, by whatever means possible. It is a reflection on Britain’s constitution that it is being pushed to its limit by a man who has no vision of the nation beyond his own pre-eminence in it. The media spent the Conservative leadership election posing questions about Johnson’s ‘character’, yet the graver and more complicated question is how the Tory Party and the Westminster village allowed themselves to become vehicles for one man’s personal fantasy. Johnson has the single political advantage of being well known by the public, but he is scarcely liked, let alone admired. The reality is that his main qualification for office is that he wants it more than anyone else. Brought low by decades of division and ideological torpor, Conservative MPs seemed unable to imagine any better credential.

Rarely can the term Her Majesty’s Opposition have resonated as strongly as when Johnson and Corbyn faced each other across the dispatch box in the House of Commons. The differences between these men go well beyond policy or ideology; they reach into more basic questions of human psychology and what Max Weber called the ‘vocation’ of politics. Corbyn, of course, never wanted to lead anything, let alone the country. It wasn’t until the age of 66, when it was ‘his turn’ to stand as the left-wing candidate in a Labour leadership election, that he was thrust into the position of prospective prime minister.

The result, now that Johnson is in Downing Street, is a quite extraordinary polarity. We have one leader who has spent his entire life imagining himself standing on the steps of Number 10 (it was noted that, as he entered for the first time as prime minister, he was waving with one hand, while the other rested in his suit pocket, thumb protruding – an exact replica of a favourite Churchill pose), and another leader who was past retirement age before the daunting prospect even occurred to him. We have one man whose entire career has been built on passionate ethical commitments, most notably as an anti-war campaigner and advocate of Palestinian rights, and another who seems devoid of a single enduring belief.

Corbyn, to be sure, has demonstrated more political acumen, and above all more tenacity, than many would have predicted in the summer of 2015. He has also picked up political skills that Johnson was supposed to have learned at Eton and Oxford, but plainly didn’t. Johnson’s supporters in the House of Commons have had many disappointing reality checks over the course of his short premiership, but none can have been more distressing than the sight of their leader flailing around at Prime Minister’s Questions, as Corbyn took him to pieces. What, after all, is the point of Johnson, if he can’t dismiss his opponents with a clever turn of phrase? What, indeed, is the point of the Oxford Union, if one of its most celebrated presidents can’t win a debate against an Islington hippy? The proroguing of Parliament couldn’t come soon enough for Johnson.

Yet no matter how skilfully Corbyn plays his hand in the short term, it’s his CV and his freakish pathway to the leadership that will always count more heavily. And this is integral to the political impasse created by Brexit. If Corbyn were a ‘normal’ leader, who had risen to the leadership by a typical route, there would be a simple way out of this crisis: a vote of no confidence would be called, and the leader of the opposition would be invited to form a coalition government. Given the impressive levels of co-operation across the ‘rebel alliance’ of Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP and Tory rebels, the new prime minister would have every chance of working out a Brexit policy that could get through the House of Commons. But the prospect of a Corbyn government has become an exceptional factor in all of this: it’s the one thing that hardcore Leavers see as worse than remaining, and the one thing hardcore Remainers see as worse than leaving.

What is it about Corbyn that puts him beyond the pale? There are several reasons for the widespread animosity towards him, foremost among them the sustained problem of antisemitism that has dogged the party under his leadership. But it’s not clear that this alone renders his premiership unthinkable. Conservative newspapers and columnists refer to his ‘Marxism’ as a shorthand way of painting him as dangerous. But this has always been something of a red herring. Unlike John McDonnell (who cut his teeth as chair of finance at the radical GLC in the early 1980s), he has shown little interest in economic policy during his career, dedicating far more energy to opposing imperialism abroad than economics at home. In any case, recent noises from the City suggest that even the banks are now far better disposed towards a Corbyn government (which would at the very least ensure a customs union with Europe) than a no deal Johnson administration.

There is a more fundamental reason why, as far as many Westminster insiders and much of the public are concerned, Corbyn cannot become prime minister, and it has nothing to do with putting workers on company boards: he is ideologically opposed to the use of violence. This is why questions surrounding national security and nuclear war will always dog him, and why, when push comes to shove, even many centrists would prefer the chaos of no deal, overseen by a mendacious man-child, to Prime Minister Corbyn. At least that mendacious man-child will be willing to use the full range of tools at the state’s disposal.

Weber saw modern political leadership as a balancing act between commitment to ultimate goals, and responsibility for the potentially devastating tools that the state uses to pursue them. Too much of the former (‘an ethic of ultimate ends’) and you have delusional zealotry, oblivious to the harm that is done in the service of idealism. Too much of the latter, and you have machine politics, where energy is focused on questions of efficiency and delivery. But whatever the circumstances, the ultimate tool of the state is always violence, and a ‘responsible’ politician is one who keeps this brute truth in mind.

By Weber’s definition it isn’t clear that a pacifist can ever be a politician, let alone a national leader. Or rather, it isn’t possible to remain a pacifist once you have taken charge of a modern state. You either assume ‘responsibility’ for the violent operation you are leading, or continue reciting your dogma of ‘ultimate ends’ while turning your back on the consequences. It’s well known that on the day a new prime minister takes office their duties include writing a letter to nuclear submarine commanders, giving them instructions on what action to take in the event that Britain has been wiped out in a nuclear attack. There is a deathly substrate to the state and its highest offices that seems almost ontologically incompatible with Jeremy Corbyn’s image of himself. This is the reason his followers adore him, and the reason too that the (far larger) ranks of sceptics will never accept him as part of a compromise.

Weber had Johnson’s number. He warned against the politician whose ‘vanity’ turns the pursuit of power into a ‘purely personal self-intoxication’, who strives ‘for the glamorous semblance of power, rather than for actual power’. And yet, because ‘striving for power is one of the driving forces of all politics, there is no more harmful distortion of political force than the parvenu-like braggart with power, and the vain self-reflection in the feeling of power’. Johnson may be in it for the posh banquets and Churchillian photos, but the consequences are far, far weightier. It is because he is so uninterested in consequences that he has delegated so much power to his chief strategist.

Dominic Cummings has become an object of fascination thanks to his brazen disregard for rules and his dabbling in the exotic arts of rationalist theorising. His dense and rambling blogposts, among them the interminable ‘Some thoughts on education and political priorities’, are now the site of an archaeological dig for anyone seeking to divine the underlying logic of Johnson’s apparently chaotic administration (Christopher Clark writes about Cummings’s blog and his obsession with Bismarck on p.21). There is a guilty frisson in the idea of a lawless nihilist pulling all the strings, but to grasp the danger Cummings poses, one has to start by recognising how ordinary his core assumptions are. One thing that is certain and consistent in the Cummings outlook is that MPs are a pompous waste of space, and civil servants are a cartel of self-interested cowards, whose main function is thwarting policy. These views are thought appalling in Westminster and Whitehall for obvious reasons, but in pubs up and down the country, they are almost an orthodoxy.

What is unusual is not that Cummings should hold these views, but that he has held them while pursuing a career in Whitehall. His condemnation of a stagnant public sector is seen as common sense in much of the business world, especially the world of e-government contractors and public sector outsourcing, whose shtick rests on the idea that government is crap at doing stuff. Tony Blair’s obsession with ‘public service modernisation’, built on the creed that ‘what matters is what works,’ provided an adjacent justification for outsourcing and endless managerial reforms: they would, it was said, inject more dynamism, efficiency and ‘leadership’ into the public sector. Cummings is in some ways the logical conclusion of this relentless modernising mentality, in which the state is always deficient in comparison to business.

Except, of course, that it isn’t just public services he is trying to shake up. His antipathy to stasis now seems to apply to virtually any convention or institution of British public life. The Conservative Party, the House of Commons, the ‘purdah’ rules (which seek to prevent the civil service being used for political ends during an election campaign), data protection, normal relations with the media, the electoral commission, and possibly the rule of law itself, are all viewed as obstacles to circumvent in pursuit of some goal. His boss’s goal is clear: to remain in Downing Street. What Cummings wants, other than the further humiliation of British elites, is less clear. For the time being, though, Johnson’s possession of an attack dog, willing to tear away at the basic conditions of liberal democracy, looks like an electoral asset, now that a sizeable proportion of the electorate has decided that democracy is a sham.

So, a prime minister who is in office mainly because he so badly wants to be, a leader of the opposition who is both loved and loathed for being so unlike a political leader, and a government strategist who despises government. It is as if a conventional modern politician had been broken in three. Add Johnson’s personal ambition to Corbyn’s piety, and combine them with Cummings’s technocratic zeal, and you might get someone a bit like Blair – the very model of the ‘responsible’ politician Weber had in mind, and the last thing most voters want right now. We are living with the consequences of a prolonged and deepening anti-politics.

*

Deference to our sometime political superiors has been in decline for more than half a century. The sense of alarm when (apparently on Cummings’s instruction) 21 Conservative MPs were purged from the party for voting in favour of an extension to Article 50 was partly a reflection of the ruthlessness of that action, but also an expression of sentimental feeling for the old duffers being punished. In their crumpled suits and schoolboy ties, they seemed so harmless! When the grandson of Winston Churchill (Sir Nicholas Soames) and the great-great grandson of Lord Salisbury (Richard Benyon) are being booted out, it would seem that the age of cap-doffing is well and truly over. But Cummings was merely accelerating a trend.

How does liberal democracy work, once tradition, class and culture no longer identify appropriate governors? The success of neoliberalism, which emerged as a new policy paradigm in the late 1970s, derived as much from its solution to this problem as from its economic outcomes, which have always been questionable. At the heart of neoliberal philosophy was the idea that markets are smarter than governments because they factor in millions of ordinary opinions and expectations, whereas governments rely on a coterie of over-confident experts and planners. Markets aren’t just efficient, but democratic. They give everyone a say.

Privatisation, deregulation, PFI and other pro-market reforms worked with the grain of a public that was increasingly sceptical of public authorities and politics in general. Blair’s gambit was that only by keeping pace with the expectations of an increasingly consumerist culture could public services retain credibility and support. This may have been true in the medium term, but eventually it leaves the public sector without any justification or cultural identity of its own. It is a state-led strategy for hollowing out and talking down public service (as distinct from business), one that was followed even as New Labour was pouring unprecedented sums of money into public services.

Meanwhile, Parliament and parties did less and less. Political party membership and electoral turnouts declined. It isn’t irrelevant that the period in which publics across the world slowly deserted their political institutions was also one of economic stability and policy consensus. Politics no longer seemed to provide answers to the questions that mattered, either to citizens or to policymakers. This was the crucible of the Cummings worldview.

It’s now clear that the financial crisis of 2008, and the years of austerity that followed, had the effect of discrediting neoliberal dogmas about the market, but – contrary to the initial hopes of the left – without restoring confidence in government or democracy. A diffuse mood of anti-elitism, targeted at business, media, politics and government, has created a residual sense that institutions have been rigged by insiders. Johnson, Corbyn and Cummings each in his own way harnesses and expresses this populist instinct. Each is jostling to be the beneficiary of institutional decay.

The danger for Labour, which is also the danger for liberal democracy, is that the EU referendum has become viewed by many Leavers (and their sympathisers in the media) as the only uncorrupted political institution left. The Johnson-Cummings script is a beautifully simple one: ‘the people’ spoke in June 2016, but the politicians weren’t prepared to listen. The more enemies Johnson makes in Westminster, Whitehall and the courts, the more he demonstrates his fidelity to the one true act of democracy. The more often he is defeated – even to the point of humiliation – the more he proves his mettle to the 17.4 million who have been denied what they were promised. Corbyn’s defence of Parliament and the rule of law makes him look statesmanlike, but it also exposes him to the attack lines that will be deployed once the Cummings electoral machine kicks into gear in the autumn.

But nailing Corbyn as part of ‘the elite’ is scarcely going to wash. He can’t be the face of Parliament and a threat to national security. He can’t be a liberal Remainer and an insurrectionary Marxist. As Theresa May found in June 2017, Corbyn is a much trickier political opponent than he often appears to be, and he remains the most plausible alternative to another Johnson-Cummings government. Before very long, we will be witnessing an electoral showdown between the man who would do anything to appear ‘prime ministerial’, and the one who has often appeared anything but. These are strange and unpredictable forms of authority: only a fool would claim to know which way it will go.