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Britain needs a new era of serious leaders

The writer, a former Conservative cabinet minister, is on the Advisory Board of The Britain Project

Boris Johnson is a terrible prime minister and a worse human being. But he is not a monster newly sprung from a rent between this world and the next. Twenty years have passed since the Conservative party first selected him as a candidate. Michael Howard and David Cameron made him a shadow minister, and Theresa May gave him the Foreign Office. Thirty years of celebrity made him famous for his mendacity, indifference to detail, poor administration, and inveterate betrayal of every personal commitment. Yet, knowing this, the majority of Conservative MPs, and party members, still voted for him to be prime minister. He is not, therefore, an aberration, but a product of a system that will continue to produce terrible politicians long after he is gone.

MPs selected him because they would not risk the possibility of a smaller majority under a better leader. Winning mattered more than governing well. And the public often seems to share this indifference. Dominic Cummings’ seven-hour testimony last year on exactly how bad Johnson had been at exercising power had little effect on his popularity. And his current collapse is not because of his gross mishandling of the Brexit negotiations, or one of the worst combinations of Covid death-rates and economic damage anywhere in the world, but because he went to a party.

Which is why — although British politics is undermined by Johnson’s brutal indifference to constitutional structures or expert judgment — his very presence reveals a more fundamental problem: the narrowness and partisanship of our political parties, and their focus on the permanent campaign. By focusing more on gossip and games against the opposition, than on the detail of running the country, parliament has long turned previously dignified MPs into humiliated automatons.

Even under Cameron, or Gordon Brown, able MPs were regularly overlooked, and some of the most arrogant, unreliable, and poorly informed were promoted. As a minister I was frequently placed in roles for which I had no expertise. When I took responsibility for the air pollution killing tens of thousands, or overcrowded prisons consumed by ever-increasing violence, I found a system that responded not with solutions but with press lines. As soon as I developed an understanding of my brief, I was reshuffled. And I was promoted because of loyalty, not performance. No civil service can compensate for such ineptitude.

We do, of course, need new policies. I am proud to be part of The Britain Project, a cross-party collaboration, making arguments for the independence of the judiciary; for a better and closer relationship with the EU; for respecting the Good Friday Agreement in spirit and letter; and for a Britain confidently and proudly participating in multilateral structures abroad. As Tony Blair observed this week, “there is a gaping hole in the governing of Britain where new ideas should be”.

But to get rid of Johnson and promote new policies is not enough. Existing parties already make many attractive policy claims. But in almost every case what purports to be a solution is simply a restatement of the problem — a description of what we lack, and do not have the resources to do. For instance, aspirations to foster “an open and resilient international order” coincide with cuts to the army, the Foreign Office and international development aid.

A better British politics will require politicians who take their vocation seriously and govern responsibly and well. This is not impossible: Germany had Angela Merkel. Such figures would be more electable in Britain if they could also be self-aware, irreverent, and comfortable with social media — seriousness should not mean pomposity. But the real barrier they face is the system itself. We are more likely to get better politicians under a different electoral system, which would allow new parties, with different cultures, to establish themselves; and with elected mayors with real revenue-raising powers and responsibilities (which would put the focus on local delivery).

Meanwhile, our culture remains trapped by the idea that politics is a game. We pretend that the politician can wear a deceitful mask before the voters, and then take it off in the cabinet room. But the mask is infected with a virus, which corrodes their minds, souls, and capacity to govern well. Setting a higher standard — of seriousness, respect, critical thought, and concern for detail in governing — requires the rejection of much of our existing political culture. It entails not supporting a figure such as Johnson, simply because he can win. And it means not simply replacing him with someone who appears able to fool another group at the next election. We don’t just deserve better than Johnson; we deserve better than the culture and system that produced him.

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