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Who should be prime minister? Anyone but Boris Johnson | Max Hastings




AIn Aged Counties, Tory got excited last month: Boris is the man of the hour! He delivered Brexit, vaccinations and now guns for Ukraine. He gets things done! Having myself voted only once for the Conservatives since 1992, in 2010, I found it difficult to accept this proposal.

Still, it’s worth remembering how many conservative foot soldiers still support Johnson, albeit passionately. Instead of the morally degraded figure that many of us recognise, they simply see a Prime Minister who they still believe can keep Labor out, the only outcome they care a bit about.

Plus, they may embarrass people like me, longtime residents of the sodden centre, by asking if we sincerely and honestly believe that Keir Starmer or Ed Davey is more fit than Johnson to rule Britain.

Wet persuasion voted for Labor or the Liberal Democrats in local elections last week to protest the shocking inadequacy of officials. However, our Conservative friends are right when they say that attacking the current government is not enough. We have to declare who we want instead.

Conservatives highlight the poverty of left-wing thinking, visible even among its media columnists. Starmer has earned a modest boost of respect by promising to resign if fined for Beergate. Yet this weak ship remains in danger of being remembered by posterity as the man who refused define a woman understandable, and has yet to produce a memorable new policy.

Meanwhile, Lib Dems Davey is an acceptable backbencher, but can’t fill big boots. Again, if we centrists are looking for honesty, we would have to admit that either of the two men would have handled the pandemic better or crafted policy towards Ukraine than the current one. Prime Minister.

Our dilemmas deepen when we consider the prospects of replacing Johnson with another Tory. Rishi Sunak remains the most impressive alternative, but it seems unlikely that he can overcome the deserved embarrassment over his wife’s tax status, superimposed on his party’s residual racial biases. A northern Conservative told me recently: Given the choice of two leadership candidates, members of our local ridings will never vote for a person of color. It’s shameful, but his judgment may be correct.

The winner of a leadership contest could well be Ben Wallace or Liz Truss. Both have been diminished almost to the vanishing point by their wild rhetoric on Ukraine. They talk about their war aims like football fans barking from the outside stands, rather than like our Defense and Foreign Secretaries respectively.

Wallaces’ remarks this week comparing Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler remind us of the infallible truth that only the most despicable politicians compare to Churchill, or their enemies to the Nazis. The Secretary of Defense, by his choice of language, has degraded the speech to Putin’s level. Britain is doing the right thing with Ukraine, but we must never forget that it is not our people who are fighting and dying.

Besides, let’s say what we like about Johnson, he’s no fool. Neither Wallace nor Truss seem likely to offer more competent governance, nor to engage in a mature dialogue with the rest of the world such as Britain has lacked for years, particularly with Europe and at About Ireland.

Jeremy Hunt is by far the most qualified alternative leader, which is why Johnson has never admitted the former health secretary to his cabinet of preposters. Hunt lacks stardust, but would rule sensibly and speak as much truth as any politician can. In less feverish times, these should represent decisive claims to the highest post. Sadly, however, a conservative party subservient to its own right wing is unlikely to defer to Hunts’ virtues.

And so, back to Johnson. Thanks to Starmers’ equivocations over his own stupid beer during lockdown, the Prime Minister may survive even the publication of Sue Gray’s report on Downing Street party culture, a far bigger issue than anything reportedly done by the opposition, because the main instruments of government repeatedly break the law they themselves enacted.

In the eyes of conservatives, there is still a pragmatic argument for keeping Johnson. Yet if Britain’s future and the public’s trust in our politicians is to count for anything, the alternative principled case to impeach him must be recognized as imperative.

If he remained Prime Minister until the general election, a message would be sent to the world and, more importantly, to his future successors: that there is no longer any question of disgrace and resignation at having been exposed as a liar serially both in and out of the House of Commons; that the bar for any man or woman who seeks to rule Britain has been lowered to a moral level that even the vilest candidate could overcome.

I have suggested that those of Johnson’s Tory rivals who seem most likely to succeed him are less intelligent people than he and have no more new ideas for Britain. Yet if he retains his post, what prospect is there of our country regaining the respect in the eyes of the world that it has surely lost, and which cannot be regained simply by a disgusting shove of Tories over corpses and the rubble of Ukraine?

In the difficult economic times ahead, Johnson’s very inability to feign compassion will intensify the unpopularity of governments. An essential quality for any man or woman who aspires to lead Britain through the worst cost of living crisis of modern times will be that they must be seen as a caring human being. Our body politic must be given the opportunity to do better, regardless of the uncertainty about what would follow change in Downing Street.

For the Tories, to hesitate to remove Johnson is to invite their devastation in the next general election. Starmer may not be impressive, but by 2024 popular rage against the Conservative government may well outweigh everything. For the millions of people working in the middle ground, searching for hope, that can only be discovered in change. The only moral answer to the question Who else is there? is: anyone but Johnson.




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