P .G. Wodehouse probably shares some of the blame for an enduring attitude of indulgence towards the overprivileged underachievers who populate the British ruling class. They widely, albeit not universally, tend to be regarded as occasionally annoying but ultimately harmless eccentrics whose tendency to make a mess every now and then is invariably redeemed by their entertainment value.
Boris Johnson is an obvious beneficiary of this attitude. The character flaws that have been highlighted even by some of his colleagues in the Conservative Party over recent weeks were clearly visible to the naked eye when the Tories chose him as prime minister nearly three years ago. Evidence of the rather frequent alcohol-fuelled partying that went on at No.10 Downing Street might even have been overlooked but for the fact that it went on while lesser beings faced penalties for mingling.
Many a story has come to light of individuals being obliged to maintain a distance from a dying parent around the same time that Johnson’s staff were busy socialising. Particularly cringeworthy, perhaps, was No.10’s abject apology to Buckingham Palace for a well-attended farewell do last April on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral — where Queen Elizabeth notably sat alone in a pew. (Mind you, the farewell wasn’t for Philip.) Johnson has admitted attending the most notorious of the gatherings — in May 2020, not long after he had recovered from an encounter with Covid-19 that apparently almost proved fatal — but absurdly claims he did not realise it was a party. He has publicly apologised for the public perception but not for the party and tried to fob off critics by advising them to hold their fire until the results of a bureaucratic inquiry are known.
The Whitehall whitewash he must be hoping for just might enable him to cling on to his post for the time being, but no one seriously expects him to lead the Conservatives into the next election. The government has been hedging its bets, even as the opinion polls grow more toxic, by rushing the announcement of policies that might distract attention from ‘partygate’, such as a funding freeze for the BBC and a plan to abolish its licence fee altogether five years hence.
Gutting the public broadcaster will prove controversial, but even more damaging legislation such as the previously introduced Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill — which could effectively criminalise all protests in England and Wales, add to already draconian policing powers and potentially destroy nomadic communities — has not received the attention it deserves.
Apart from everything else, this should serve as a reminder that no matter how satisfying Johnson’s departure from Downing Street might be, the rather less ideologically ambivalent leadership aspirants waiting in the wings — from Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to Sajid Javid and Priti Patel — might turn out to be even worse in significant respects. Nor do concerns about Britain’s future relate exclusively to the Conservatives.
The Labour Party’s sudden 10 per cent lead in the polls is more a reflection of Tory shenanigans than of the opposition’s efforts or policies. Far from uniting the party, as he promised to do during his leadership bid, Keir Starmer has devoted most of his energies to purging Labour of its left wing, with Jewish anti-Zionist activists a particular target. There has been a concerted effort at the same time to make the party appear as indistinguishable as possible from the Conservatives at least in the economic and national security spheres. It’s a strategy that electorally did wonders for Tony Blair — anoin-ted by Marga-ret Thatcher as her preferred heir — 25 years ago. This month, shortly before she stripped her second son of various titles for his failure to bury longstanding allegations of sexual abuse, the queen made Blair a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter.
A petition to revoke the supposed honour has garnered more than a million signatures. Which is all very well, but what really needs to be questioned is the entire charade of titles and honours and anachronistic references to a long-vanished empire. Likewise in the case of Andrew Mountbatten-Windsor — who, despite last week’s dressing-down, remains a prince, duke of York and ninth in line to the throne — he should certainly be answerable in court for the accusations against him. But what really needs to be reckoned with is the very concept of a monarchy at the pinnacle of a chiefly hereditary, class-based pyramid in what purports to be a modern democracy.
Britain’s ‘finest hour’ in the mid20th century also portended its steady diminution as a global power. It latched on to the US, hoping to serve as an indispensable appendage. The subsequent marriage to Europe never quite worked out. Its 21st-century prospects depend not least on letting go of its egregiously elitist, forelock-tugging past.