How men without substance squander success and leave politics diminished
Boris Johnson says he had a large mandate as prime minister but he squandered it, and the political tactics of 2019 were no longer going to save him.
Bernard Keane writes in Crikey
As Boris Johnson noted, in his ungracious and reluctant resignation speech, he departed despite a large mandate. He had won in 2019 — against a suicidally incompetent Labour opposition — with a landslide of 80 seats. Now, less than three years later, much of his backbench, and a good 50 of his ministers, have forced him out.
The mandate meant nothing, because it had been utterly squandered in a catastrophically bad response to the pandemic, a slew of scandals and, ultimately, the perception that there was something important missing from Johnson’s make-up — any sense of integrity.
The parallels with Scott Morrison here can be overplayed — he handled the pandemic better, for a start — but the same ultimate fate awaited both men: voters, and their own colleagues, had come to conclude they were toxic, untrustworthy people — and the stench of scandal around them became overpowering. And for both men, their gross mishandling and complete misreading of incidents of sexual predation and assault were immediate or, in Morrison’s case, longer-term causes of their dumping.
And in both cases, they thus squandered political success. Scott Morrison should have been able to convert a narrow 2019 win into a longer-term government off the back of a strong pandemic recovery and a comparatively low death toll. Johnson had survived any number of scandals arising from his handling of the pandemic. Both are now gone.
Both Morrison and Johnson used the same political tactics; indeed,
they shared the same political strategist in Isaac Levido, a protégé of Lynton Crosby.
Morrison and Johnson used a playbook developed in conservative campaigns in Australia, the US and the UK, with a focus on micro-targeted pork-barrelling, culture war campaigns, coordination with News Corp to deliver attack lines and demonisation of opponents and their policies — all bolstered by, in the case of Johnson and Morrison, an enthusiasm for lying that far exceeded the realms of both political tradition and necessity.
The playbook delivered success in 2019, but three years later was no longer working. Morrison’s techniques failed to make any impression on the 2022 election campaign here, and if anything contributed to the stunning loss of Liberal heartland seats. In the UK, the fear of what Johnson was doing to the Tory vote — the party’s sustained polling lead over Labour vanished at the end of 2021 and the opposition has maintained a solid lead since — was one of the drivers for his ouster.
But in the end, for two very different men — one a classically educated television personality, the other a rather average marketing man — it came down to their lack of substance and lack of character. The processes of government exposed fundamental laziness in both of them: neither was particularly interested in governing, which requires application and complex thought. Both thought purely in terms of the media cycle and government-by-announcement, and had no interest in policy or much in the way of political ideology.
And neither was trustworthy: if Morrison never reached the depths that Johnson plumbed in terms of ministerial walkouts, that’s partly because so many ministers who knew what he was like fled the moment they could.
Craig Laundy, Michael Keenan, Mathias Cormann, Christopher Pyne, Julie Bishop — all were signalling exactly what they thought of Morrison long before he bungled vaccines or aged care. And there were plenty of people who knew Morrison who were prepared to share their view of him privately, or as background to the media, or, in the case of Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, on the public record.
For Johnson, however, a brighter future awaits than for Morrison. He is a brand, a media-friendly one; a stream of books, comedy panel show appearances and colourful speaking engagements await. If, for Clausewitz, war was politics by other means, for Johnson, politics was entertainment by other means. There will always be room on stage for his clown act, if not in Downing Street.
Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.