Why they couldn’t let Boris win
The elites love Rishi because he’s boring, managerial and not populist.
Yesterday was an extraordinary day in British politics. ‘Stop Boris Day’, we might call it. From the political class to the influencer set to the BBC, the cry went up: it cannot be Boris. He’s too disruptive. Too oafish. Too much of a liability. We need a grown-up in charge now. Someone who is sensible and slick and capable of placating the markets. The uniformity of the message was remarkable, and more than a little chilling. I’m struggling to recall the last time that elite opinion, the determination of the professional managerial classes to get what they want, was expressed as nakedly as it was this weekend.
From the right-wing press to the left-wing press, it was all ‘Not Boris’. The Mail, the Telegraph and The Times might all have backed Boris once, but not now. ‘Tory newspapers warn against the return of Boris Johnson’, as the Guardian giddily summed it up. On Saturday, even the Telegraph, Boris’s former employer, went with a frontpage splash that said ‘Sunak races to secure majority of Tory MPs’ next to a pic of Rishi looking dapper and determined. The more leftish view was summed up in the Guardian’s insistence that we must never allow the ‘return of the clown to the political circus’. We need ‘stable, functioning’ politics now, not the ‘prank on the public’ that a second BoJo stint would represent, the Guardian said.
As for the BBC, I felt like I was watching a party political broadcast for Ready for Rishi on News at Ten last night. The political editor Chris Mason might have tried to conceal his ideological bent, but he failed pretty miserably. He talked about Boris’s psychology and how he loves to be at the centre of attention. I’m sorry, is this news reporting or psychoanalysis? But this time round Boris fell flat, we were told. Yay! So it’s a ‘coronation’ for Rishi Sunak, asked Reeta Chakrabarti with a glowing smile? It certainly looks like it. Settle down, establishment – your boy’s going to win.
None of this should distract from the fact that Boris is a bit of a screw-up. His camp seems to have overstated his ability to get the backing of 100 Tory MPs, the threshold for standing to be the leader to replace Liz Truss. And the people pointing out that Boris has a lot hanging over him from the last time he was in charge of the country – including an investigation into whether he lied to parliament about all those lockdown parties in No10 – are right. Boris appears to have fluffed it himself. We didn’t actually need the political, media and cultural elites to go hell for leather to Stop Boris – Boris stopped Boris by not being much cop.
But the fact that a vast swathe of the establishment did want to stop Boris remains striking. And the reason they wanted to stop him is just depressing. Fundamentally, it’s because they think we’ve had our fun with populism and it’s now time to return to normalcy. It’s the ‘grown-ups’ we need back in power. The adults. ‘The grown-ups are back’, as Tory big-hitter Liam Fox said about Jeremy Hunt and Penny Mordaunt when they took the reins from Truss in the final troubled days of her premiership. Now they’re hoping for more such adulting from Rishi: he’ll be ‘sensible’, ‘calm’, ‘competent’, all the headlines say. Be still, my beating heart.
Boris had to be stopped because the managerial elites want to restore the politics of managerialism. That’s the long and short of it. In their eyes, Boris embodies the vulgarities of populism. He gives voice to the ill-educated throng’s desire to ‘disrupt’ establishment politics. (For some of us, the problem with Boris is that he didn’t represent our desire for democratic disruption nearly well enough.) Sunak, in contrast, is ‘the sensible choice’, the grown-up choice. Even the Sun thinks it might now be time for the ‘grown-ups’ to agree a ‘peaceful transition to a sensible figure’.
That term ‘grown-up’ gives me the creeps. You see it in political discussion all the time these days. ‘The adults are back in the room’, they said when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris took power from Donald Trump. Now media outlets are saying ‘the grown-ups do need to be seen to be in charge’ about the potential Sunak era. The implication is that populism, whether of the Trump or Boris or Brexit variety, is childish, infantile, the wish of publics who do not understand the real world. And what we need in its place is realism, delivered by sensible managers. ‘At least under managerialism you have a manager’, as one article on Sunak says. Never mind that ‘the adults’ in the US have overseen such calamities as the withdrawal from Afghanistan and surging inflation. Or that grown-up Rishi hardly made a great fist of managing the economy when he was chancellor. Doesn’t matter. They’re not populist and therefore they’re good, they’re grown up.
What the elites want is for politics to be boring again. They’re openly saying it. Sunak is the man we can ‘trust to make politics boring again’, says an editorial in City AM. ‘Britain may find that the best option is the most boring and sensible one’, says one observer. There really are people out there who would rather politics was dull than overly democratic. Pallid rather than populist. ‘Boring’ is really a euphemism for re-insulating political life from the excitable desires of the public. The problem with Boris is that he’s not boring enough, and that makes him a liability.
A more serious issue underlies all of this – the question of who’s really in charge of the country. Right now, it seems to be ‘the markets’. Virtually everything you’ll read on Sunak will say that he’s the man who can calm the markets. He will ‘regain market confidence’, says the New Statesman. He will be a more ‘reassuring figure’ for the markets than Boris. ‘Markets are calling the shots’, declares a headline in Bloomberg, and it really seems they are. Former chancellor George Osborne said on TV this weekend that ‘There is someone else with a vote in all of this, and that is the markets’. ‘We don’t have to wait for a General Election for them to have a vote’, he said. They’ve voted, and they’ve picked Rishi.
And there you have it. We don’t need a General Election because the markets have chosen our PM for us. They’ve cast their ‘vote’ and apparently it carries more weight than the votes cast by millions of Britons for Boris in December 2019. The markets trump the masses, the barons of capitalism trump the workers of the Red Wall. You can call that ‘boring’ if you like – I call it a crime against democracy.
Picture by: Getty.