LONDON — The Boris Johnson era is over. But the turmoil has only just begun.
For the third time in under a decade, a crisis at the top of the Conservative Party has ousted a sitting prime minister. Where his predecessors had been brought down by Brexit, Mr. Johnson’s reign was broken by a series of crises. Some, such as chronic labor shortages and a surging cost of living, were material. Others, notably Mr. Johnson’s rule-breaking through the pandemic, were ethical. By the end, the problem was fundamentally electoral: A string of defeats and miserable polling convinced Conservative lawmakers that Mr. Johnson’s electoral pulling power was at an end.
Yet the two candidates vying to replace him are unlikely to offer anything better. Both served in Mr. Johnson’s cabinet — Rishi Sunak as chancellor of the Exchequer and Liz Truss as foreign secretary — and are implicated, directly or by association, in the scandals that felled him. More pressingly, neither displays any idea of how to cope with Britain’s structural problems, offering either a cut in taxes or in spending. For the country, both options are bad. The chaos of recent months isn’t going anywhere.
But Mr. Johnson’s resignation also brings something to a close. For nearly two years after his election in December 2019, the country enjoyed an interlude of relative social peace and political stability. Buoyed by its delivery of Brexit and a successful Covid-19 vaccination rollout, the government enjoyed a substantial lead over a weak and demoralized Labour opposition. What’s more, the country — in the strange, suspended time-space of the pandemic — appeared to coalesce. In this brief interregnum, it appeared that Britain, nourished by nationalism and an interventionist state, was undergoing a revival.
No longer. Economically stagnant, socially fragmented and politically adrift, the country is being cut down to size. The right’s Brexit fantasy — of a revitalized Britain, freed from the shackles of Europe and able once again to confidently assert itself at home and abroad — is finished.
Though now giving way to a familiar nightmare, that fantasy seemed for a while to envelop the country. The strange cultural and emotional feel of high Johnsonism is captured by two of the most watched broadcasts in British history, both of which took place during his tenure. The first was Mr. Johnson’s address to the nation on March 23, 2020, declaring a national lockdown. The second was the Euro 2020 final, in which England stood a realistic chance of winning against Italy, on July 11, 2021. Both broadcasts, watched by tens of millions of people, briefly synthesized a moment of national unity. Both portended the suspension of normality in the name of a national struggle, vaguely linked to folk memories of World War II.
The eerie quiet of lockdown, with its empty streets, visitations from wildlife and ritual clapping for essential workers, was matched by the flag-bedraggled, drunk and delirious mania of crowds roaming empty commercial streets and fervently chanting, “It’s coming home!” These were distinctly nationalist moments, but they were not identical. One nationalism was top-down, the other grassroots. One was “British,” establishment nationalism, the other “English,” with more proletarian accents. Yet together they briefly manufactured a sense of nationhood.
It was, of course, hardly a time of national idyll. Tens of thousands of older Britons needlessly died in overrun hospitals because of delays in declaring lockdowns. Food bank use rose to an all-time high, with over 2.5 million people receiving packages. By the end of 2020, nine in 10 low-income families had experienced a serious deterioration in their income and the proportion of people reporting clinically significant depression and anxiety tripled, rising from 17 percent to 52 percent. Even so, the precarious project of national unity, supported by enormous public spending to manage the pandemic, briefly worked: The Tories led in the polls, impervious to scandal and discontent.
In September last year, things started to shake loose. Fuel shortages, created by a dearth of truck drivers, began to corrode Mr. Johnson’s support. In December, the first accounts of illegal partying in 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence, emerged. By February, rising energy prices were squeezing living standards and food banks were overwhelmed by soaring demand. Hospitals, overstretched and underfunded, struggled with a backlog of around six million patients, and understaffed airports canceled flights. At Westminster, the crisis enveloping the country was transmuted into a growing clamor to remove Mr. Johnson. He clung on for a while, but by midsummer it was over.
The economy is now heading toward an abysmal period. High energy prices, runaway inflation, struggling exports and rising interest rates are, in the words of the economist Duncan Weldon, a “perfect storm.” In response, Ms. Truss, by far the favorite to win the contest to replace Mr. Johnson, has promised to cut taxes — to be paid for by deferring debt repayments rather than cutting spending. Mr. Sunak, by contrast, would continue in the short term with his current policy of raising taxes while signaling that spending cuts are coming down the line. Neither approach, from the Tory right or the Treasury, would address the underlying causes of the cost-of-living crisis. Lacking ideas, the Conservatives are reverting to type.
That may be fatally complacent. Oppositional currents, contained for a spell by Johnsonism, are gradually resurfacing. Scotland is once again promising to stage an independence referendum, putatively for as soon as next October. In Northern Ireland, the republican Sinn Fein has become the biggest party, weakening the Unionist establishment. And in England, a wave of symbolically significant strikes — at railways, call centers and airports — has broken out, offering hope for workers who’ve seen their living standards fall for over a decade. Government approval is at its lowest in three years, and neither potential leader enthuses the public. Tory Britain is unraveling.
But what even is Britain? The historian David Edgerton argues that the British nation existed only for a few decades after World War II. Until then, British identity was global, pinned to its empire. It became a nation only in the postwar years, when capitalism was organized by the state and citizens were offered “cradle to grave” welfare. Since then, as national industries were sold off and the City of London took center stage, Britain has become merely a hub for multinational corporations, denuded of any wider social or civic resonance. It was the dormant British nation of the postwar era — or at least the nostalgic memory of it — that Brexit was supposed to revive.
The exit of Mr. Johnson, Brexit’s most charmed cheerleader, marks the demise of that fantasy. In its place, unmistakable and unstinting, comes crisis.
Richard Seymour (@leninology) is an editor at Salvage magazine and the author of several books about politics and culture, including, most recently, “The Disenchanted Earth: Reflections on Ecosocialism and Barbarism.”
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