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Culture War Roundup for the week of October 17, 2022

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Uh, anyone in the UK willing-and-able to comment on this?

From my warped, media-driven perspective across the pond, like... it looks something like this.

  • Boris Johnson is a frighteningly intelligent person who managed to become PM and pull off Brexit, freeing the UK from the placid bureaucratic tyranny of Brussels but also from a variety of economically beneficial arrangements with the continent

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Boris Johnson ultimately failed to heed Dominic Cummings, turning about-face on a number of lockdown policies which Boris did not, apparently, regard himself as bound by (channeling a lot of U.S. Democrats here)

  • The economy, predictably, suffers; whether this is due to COVID, Brexit, both, or neither, is a question that will help many economics professors secure tenure

  • Maybe there is some philandering by someone important in here somewhere? Recollection vague...

  • A bunch of people resign from positions in Boris' administration

  • Liz Truss becomes PM

  • Six weeks later, someone gets manhandled in the Commons over a vote?

  • Liz Truss resigns as PM

  • Maybe Boris is coming back?

It's just not clear to me, at all, how Boris managed to get himself removed in the first place; it feels like he was removed for little tiny stupid stuff after massively succeeding on all the issues that genuinely mattered to him and his supporters. He apparently should have heeded Cummings on COVID (and perhaps many other things, too) and it looks like Boris reaped the consequences without actually learning his lesson. But Truss is apparently just wildly incompetent, or maybe she's just catching the blame for what is really Boris' economy?

What's really happening, there. Help me out.

To me, the proximate cause of the shitshow is that Boris has character flaws which made him a bad Prime Minister (and would make him unsuitable for any kind of executive leadership in any organisation) but which never became obvious to the Tory grassroots. Boris is lazy, intellectually incurious and lacks attention to detail. He lies constantly, and thinks rules don't apply to him (or his mates). He is willing to beclown himself to get an attractive woman into bed, or to get invited to the right high society parties. And according to Dominic Cummings he has difficulty saying "no" to people, which is utterly fatal in an executive. To make matters worse, he found himself entering Downing Street with a ruinously expensive divorce and a ruinously expensive trophy wife, so he needed a side hustle on top of his PM's salary.

All this was familiar to people who had worked with Boris, including Tory MPs. Much of the dishonesty and sexual immorality was public record. And it wasn't just Labourites saying this - immediately after David Cameron resigns following the 2016 referendum Michael Gove publicly refuses to back Johnson, saying that he is unsuitable to be PM (and torpedoing has campaign, getting us Theresa May). Max Hastings (probably the most distinguished right-wing journalist in the UK, and Boris's editor at the Telegraph) wrote multiple articles calling out his unsuitability (this Guardian article being the best non-paywalled example). After the fact, Dominic Cummings notoriously brings receipts re. how badly these flaws affected Johnson's administration in practice.

Given these handicaps, how does Boris get elected Tory leader (and therefore PM) in 2019? The vast majority of the Tory grassroots supports hard Brexit (i.e. the whole UK, including Northern Ireland, completely out of the EU Single Market and Customs Union), as do about 1/3 of the MPs, whereas Theresa May has negotiated a deal which leaves the UK in the EU Single Market for goods in order to avoid the need for a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Some of the hard Brexit MPs vote against the deal, scuppering it. At this point there is a series of catastrophic election defeats for the Conservative party - it isn't obvious whether Tory voters dislike May's deal and prefer a harder Brexit, or if they simply want any deal to get done so that Brexit is over, the UK is out of the EU, and we can get on with life. But the Tory activists are clear that their problem is that May's deal is "not real Brexit", which allows the hard Brexit faction of the MPs to win the internal party debate. Johnson is elected leader because he is by far the most charismatic hard Brexit supporter, and the Tory MPs and members think they need a charismatic leader to rebuild the Party.

At this point, a kind of epistemic closure sets in among the Tory grassroots. The pro-hard-Brexit MPs and their supporters in the media know that supporting Johnson is the only way to deliver hard Brexit, so they don't talk about his character flaws. The pro-hard-Brexit grassroots won't listen to anyone else, because they interpret attacks on Johnson's character as a Remoaner plot to scupper Brexit. And Johnson delivers by negotiating a different bad deal to May (Johnson's deal effectively leaves Northern Ireland in the EU), lying to the voters that it is a good deal, fighting and winning a general election on the basis of his deal, and then promptly trying to rat out of it. At the end of January 2020, Britain leaves the EU. Brexit is now effectively irreversible (to reenter the EU would require a formal application process taking several years, and unanimous support from the other EU member states), but hard Brexit supporters remain paranoid about Remoaner plots to reverse it, so they still are not willing to take the issue of Johnson's character seriously. There is also an "evaporative cooling" dynamic going on, where Conservative activists who are not hard Brexit supporters drift away from the party. Something similar happens with the MPs, because a lot of remained MPs are forced out of the Conservative party during the shenanigans in late 2019 (and then lose their seats in the election) and almost all the new intake are hard Brexit supporters because activists control candidate selection in UK political parties.

Sometimes people with these flaws and sufficient charisma can be effective leaders. One way of doing it is to appoint good people who don't need managing, and then not manage them. This worked well at the Spectator (talented journalists are almost impossible to manage anyway) and tolerably well as Mayor of London (everything Boris got personally involved in went to shit, but the Greater London Authority is deliberately set up to stop the Mayor getting involved in the operational details of policing or public transport, which are the main things the Mayor is responsible for). It The other is to be a hands-off CEO who focusses on motivational speeches and appoint a trusted COO to actually run things. This worked as PM until Boris's sycophants (probably including his new wife) convinced him that he didn't need Dominic Cummings.

After Cummings is sacked in November 2020, Boris Johnson has to actually govern, and he does so poorly. In particular, we never learn what "levelling up" (the key promise to the new Conservative voters in the north of England) actually means, and there is no serious attempt to capture any benefits of Brexit. His supporters don't try to defend his record, they change the subject by saying he is uniquely able to connect with voters, and that he deserves the gratitude of the Conservative party for delivering Brexit.

Partygate breaks in December 2021, and Boris Johnson rapidly loses public support because he didn't obey his own lockdown rules. There are two disastrous by-election defeats to the Liberal Democrats. (Amersham & Chesham is an affluent commuter town outside London, North Shropshire is a rural seat). This is mostly because of Partygate, but there are also local issues, including the fact that the government has botched post-Brexit farming policy meaning that farmers (who are mostly Brexit-supporting Tories) feel betrayed. Around this time we also see football crowds chanting "Boris Johnson is a cunt" and Boris is booed by the (presumably Royalist and therefore Conservative-sympathetic) crowds outside the Queen's Platinum Jubilee service.

So we now have two problems both caused by Boris Johnson's character flaws: the scandals (of which Partygate is far from the only one, but it is the one which cuts through to ordinary voters) and the policy drift. Both are hurting the Tories with the electorate. Tory MPs can see all this because they have to work with Boris, and start moving against him. In June 2022 a formal confidence ballot is triggered, and 41% of Conservative MPs vote against Johnson - normally this would cause a party leader to resign because you need supermajority support to lead effectively, but Johnson carries on. Two weeks later there are another two by-election disasters (Tiverton & Honiton is another rural seat lost to the Lib Dems, Wakefield is one of the new "red wall" seats going back to Labour), and another scandal in which it becomes clear that Boris Johnson appointed a known groper as deputy Chief Whip.

At this point Boris Johnson is forced out of office by a series of co-ordinated ministerial resignations. The Tory grassroots still don't believe that the problem is character - they know Boris is unpopular, but they see the scandals as due to media bias, remoaner plots etc. and the real problem being the policy drift which is caused by Boris not being right-wing enough. If you think this, it obviously follows that any of the resigning ministers falls under suspicion of being some kind of remoaner plotter. So to be acceptable to the membership (who get the final say on the new leader, after MPs reduce the contenders to 2), a candidate must be sufficiently right-wing (which by this point mostly means promising tax cuts) and not implicated in the removal of Johnson. Rishi Sunak fails on both counts, so we get Liz Truss.

I don't need to repeat the other posts in this thread about how Truss fails, because it is all obvious and in public. The only additional point I want to make is that epistemic closure is a huge part of how Truss and Kwarteng screwed up - Truss was selected for being willing to treat accurate criticism of Boris Johnson's character as remoaning, and she selected her cabinet for willingness to go along with this. So it isn't surprising that she deliberately and publicly ignored all the possible sources of expert advice that might have told her the mini-budget was risky.