What is happening in the UK right now is similar to the later Berlusconi years, the opera buffa phase of Italian politics with bunga-bunga parties, and worse. Readers may remember Berlusconi’s infamous put-down of recession warnings in 2009, when he remarked that he was not worried because the restaurants were still full. I remember having a conversation with a senior minister in his cabinet at the time, who said it was absolutely clear that Berlusconi had to go, and it was just a matter of time. It took another three years. And it was the euro crisis that did it, an event still unforeseen in 2008.
History never quite repeats itself. But the events of the last few days in the UK bring up some memories of that episode. What the Berlusconi saga tells us is that you can cling on to power for a surprisingly long time against the odds, if your opponents have no alternative positive strategy of their own. It also tells us that when something ends, it can end abruptly. The UK is not yet at the point where Italy was in 2011. But it does seem that Boris Johnson is doomed unless he finds a way to reinvent himself. I am sceptical of this happening.
Boris Johnson’s tragedy is not the Downing Street parties, but Brexit. He managed to pull off the biggest British political stunt in living memory, but then had no clue what to do with it.
This is not only the tragedy of one man, but the tragedy of an entire party. William Hague had it spot-on this morning when he wrote about yesterday’s 211 to 148 confidence vote result:
“‘That is the worst possible result from the Conservative party’s point of view. Logically, they should either reconcile themselves to Johnson and get behind him, or decisively eject him and move on to a new leader. It does not seem they have done either.’
If he had been ousted yesterday, Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, would presumably have emerged as his successor. And then what? She is the current favourite in the betting markets, followed by Jeremy Hunt, the businessman-turned-politician and former health and foreign secretary. You can hear their slogans, but it is a struggle to see their strategic direction. There is virtually no discussion about a change in political direction. It is all about the leader himself.
This sheer lack of alternative political agendas tells us that, on balance, Johnson could limp on for a while, just as Berlusconi did back then. It is too early to speculate on the outcome of an election that does not have to be held until January 2025, two and a half years from now. Just look at the volatility of the opinion polls within any two-and-a-half-year period in the past. Most likely, the outcome of the next election will be determined by issues that are not yet on the horizon.
For a party in the state they are in right now, the Tories still have respectable mid-term polling results, trailing Labour by some seven percentage points, according to one poll of polls. Prime ministers have recovered from much worse mid-term positions than this one.
The question is whether Johnson’s instincts will lead him and his party on a path to gradual recovery, or on a path to self-destruction. The UK’s relationship with the EU might suffer collateral damage. Maybe we are going to see a return to early Thatcherite hard supply side policies, a macroeconomic squeeze with large spending cuts and moderate tax cuts, of the sort that prompted a letter of 364 economists to the Times in 1981? That policy was ill-judged, but Thatcher won anyway because people supported her programme of economic liberalisation, which contrasted sharply with Labour’s agenda. There is no such clarity now. The Johnson government is neither here nor there.
The one lesson we can draw from the past is that successful leaders come with an agenda. That was true, at one point, for Berlusconi too. Italy’s centre right never managed to find an alternative programme under a different leader. Today, the Italian centre-right is the junior partner of the far-right. For the Tories, this should be a cautionary tale.