Margaret Thatcher famously said of Mikhail Gorbachev “We can do business together”. Clearly she wasn’t endorsing the policies and outlook of the USSR, just reaching a practical conclusion that was to lead to beneficial outcomes for both sides in the years ahead. It’s time for Boris Johnson’s opponents to arrive at the same conclusion – and accept that Boris is a man they can do business with.
Boris’s critics might not admit it but the Prime Minister is a pragmatist with liberal inclinations in many policy areas. Yet the luminaries of progressive liberalism still pledge to fight him on every front. They seek to depict him, quite absurdly, as the devil incarnate: a “far right” figure with views allegedly encompassing Islamophobia, bigotry and outright racism. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Far from emerging from the Brexit debacle of the past few years chastened and in reflective mood, many, it seems, are still in reflexive rage mode. Against all prevailing evidence, these people are working on the principle that the best way forward is to get angry and say more hysterical things.
The future funding of the BBC is the latest issue to provoke hyperventilation among the great and the good after an anonymous briefing to the Sunday Times suggested the licence fee is on the way out. ‘This is Trumpian vandalism,’ said Matthew d’Ancona. Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger declared: “Fox News is the future unless we fight this.”
A remark in the FT from “one Government insider” claiming that the PM’s powerful aide Dominic Cummings wanted to “get the judges sorted” had caused a similar fit of the vapours the day before. David Lammy, for example, said it was “chilling” that this government wants Michael Gove to ‘get the judges sorted’.
It is as if nobody significant on the British liberal left has noticed that it is living in severely straitened times. It has not won a nationwide electoral contest for 15 years – Tony Blair’s 2005 general election win being its last victory. Since then, four general elections, three European elections and a referendum on UK membership of the EU have all gone against it.
And the behaviour of the liberal establishment over Brexit has done it immense further damage. Its leading lights were caught trying to cancel the democratic verdict and yet failed to achieve that goal. This was the worst possible outcome for its medium-term prospects.
I am not going to pretend the next few years are likely to be much fun for liberal progressives. But they will be far more bearable if they now go into damage limitation mode rather than aggressively testing themselves again and again in the court of public opinion, only to lose on every occasion.
Currently they find themselves defending a series of views that, whether they like it or not, are not shared by – or at the very least contested by – many Brits. Take the benefits of mass immigration, for example. Or the wisdom of a more lenient criminal justice system and the sanctity of the human rights act. Or the inalienable right of the BBC not to be reformed in any meaningful way. And the ongoing pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid.
Each of these constitutes a very low-hanging fruit should Downing Street desire an emotive rallying point to solidify opinion behind it. Yet despite these issues being, at the very least contentious, many of Boris’s opponents seem determined to decry any curtailing of free movement as racist. If they continue to do so, they will lose in the court of public opinion. They will also face defeat if they oppose more rigorous sentencing of thugs and terrorists. And the reaction to any decision made by the Government to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights as part of a major shake up of the regime in that area is predictable. Yet again, though, this will be another easy win for Boris, as he attempts to maintain his popularity. Time and again, the hysterical reaction of his opponents only helps the PM’s cause.
The left’s leading lights will also continue their campaign against decriminalisation of non-payment of the TV licence fee and lose that battle too. Meanwhile, Labour and the Lib Dems seem intent on pushing the militant trans rights agenda until a head-on collision with mainstream public opinion becomes inevitable.
Yet the Prime Minister, one of Westminster’s earliest supporters of gay marriage and previously a backer of an amnesty for illegal immigrants, clearly has deep-rooted liberal instincts on many things. Even in his Daily Telegraph column about the burka he ultimately came down on the side of the right of people to wear it. And so far he has decided not to pare back the foreign aid budget despite understanding that this would be a highly popular move.
Johnson may well also succeed in creating a positive national mood about immigration, once the right to control its volume is seen to have been won. But that will be far more difficult if self-styled progressives do not acknowledge the excesses and problems of the past 20 years. I have little doubt, too, that Boris will seek to reach a reasonable accommodation with the BBC should BBC-types get behind the idea of evolutionary reform to funding and admit to the obvious need for stronger measures to ensure viewpoint diversity in its output.
While the Prime Minister clearly appreciates the public wants a tougher criminal justice regime, tighter constraints on liberal judicial activism and a repatriation of national sovereignty when it comes to the human rights apparatus, his natural inclination will be to ensure that the babies of fundamental rights are not thrown out with the bathwater of vexatious litigants. Again the liberal left would do well to acknowledge its past over-reach on these issues.
But should it continue to tell Boris Johnson that he is an unspeakable British Trump and defend at all costs a discredited status quo in each area there is only going to be one winner.