The hubbub about Boris Johnson is blocking the view. He is, of course, an easy and undemanding topic of conversation. His behaviour is, of course, unedifying. His unsuitability for office is beyond question. And his capacity to horrify, amuse, disgust or worry us appears limitless. So here we all are again, talking about ‘Boris’. And who am I to complain? I’ve been writing all this for at least a decade, the well of my indignation never runs dry, and – frankly – Johnson has put food on my and many a fellow commentator’s table for almost as long as we can remember. We’d miss him.
Yet, quietly and almost without our noticing, we and perhaps millions of other citizens who take an interest in the world of Westminster and beyond have allowed our attention to slip away from something that has never been more important: politics. Not showbusiness – Johnson is showbusiness – but politics. And, more specifically for Conservative-minded people (and I’m still one), the meaning and purpose of Conservatism in the 21st century.
How is it that a new Tory prime minister who strikes me as one of the more profoundly Conservative of our party leaders since Lord Salisbury (‘Reform? Aren’t things bad enough already?’) can find himself denounced by elements on the right – the right – of this parliamentary Conservative party, as betraying ‘Tory principles’?
What are Tory principles? It is said of common ailments that the more suggested cures one encounters, the less likely there is to be a cure. Likewise, and with the same implication, books on the meaning of Conservatism are legion: eminent historians, academics and political scientists keep trying. But the fact that attempting a comprehensive and internally consistent critique of Conservatism is a mug’s game does not mean (as cynical journalists like to claim) that this is a party that believes only in power, and whatever it takes to get it and keep it.