A paranoid fantasy began the crisis that is ripping through the Conservative party. In what from a rightwing viewpoint must be the most disastrous column in the history of the Tory press, Charles Moore, a friend and Telegraph colleague of Boris Johnson, used a phantom conspiracy to rally the right to Owen Paterson.
Writing on 26 October, Moore could not bring himself to mention the £110,000 Patterson’s corporate backers directed into his bank account annually. In 2009, the Telegraph revealed the MPs’ expenses scandal. Now its boy is in power, the tight, little world of the right’s media-political complex finds the vulgar subject of money beneath it.
Instead of explaining why the parliamentary authorities concluded that Paterson had brought “significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons”, Moore turned on Kathryn Stone, the commissioner for standards. Without producing a shred of evidence, he asserted that Stone was letting Labour MPs off lightly, while treating Conservative MPs – “especially pro-Brexit Conservatives such as Mr Paterson and Boris Johnson himself – much more harshly”.
With that cue, Johnson, his cabinet and a section of his party knew what to say: Paterson was a victim of the elite. The real elite, that is, not the Conservative party, which just happens to have been in power these past 11 years, but the true lords of the realm: the civil servants, the broadcasters, the judges, the Electoral Commission and the activist lawyers; the dainty grandees who criticise Conservatives from a position of “pure leftwing snobbery”, in the words of Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary; the unelected “cultural Marxists”, as the attorney-general, Suella Braverman, calls them, who benefited from the 1968 generation’s long march through the institutions so completely they now have the sheer bloody nerve to act as “judge and jury”, as Moore said of Stone, not just of Paterson but of “Boris Johnson himself”.
Stone was neither judge nor jury, but Moore and Johnson were the undoubted executioners of Paterson’s career. They provoked the backlash that destroyed him by pushing persecution mania to its limits.
I don’t know whether their supporters or opponents were more shocked by the debacle that followed. Since 2016, paranoid politics has enjoyed continuous success. It allowed the Conservative right to paint opponents of Brexit first as agents of the EU, and then as saboteurs and fifth columnists who wanted to overthrow democracy itself.
Above all its other advantages, conspiracy theory enabled Johnson to turn cops into criminals. The Johnson administration can never permit the thought to grow that regulators are public servants following the law. It must paint them as malign enemies with secret agendas. On the paranoid account, Stone cannot be an honest enforcer of the rules. Only political malice can explain her criticisms of a rightwing politician.
The maligned Stone is not a one-off. The Conservatives have tried to taint every judicial or regulatory action that stops them doing as they please. Track the denunciations and you see that, despite his cheeky chappy poses, Johnson has a Nixonian determination to crush all who limit his power. To stay only with the judiciary, he promised to “root out the leftist culture of so much of the criminal justice establishment”. His anonymous briefers warned that Downing Street wanted to “get the judges sorted”. Assorted ministers have paid court to their master by saying judges “want to frustrate Brexit” (Kwasi Karteng) and were in an unholy alliance to “thwart the wishes of the British people” (Dominic Raab).
As a method of bringing Georgian jobbery to the 21st century, paranoid politics cannot be bettered. If every impartial institution is corrupt, if objectivity is a sham and independence is just a cover for conducting “politics by other means” (as the 2019 Conservative manifesto described judicial review of its abuses of power), then the Tory state must lever the most rightwing candidates imaginable into public sector jobs to “redress the balance”.
Paranoia has driven Conservatives, who went into politics believing state power must be limited, to endorse autocratic government. They have developed an almost Marxist belief in the impossibility of professional integrity. Because they are fanatics who can never imagine behaving impartially themselves, they believe that everyone else must be as fanatical as they are. They cannot understand how people can leave their opinions at the workplace door because they have never left them there.
As much as their indifference to the punishments Brexit is bringing to businesses, their belief in a liberal-left deep state shows how removed the Conservatives have become from the world of work. Nearly every worker in every industry knows that they cannot allow political beliefs to interfere with the services they provide. The exceptions are the arts and academia, where cancel culture undoubtedly exists, and politics and political journalism. Johnson is a dangerous prime minister because he is both a politician and pundit. He is from the tiny minority of the population where your politics are your work.
If the right was giving us new Red Wall voices with Geordie and Brummie accents, I might be more forgiving of its chicanery. But Johnsonianism in practice is just the prime minister recycling his old mates. Moore, Paul Dacre, Robbie Gibb. The same faces going round and round, year after year, decade after decade.
Until the Paterson scandal, Johnson’s power grab looked likely to succeed. Since 2005, the liberal-left in the UK has lost every election and referendum because it has underestimated the appeal of rightwing ideas. From Richard Nixon on, the US right has enjoyed enormous success as standing as the champion of the “silent majority” against a liberal elite that was soft on crime, drugs and immigrants. There appeared to be no reason why Johnson could not imitate US conservatives and convince voters he needed authoritarian controls to protect them against a rigged and biased system.
In these circumstances, the revolt of public opinion and significant sections of the Conservative party against his attempts to whitewash corruption is immensely heartening.
Donald Trump was telling the truth for once when he said of his supporters: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” One of the few cheering pieces of news from the UK this year is that Boris Johnson cannot say the same.