Tories destined for election failure with Boris Johnson’s hard line: Andrew Vine

Prime Minister Boris Johnson met Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Government Buildings during his visit to Dublin yesterday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson met Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Government Buildings during his visit to Dublin yesterday.
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WE haven’t had a Prime Minister in modern times so driven by their own sense of destiny as Boris Johnson appears to be.

He came to office convinced of being the saviour not just of Brexit, but of the country, propelled by an unshakeable belief in his own abilities and displaying every sign that the office he had finally won was the one he was born for.

Brexit protesters outside the Houses of Parliament after Boris Johnson's borther, Jo, resigned as a Cabinet minister.

Brexit protesters outside the Houses of Parliament after Boris Johnson's borther, Jo, resigned as a Cabinet minister.

But events are starting to point towards Mr Johnson’s destiny being very different to the vision of glorious success that has sustained him throughout his career. He is in danger of destroying the Conservatives as an electoral force. At a time when the country needs a unifying figure, he is divisive. He doesn’t build bridges, but burns them.

The man who has courted popularity throughout his career begins to look poisonous to many, and there is a distinct possibility that his legacy will be to inflict such serious damage on his party’s electoral prospects that it will take a generation to recover.

The cull of centrist, one-nation Tories, kicked out for taking a principled position against a policy that they believe to be wrong and harmful to the country, isn’t just a matter of a particularly brutal form of party management.

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Has Boris Johnson become an election liability?

Has Boris Johnson become an election liability?

It’s worse than that. It’s a slap in the face for voters of moderate views, the great middle-ground of Britain’s electorate, the people who have made the Tories the natural party of Government for generations. These are the people who have put their trust in successive Conservative administrations to run the country competently, pursue sensible economic policies and speak up for commonly-held values of decency.

That is a word and concept that has been notably lacking in the Government in the past three years, and especially so in the last torrid couple of weeks.

Its importance was underlined by the resignation of Amber Rudd as Work and Pensions Secretary. Her contention that kicking out such conscientious and long-serving MPs as the former Chancellors Kenneth Clarke and Philip Hammond, or Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, was “an assault on decency and democracy” will have struck a chord with many.

It sends a message to voters that unless they buy into the scorched-earth, no-deal Brexit that Mr Johnson and his followers appear to favour, the Conservatives are no longer a party that seeks or deserves their support.

Boris Johnson during a pre-election farm visit.

Boris Johnson during a pre-election farm visit.

The Prime Minister’s grudging acknowledgement that he will obey legislation demanding he seek an extension to the Brexit deadline in pursuit of a deal with the EU is yet another example of how disconnected from voters he is becoming.

That Mr Johnson could even have considered for a moment defying it, as he appeared to, amounted to a repudiation of the traditional Conservative position of being the party of law and order.

Abandoning the centre ground of politics, which Mr Johnson – or the advisers guiding him – seems hell-bent on doing makes it more likely that the Conservatives will enter into an electoral alliance with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which will further alienate large numbers of voters.

Whether he realises it or not, Mr Johnson is driving them into the arms of Labour and the other opposition parties.

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Weeks into his premiership, the image Mr Johnson has so carefully cultivated over decades as an ebullient, enthusiastic and inclusive politician of broad appeal across party lines is in tatters. In its place is a picture of a fundamentalist zealot prepared to trample on anybody who disagrees with his views.

The problem with this sort of leadership is that it makes personality indivisible from party. The attitudes he is displaying are now perceived as being those of the Conservatives as a whole, and those who revile him will inevitably turn away from the party.

He may want a general election, but how on Earth are the Conservatives to draw up a manifesto to persuade voters who do not share Mr Johnson’s attitudes towards leaving the EU that a Government led by him is one in which they can put their trust?

Under Mr Johnson – and alarmingly quickly, given the shortness of his time in office – the Conservatives have lost their instinctive feel for how the vast centre-ground of voters naturally expect the country to be governed.

No election of modern times has returned a government of extreme views, yet that is what the Tories in their current state are offering. The message to the electorate from the cabal surrounding the Prime Minister is that only they are the guardians of true faith and those who disagree are wrong.

This is an extraordinarily off-putting prospect and should be deeply worrying for the Conservatives. But currently they don’t seem to care. Destiny certainly beckons Mr Johnson, but not in the way he has always imagined.