‘We in this government will work flat out to give this country the leadership it deserves,” announced Boris Johnson in Downing Street. His would be a government of “pluck and nerve”. An authentically Conservative government whose “powers of organisation and determination” no one should underestimate.
His government certainly should not be underestimated, but not for reasons Johnson can ever admit. It has no pluck, but what a nerve.
It is Nigel Farage’s government in spirit. His florid face and restless malice haunt its every meeting. Brexit party propagandists know its ministers are Farage’s proteges. They urged them on as the temperature rose with cries of: “Boris is making mincemeat out of the opposition. We’ve got Rees-Mogg, Priti Patel and Raab in key government positions. And to top it all off, on the hottest day of the year, the Remoaner snowflakes are in total meltdown.”
It will be Farage’s government in fact one day. Either Johnson will succeed in crashing Britain out of the EU, in which case there will be no reason not to merge the Conservative and Brexit parties. Or he will fail, in which case Farage will announce that Brexit has been betrayed and the Brexit party will replace the Conservative party. Either way, Farage is waiting for the call. “We need a political revolution in this country,” he told a remarkably sycophantic interviewer. To deliver it to a grateful nation, he wouldn’t rule out being prime minister himself.
It is a helping-police-with-their-inquiries government, whose small army of politicians and advisers from the Vote Leave campaign may include among their number persons of interest to a criminal investigation by the Met into alleged breaches of electoral law in the 2016 referendum. With appropriate symmetry, the Met is also investigating Farage’s outfit, Leave.EU. The chief commissioner says decisions on whether to prosecute none, either or both are due “within weeks”.
It is a nepotism government. It so treats the affairs of state as a family affair that Johnson can make his brother Jo business minister, with no one in our decaying democracy finding the strength in their facial muscles to raise a quizzical eyebrow; where Stanley Johnson can appear on the propaganda channel of the Islamic Republic of Iran to announce that he looked forward to his son “building bridges with Iran” – the poor man did not know that building bridges was not his sprog’s forte – and say it on the very day his son was denouncing Jeremy Corbyn for taking money from the propaganda channel of the Islamic Republic of Iran. “How incredible that we should even think of entrusting that gentleman with the stewardship of this country’s security,” Johnson (Boris) declared.
In truth, it is incredible that we consider entrusting this country’s security to either, the more so because Johnson’s supposedly patriotic government is also a clear-and-present-danger-to-the-nation government, a Make-Britain-Poor-Again government, which would hit the poorest people and regions just by leaving the single market.
The supposed party of economic competence is going far further and envisaging an option that could break Britain by playing with a crash-out. The supposed party of national security would hammer defence industries with a no-deal Brexit. The supposed party of law and order has produced a government for organised crime by pulling Britain out of EU efforts to control international gangs through border, policing and criminal justice co-operation.
The phoniness of this government’s patriotism is revealed in its decision to trust Gavin Williamson, despite Theresa May firing him because there was “compelling evidence suggesting your responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure” from the National Security Council. How fitting that the phoney should be back at the cabinet table, for this, to add to the charge sheet, is a phoney government, which pretends its priority is advancing Brexit when its first duty is protecting Johnson’s damaged ego.
Penny Mordaunt, the defence secretary, was all for Brexit. She did not commit to Johnson, like a gangster committing to a crime boss, so he fired her. Liam Fox was one of the intellectual authors of Brexit – if that is not an abuse of the word. But he backed Hunt rather than Johnson, so he had to go too.
As with Johnson, so with Farage. First in Ukip and now in the Brexit party, he has always loathed dissent, so much so that his Brexit party isn’t even a party but a limited company owned by Farage and his cronies.
The result is a yes-man government: a team of sycophants rather than of rivals. Nicky Morgan said in 2018 she would refuse to serve in an administration led by Boris Johnson after he accused Theresa May of strapping the UK to a “suicide vest”. That same year, Jo Johnson said a no-deal Brexit would “inflict untold damage on our nation”. In March 2019, Amber Rudd forced Theresa May to disavow a no-deal Brexit. Only a few weeks ago, Matt Hancock was showing the level of his oratory when he replied to (Boris) Johnson’s “fuck business” dismissal of industry’s fears about Brexit with “I say fuck ‘fuck business’”. It’s not merely that Morgan, (Jo) Johnson, Rudd and Hancock have taken jobs in (Boris) Johnson’s government – they sold out their country when they sold their souls by agreeing to make the Faragist pledge to support Britain leaving without a deal if that was what their master demanded.
They serve in a jeering, neurotic government without humility or class. The charm Eton sprays on its pupils was revealed in Downing Street to be painted on a millimetre thick. Johnson blustered against “the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters”, like Lear raging at a storm on a blasted heath, and promised “the people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts”, when the only guaranteed losers from his government are the British.
In short, we have a Faragist rather than a Conservative government. A government of nepotists, chancers, fools, flunkeys, flatterers, hypocrites, braggarts and whiners. And until the centre-left pulls itself together, it will be your government.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist