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  • Scott Cresswell

Boris Johnson: The Macmillan of Our Times?


Prime Minister Boris Johnson, seen here the COP26 Summit in Glasgow, has had a strikingly similar story in history to that of Harold Macmillan.

With satirical magazine Private Eye celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, I was more than amused to find an “anniversary retrospective” that summed up perfectly a similarity shared by many of those who have governed Britain. “Magazine pokes fun at Old Etonian Prime Minister surrounded by cronies making a hash of running the country” were the frank words below a 1961 captioned Harold Macmillan. Fifty years later, you had David Cameron and now, we have Boris Johnson.

This piece made me ponder over those three old Etonian figures. Macmillan was, at the time, the most electorally successful Conservative since Stanley Baldwin and a figure who exuded elitism while preaching one-nation Toryism. David Cameron may have his upper-class credentials, but he shared neither Macmillan’s popularity nor care for moderate ‘compassionate’ conservatism. Remember hug-a-hoodie, or vote blue go green? These gestures and phrases were jettisoned immediately the moment he stepped foot into Number 10 and unleashed neo-Thatcherism upon the burdened poor. Boris Johnson, on the other hand, seems different. Surprisingly, the political climate of today is similar to the air of late fifties and early sixties Britain in more ways than one.

After a foreign affairs crisis and ratings for the Tory government at an all-time low, a new and spritely figure emerged, radically altering the fortunes of the government. The new Prime Minister won 365 seats in an election. Who would have thought that the stories of Harold Macmillan and Boris Johnson would be so identical? Macmillan and Johnson used the Suez Crisis and Brexit respectively to grasp the premiership with both hands, replacing Anthony Eden and Theresa May, duds of biblical proportions. In relatively short periods of time, they both achieved the unthinkable and rebounded the fortunes of the Conservative Party. In 1959, Macmillan won a majority of 100 seats; Johnson was just twenty behind in 2019.

The climate between the two political eras and the similarities are not exclusive to the Prime Ministers either. Sir Keir Starmer, like Hugh Gaitskell during the post-Attlee Labour years, leads a bitterly divided party. Both were/are leaders who want desperate internal modernisation but lack the consensual skills to do so equipped remarkably by both Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. Even Ed Davey, the rather forgettable leader of the even more forgettable Liberal Democrats, is aiming for the same goal that Jo Grimond, Liberal leader from 1956 to 1967, desired: to make a third party not electable, but relevant.

How does this all link to the politics of today, a fiercer arena shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic? Like Macmillan, Johnson loves to be loved. Throughout much of Macmillan’s early premiership, his repetition of “you’ve never had it so good” to a post-war country coming out of the dark never-ending tunnels of rationing struck a chord. His personal popularity earned him the nickname “Super-Mac” and he led the Tories to a third consecutive victory (and a strong one) during very favourable economic circumstances.

It’s simply amazing how similar Boris Johnson’s story is. “Take Back Control. “Get Brexit Done”. “Dude! We are going to energise this country”. Or mentioning “levelling up” nineteen times in his speech at the Conservative Conference in September. Even now, after two years as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson still portrays himself as the outsider, the moderniser who will change Britain (ignoring the fact that his party has been in power for nearly twelve years). The public, however, is not always patient. There seemed a time in the aftermath of his 1959 landslide that Macmillan would remain popular for a very long time indeed. Within months, everything went wrong.

Remember Johnson’s reshuffle back in September? Although on a far smaller scale, memories and suggestions of a 21st century Knight of the Long Knives emerged. The event, named after a purge in early thirties Nazi Germany which gave Adolf Hitler supreme control over Germany, occurred in 1962 when Macmillan deposed one-third of his cabinet. In doing so, Macmillan made many enemies and his unpopularity among both the public and the Conservative Party grew. Gavin Williamson and Robert Jenrick may be out, but they are far from gone.

The Chesham and Amersham by-election result in July should be worrying for Johnson’s Tories. In a speedy attempt to “level up” cities and towns deprived in the North; Johnson may be losing those Conservatives in the south. Could this be just a blip, or, like the 1962 Orpington by-election, or the 1990 Eastbourne by-election (which ended the premierships of Macmillan and Thatcher respectively) be a sign of things to come?

The similarities between the politics of the past and of today may be all too apparent. Johnson, like Super-Mac, may exude one-nation Conservatism differing from the economics of his Chancellor(s) and may experience popularity for some time to come. But, with the cracks appearing on the brittle walls, it’s only a matter of time before the crumbling commences…

Image - Flickr (COP26)



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