Boris defeated Corbyn but he may have saved Labour

British Jews owe Johnson a debt of gratitude but how long will it last?


LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 06: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a farewell address before his official resignation at Downing Street on September 6, 2022 in London, England. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is stepping down following the election of Liz Truss, the former foreign secretary, as Conservative Party leader. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

As a student of the classics, Boris Johnson will be familiar with hamartia, the character flaw that dooms a tragic hero. Aristotle deemed it necessary to tragedy that the protagonist be ‘a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty’. Johnson’s hamartia was more than an error or frailty. His hamartia was him.

Yet an important point of departure from our neighbours on the Continent was his instinctive affinity for Israel. Johnson’s government identified Israel as a key trading partner and opened negotiations for a free-trade agreement. His administration proscribed Hamas in its entirety and committed to anti-BDS legislation. Johnson was not an ostentatiously pro-Israel leader, as Liz Truss has positioned herself, but he was a steadfast and reliable ally. 

Does this excuse the falsehoods and the fiascos? No. 

Does anything? 

There is a legacy few political obituarists are mentioning: he stopped Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. The three years that followed were marked by dishonesty, decadence and decline, and yet had these failings been 10 times what they were, or 10 hundred times, they would have been preferable to the abomination of Corbyn in Number 10. Recall that polling showed 87 per cent of British Jews considered the Labour leader to be antisemitic while four in 10 said they would seriously consider emigrating if he became Prime Minister. 

Reading that sentence now, it could almost belong to another era, but it was just three years ago. Since then, there has been a change of leadership and Labour acts and sounds like Labour again. Although there is still a power of work to be done in rooting out antisemites, Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour has made progress. 

Yet, for the most part, all the nice, decent people have succeeded in forgetting. A sense of moral superiority is intrinsic to Labour’s political outlook and anything that threatens to chill the warm glow of virtue must be rationalised away. Only the cranks have kept faith with Labour antisemitism, and then only in order to dismiss it as a scam. 

In defeating Corbyn so comprehensively, Johnson answered all of Labour's prayers at once. He got rid of the source of the party’s troubles and the man who was keeping it out of power. He gave the far-left all the far-left really wants from politics, a betrayal narrative, and in returning them to the fringe, he made it possible for the soft-left to revert to form. After four agonising years, they could go back to indulging the far-left as well-meaning, if excitable, comrades rather than what they are: enemies of social democracy. 

For a man who spent so long plotting his ascent to Number 10, Johnson managed to make it and unmake it in just three years — and all by his own hand. Is there anything to be taken from his story other than the tragic triumvirate of glory, hubris and destruction? Yes, because a prime minister is more than a literary stock character. His person and his legacy are complicated.

There has been some soul-searching over antisemitism, but nowhere close to what was warranted. Labour got yet another reminder of the wages of tribalism and sentimentality but was ultimately able to avoid a reckoning with the brute truth — that the party is fundamentally unsuited to competitive politics. With one sweeping defeat, Labour got to drain the poison, return to its comfort zone and wait for the government to stumble. 

Therein lies the tragedy of Boris Johnson. His triumph saved the Labour Party and his downfall has paved its path back to power. 

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