14th May 2021
To adapt what Tolstoy once said about unhappy families, each successful politician is successful in their own way.
No two successful politicians are exactly alike: each one prevailed in a unique fact situation which required their distinctive qualities.
But: as long as one does not take it too seriously, comparisons can be interesting.
And the thought struck me the other day that the current prime minister is not like his proclaimed hero Winston Churchill but instead like another Conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.
If this comparison is sound then the opposition parties should be worried.
This is because Churchill was only successful in general elections when he was in his dotage as a national treasure.
Disraeli, on the other hand, took on William Gladstone in his prime and won – and he also placed the Victorian Tory party on a popular electoral basis that it has never really lost since.
Disraeli, in short, is perhaps the most formidable Conservative leader progressives in this country have ever faced in electoral combat.
There are four points of comparison between Johnson and Disraeli.
The first is how Disraeli weaponised an issue that he himself did not especially care that much about, one way or the other, so as to destroy a prime minister and thereby to promote his own career and leadership admissions.
For Disraeli this was the corn laws and his target was Robert Peel, and for Johnson it was Brexit and David Cameron and Theresa May.
In particular, Disraeli could quite easily have written two pamphlets – for and against the corn laws – before going with the one which mobilised the better political support, just as Johnson wrote his infamous two newspaper columns for and against Brexit.
The second point of comparison is how Disraeli gamed the constitution in 1867 so as to suddenly provide the Conservatives with broader, urban-based, populist political support – with the huge extension in the electoral franchise.
The gaming of the constitution was against (supposed) Conservative principles – as contemporaries such as the young Lord Salisbury averred – but Disraeli did not care, as political expediency trumped political consistency.
And again, that is what Johnson is doing now – and not only with Brexit but with the the various attacks on constitutional norms, from the independence of the judiciary to the prorogation of parliament.
One can imagine the ghost of Disraeli nodding in admiration, at this continual dishing of the latter-day whigs.
The third point of comparison was Disraeli’s unrivalled knack of sensing that urban and/or working class electors are open to populist Conservative politics.
Although progressives assume that people should vote progressively, often the people do not and vote against the way progressives think they should.
Disraeli knew this – and Johnson knows this – and this is why both are formidable opponents to progressives, pulling the electoral rugs from beneath the toes of more earnest progressive sorts.
And one can easily imagine Johnson making his Queen the Empress of India, if he could.
And the fourth point of comparison is that Disraeli did all this while generally being looked down on by the media and political elite of his day both for his public and non-public life and for his somewhat chaotic lifestyle.
This was/is because of their charisma and their skill with words.
Indeed, both Disraeli and Johnson were/are skilled wordsmiths.
(A ‘skilled wordsmith’ is what a skilled wordsmith calls what a good writer would just call a ‘good writer’.)
Both show that cleverness and (perceived) personality go a long way – even when almost everyone in their political and media worlds regarded them as utter chancers and charlatans.
Of course: there are many points of contrast.
They had different backgrounds, and did different things and in a different way.
But it is easy to posit differences between any two successful politicians.
It is less easy to to identify things in common.
Disraeli only won one major election outright – while, in a way, Johnson has totted up three – the referendum, the 2019 general election and the elections last week.
And Disraeli’s political legacy was supercharged by the fall-out from the Irish Home Rule Crisis after his death – which also contributed to Conservative political hegemony in the twenty years after his death.
In being willing to opportunistically weaponise an issue to defeat political incumbents, to game the constitution so as to win popular mandates, to appeal to populism, and in his defiance of political and media censure, Johnson to me seems similar to Disraeli.
If this is a sound comparison, then radicals and progressives will have a hard job competing for votes.
A Disraeli is the last sort of Conservative leader that radicals and progressives should ever want to be against.
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