OPINION - Boris Johnson's return is an uncomfortable reminder of Conservative choices

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Boris Johnson’s interventions in the General Election have been co-ordinated with the Conservative campaign and will ‘make a difference’ (Dan Kitwood/PA) (PA Archive)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Boris Johnson’s interventions in the General Election have been co-ordinated with the Conservative campaign and will ‘make a difference’ (Dan Kitwood/PA) (PA Archive)

Broadly speaking, there are two distinct types of television dramas: procedurals and serials. The former, often set in a courtroom or police station, specialise in predictable structures with self-contained storylines that typically revolve around a different case or crime.

Networks and advertisers love them, because (particularly in the age before streaming and digital recording) they were primed for viewer retention. If you miss one episode of NCIS, it doesn't really matter. Conversely, serials allow space for narratives to build and characters to develop over multiple episodes or even seasons.

The defining feature of my descent into madness – that is, the several hundred hours I spent last year watching every BBC election night broadcast since February 1970 – was how much more they are like procedurals than serials. Think about it: 2001 was dominated by public services, 2005: Iraq, 2010: austerity, 2017: not Brexit, 2019: Brexit and Boris Johnson.

The 2024 campaign, meanwhile, has been characterised by Conservative missteps, Labour's polling lead and the question of taxation. Virtually no time has been spent discussing the two central features of 2019. Brexit has been 'Got Done' while Johnson isn't even standing to be a Tory MP.

So it was something of a throwback to see Johnson taking to Twitter/X to endorse a few favoured candidates, and according to the Daily Telegraph, put his name to a direct mail aimed at stemming the flow of votes to Reform UK. It serves as a reminder, at least to me, that it really isn't all that long ago since Johnson, in the famous (and at the time wholly accurate) words of The Sunday Times' Tim Shipman, squatted "like a giant toad across British politics".

Tory MPs ultimately turfed Johnson out of office because of the cumulative damage wrought by Partygate revelations, with the Chris Pincher affair acting as the final straw. But the bloke still bequeathed his successors a healthy Commons majority and a moderately coherent voting coalition.

If the Tories were as desperate for power in 2022 as they had been in 2005, they would have chosen as Johnson's successor someone who shared his enthusiasm for higher public spending but without the character flaws. Instead, party members opted for the complete opposite in Liz Truss and got unfunded tax cuts with a side of gilt market crisis. Rishi Sunak, with his rhetorical focus on tax cuts over cutting NHS waiting lists, has fared little better.

The country's sheer exhaustion about Brexit and revulsion towards Jeremy Corbyn were two seismic electoral advantages the Tories enjoyed in 2019. But fiscally speaking, Johnson was also the most left-wing of the five Tory prime ministers since 2010. Sure, more than anyone else he was responsible for Brexit, but he also supported higher NHS spending and net zero.

Gloriously uninterested he may have been in public service reform and policy detail, but then again, that is another thing he shared with the public. Despite this blueprint, the Tories have gone into this election campaign with an extremely thin offer on public services and a focus on cuts to national insurance.

This is British politics as procedural drama. If you missed the 2019 election episode – as this Downing Street operation appears to – it doesn't really matter. 2024 will still make sense. You just might not have realised that the Tories had in fact located an electoral sweet spot and tossed it away by the time the end credits roll.

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