Boris Johnson's moment has passed – he offers young people nothing and they know it

Brexit, Boris Johnson, and that £350m NHS claimNewsweek

Back in 2013 I remember reading an article in the Economist singing the praises of Boris Johnson, or just 'Boris' as our sycophantic press insists on calling him. In the piece, those aged 18 to 24-year-olds were dubbed 'Generation Boris' due to their supposed ideological fealty to the Mayor of London (now former mayor and Theresa May's foreign secretary).

What followed was a predictable roll-call of policies which young people were said to support (and which of course the Economist approved of too). So things like free markets as well as free love – or at least 'free' in the sense that you ought to be free to marry someone of the same sex.

"Young Britons are classical liberals," the article in question noted approvingly. "As well as prizing social freedom, they believe in low taxes, limited welfare and personal responsibility. In America they would be called libertarians."

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And there was only one politician who purportedly had any hope of appealing to Britain's apathetic youth: "The chaotic, colourful mayor of London, a rare politician who transcends his Tory identity by melding social and economic liberalism, appears to have Britain's libertarian youth in the bag."

Boris Johnson is rarely out of the news, but he is back in it four years later for reasons of Tory party positioning. On the back of Theresa May's failure to win an outright majority at the general election in June, Johnson himself – together with several supportive journalists – appears to be on manoeuvres.

By making dishonest claims about Brexit - Sir David Norgrove of the UK Statistics Authority accused the foreign secretary of a "clear misuse of official statistics" - Johnson is goading May to sack him.

It is a win-win for Johnson, as he sees it. If she doesn't move him on – which she has so far failed to do – she is weak; whereas if she does sack Johnson she is left with a high profile, unconstrained 'hard-Brexiteer' for her Europe-obsessed backbenchers to rally around.

As the American President Lyndon Johnson once said of the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover: "It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in".

No doubt, then, we will see the old Economist article bandied around again if Johnson's leadership ambitions move up a gear. It is difficult to see the road to Brexit becoming any smoother for Theresa May, and it is thus more likely than not that the 'manoeuvres' on the part of his supporters to get Boris Johnson into Number 10 are likely to continue behind the scenes for the foreseeable.

This will no doubt be helped by the fact that the pool of talent for any future leadership contest (and this is a problem Labour has too) is incredibly thin. So-called 'Moggmania' isn't simply a half-serious attempt at replicating the phenomenon that is Corbynism. It's also an admission that one's potential options as a Tory member in any future leadership contest are limited.

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But the reanimated mania for Boris Johnson among some Conservatives does raise the question of why so many young people, a generation of supposedly "dogged individualists", voted overwhelmingly for the Labour Party in the recent general election.

This was after all an election at which the party ran on a left-wing social democratic manifesto. Amongst first time voters (those aged 18 and 19), Labour was a huge 47 percentage points ahead in terms of votes cast, according to a YouGov survey carried out the week after polling. "For every 10 years older a voter is, their chance of voting Tory increases by around nine points," the YouGov analysis of the data noted.

10 April 2017: Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson leaves at the end of a bilateral meeting during a G7 for foreign ministers in Lucca, ItalyMax Rossi/Reuters

It might be argued that this happened because Theresa May embraced a more nativist social vision of Britain than David Cameron after Brexit, heaping scorn on those "citizens of nowhere" who had supposedly neglected Britain's "just about managing".

But I suspect the turn toward Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party is also part of a wider backlash – albeit a delayed backlash – provoked by the financial crash and subsequent recession. Liberal conservatives failed to see Brexit coming, and by nailing their colours to the mast of Boris Johnson (should he seriously challenge May) they are failing to grasp the sea-change that politics has undergone in recent years.

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It is worth noting that much of the supposed 'evidence' purporting to show that Britain's youth have moved to the right was gathered during the lead up to the 2008 crash and subsequent recession. "Evidence from the British Social Attitudes Survey showed that the proportion of the electorate agreeing that 'governments ought to redistribute income' had fallen from 45% in 1987 to 36% in 2009," as a characteristic article of the genre reported in the Independent earlier this year.

Many of these surveys were carried out, in other words, during a period that many liberal conservatives are nostalgic for: the pre-crisis nineties and noughties; the 'End of History' when boom and bust has been abolished and the market was sacrosanct.

Britain's youth, who have been at the sharp end of the precarious job market since the crash, who often go into jobs they are overqualified for with a mountain of debt (a 2015 report found that more than half of graduates were in jobs that did not require a degree), and who are less likely to get on the property ladder than their parents, have I suspect wised up to what a friend from Podemos recently called the "new management of the enterprise made politics". The shiny men who dominated politics for so long have lost their electoral allure.

Gaffe-prone Boris Johnson may be less polished than his ideological bedfellows, but a re-heated neoliberalism under the Johnson brand would likely fall about as flat as it did under Cameron (and currently is under Emmanuel Macron in France).

Back in 2012 the former leader Ed Miliband was probably right when he said that Britain was in a "similar moment" to the 1970s: "It was a similar moment in the sense that a sense of the old order was crumbling and it wasn't 100% clear what was going to replace it."

Miliband has been roundly mocked since losing the 2015 election to the Conservatives. Yet he wasn't wrong; he simply arrived on the scene too early.


James Bloodworth is former editor of Left Foot Forward, one of the UK's top political blogs, and the author of The Myth of Meritocracy.


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