I am a political journalist. But to understand this government you need psychology, not politics

Johnson and his followers are driven by a victim mentality more than any policy vision

November 19, 2021
Photo: Benjamin Wareing / Alamy
Photo: Benjamin Wareing / Alamy

After another chaotic week at Westminster, the best way to understand the dysfunction in Downing Street is not from the perspective of politics, but through the prism of psychology. Despite the hours spent in Number 10 discussing political strategy and the column inches devoted to parliamentary plots, the truth is that the machinations at the highest levels of government could best be analysed on the therapist’s couch. I am a political journalist, so my first instinct is to look at the recent shenanigans in terms of who is up, who is down and what it means for the political fortunes of Boris Johnson. But the way to gain the greatest insight into both the government and its supporters is in fact to consider the underlying psychology. 

This is true of the prime minister himself, of course. Johnson is a man who, according to his late mother, decided at an early age that he wanted to be “world king” in order to make himself “unhurtable, invincible, somehow safe from the pains” of her disappearance for eight months after she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

The Conservative leader wears his beliefs lightly because he is motivated more by being in power than by changing the country through policies. His ambition is for himself rather than for others.

He knows better than most how to weaponise chaos. Having had dysfunction thrust upon him as a boy, he now embraces it and tries to turn it to his advantage. As Dominic Cummings claims Johnson once told him: “I am more frightened of you having the power to stop the chaos than I am of the chaos. The chaos means everyone will look to me as the man in charge.” It was a fascinating and revealing insight. 

The psychological dimension goes beyond one individual, however. In order to grasp why things have unravelled so fast in Whitehall, it is also important to understand the mindset of the Brexiteers. The Leavers still see themselves as the plucky outsiders, the guerrilla revolutionaries who are trying to topple a liberal metropolitan Remain establishment.

This mentality explains the many misjudgments in Number 10, because there is a mismatch between this self-image and the fact that the Brexiteers are now in power. They are no longer tweaking the tail of the establishment, they are the establishment, and so the guerrilla moves look like the strong-arm tactics of an over-bearing state.

When Owen Paterson was found guilty of breaking the rules, Johnson instinctively wanted to stand up for a member of his band of brothers against “the system.” He “crashed the car into the ditch” because he thought he was trying to help the little guy stand up to a big bad bureaucratic machine, when in fact he was attempting to bend the rules to fit his own party political interest.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, even suggested that Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary standards commissioner, should resign. The extraordinary attack by a cabinet minister on an independent watchdog—for which Kwarteng has since had to apologise—only makes sense as part of a narrative of noble warriors being thwarted by an oppressive regime. Some Conservatives had convinced themselves that Stone was out to get them for political reasons, a conspiracy theory for which there is absolutely no evidence, and so they thought it was acceptable to brief against her.

There is a bizarre victim mentality at the top of an administration with an 80-seat Commons majority. The prime minister stood by Priti Patel because he thought the home secretary was under attack from the “blob” of the civil service. In written submissions to the High Court this week, lawyers representing the senior civil servants’ union the FDA compared the prime minister to Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, who says: “When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“Instead of being David firing pebbles from a slingshot, they are Goliath, with all the power that comes with being in government”

It appears Johnson has created his own parallel universe in which it is fine to lose the independent adviser on ministerial standards Alex Allan, but keep the cabinet minister who broke the rules, because the watchdog is part of the “elite.”

The attacks on the BBC, the threats to privatise Channel 4, the sabre-rattling at the judiciary and the attempts to bypass parliament all derive from the sense the Brexiteers have that they are the freedom fighters taking on the institutional forces which really run the country. They see a conspiracy around every corner when in fact they are running up against the democratic checks and balances on untrammelled power.

It’s the same mindset driving international policy. The Brexiteers think it’s acceptable to ignore international law because they are standing up for the “will of the people” against the over-powerful EU.

They’ve lost sight of the fact that, instead of being David firing pebbles from a slingshot, they are Goliath, with all the weight and power that comes with being in government. The attempts to bend the rules, crush their opponents or stamp on the institutions therefore look increasingly authoritarian rather than alternative.

The “us against them” mindset has led to many of the mistakes made by Johnson and his team. They think they are right and others are wrong—that the means justify the ends. But the fantasy is running up against reality. The prime minister and his circle are now themselves the arrogant and out of touch metropolitan elite that they think they are trying to topple.

If psychology is as important as politics in Number 10, then that is also true in the House of Commons. A prime minister depends on retaining the trust and confidence of his or her MPs. If that evaporates, it is hard for a leader to cling on for long. Johnson has never been loved among his parliamentary colleagues but he was respected as a winner—as soon as he no longer looks like one, support for him will evaporate. Perhaps suddenly, because the support is extremely shallow.

Confidence is like a vapour—it hangs in the air but is impossible to grasp, an emotional rather than a rational thing. It may have been the case when he was strong that, as Johnson put it to Cummings, “The chaos means everyone will look to me as the man in charge.” But as soon as MPs conclude that the chaos means he is not in fact in charge, they will turn on him. All politics is psychology in the end.