Boris Johnson says he doesn’t want a culture war – but he started this

The culture wars have gone wrong for the Tories. The moment three England footballers were racially abused after the Euro 2020 final, the national mood turned

Rupert Hawksley
Thursday 15 July 2021 10:32 BST
Boris Johnson claims no one defended booing

We are of course used to Boris Johnson not being entirely truthful at Prime Minister’s Questions. We simply factor this in. But yesterday’s session in the House of Commons was, even by his standards, a low point. Read these words, spoken by the prime minister, carefully: “I don’t want to engage in a political culture war of any kind.” How do we know this statement is untrue, aside from the fact it was uttered by Boris Johnson? And aside from all the evidence to the contrary?

Well, we know, categorically, that this statement is untrue because a senior minister in Johnson’s government has said as much. In an article by Matthew d’Ancona for Tortoise last month, a senior minister was quoted: “When it comes to culture wars, we win. Keir Starmer has no answer to this stuff, because his party is so crazily woke.”

So there you have it. The exact opposite of what Johnson said yesterday. Either that, or this senior minister is lying; but I think I’ll take my chances. Now I am not trying to frame this as some remarkable “gotcha” moment – Johnson lies all the time, it’s not difficult to point that out. The difference on this occasion is that the lie is hurting Johnson. This is new for him.

The culture wars have gone wrong for the Tories. The moment three England footballers were racially abused after the Euro 2020 final, the national mood turned. It was obvious to anyone who cared to look that the words of Boris Johnson and home secretary Priti Patel, who both refused to condemn fans for booing England’s anti-racism stance, had empowered the racists in this country.

You will by now have read what England defender Tyrone Mings said on the matter but his words bear repeating: “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘gesture politics’ and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against happens.”

Words have consequences – a surprise, no doubt, to Boris Johnson. The line between what he and Patel said and the racist abuse of three England players cannot be so easily erased, and the country is in no mood to forgive them. The prime minister, perhaps for the first time, is unable to lie himself out of this mess. Some things do in fact stick to Teflon.

Division can make people very loyal. This has always been the point of the Tories’ culture wars. Make one section of society angry – convinced that things (statues, portraits, identity, history) are being taken away from them by another section of society – and you guarantee their vote, if you can convince them that you are on their side. Up until this point, the strategy has worked well for this Conservative government.

But when the division becomes so great, when the two sides are driven too far apart, they will eventually meet again. And the country has unified over its disgust at the treatment of England’s black footballers. So now our anger turns to those who drove us apart in the first place. And who might that be? Boris Johnson and Priti Patel. Gavin Williamson and Oliver Dowden.

The question now is how the Tories react. We saw yesterday in PMQs that lying about their part in the culture wars won’t wash. So they have two options. Own it or change direction. Neither will be very appealing. Own it and the resentment grows, allowing the Labour Party to present itself more forcefully as the party of decency, standing up to racist enablers. Change direction, accept that the culture wars were a mistake, and the country laughs at the hypocrisy. To invert that senior minister’s words, Boris Johnson has no answer to this stuff, because his party is so crazily unwoke.

In any war, when you are on the backfoot, you can either dig in or retreat. But no war, as Boris Johnson is about to find out, has ever been won by lying.

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