As a Lib Dem, I know all about the price of a broken promise. Nick Clegg’s 2010 pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees, and his disastrous decision to then do the opposite, had a catastrophic impact on both him and his party’s fortunes in 2015.
The public know that politicians fudge, equivocate and dodge the question. Politicians in turn are usually pretty good at not making promises they can’t keep (how often, for example, do we hear them talking about “aspirations”). It's a plague of everyone's house and we sort of carry on regardless.
However, when a politician is shown to have quite clearly promised one thing and then quite literally done the opposite (no matter how well justified), the public reaction is brutal. Nick Clegg found that out the hard way, and Boris Johnson will as well.
Boris’ tuition fees moment will come on two fronts, and they’re both related to the reasons he just won such an astonishing victory. The leave campaign won by forming a coalition of three groups. The first, the core Brexiters, are people who believe that Britain should not be a member of the EU as a point of principle. Michael Gove is one of these, so is Nigel Farage. Boris Johnson, ironically, is not.
But there were never enough of those people to win a referendum, so they had to broaden out. The way they did it was simple but brilliantly effective. They picked two of the most important issues to voters (the NHS and immigration) and made a simple promise on each. Firstly, they promised to take the £350m we send to Brussels every week and spend it on the NHS, and secondly they promised that by leaving the EU we could “take control” of immigration, with the strong implication that this meant it significantly reducing.
72 hours later and both promises have completely unravelled. Yesterday we saw Daniel Hannan, a principled and consistent Brexiter, admit that his vision for a post EU Britain didn’t involve cutting immigration at all, and that “control” didn’t equal “reduce”. Then, today, Iain Duncan Smith denied on the Andrew Marr programme that the leave campaign had ever promised that the mythical £350m would go to the NHS, because of course a lot of that £350m comes back and funds other things like farming and science research which still need to be paid for. He might have gotten away with it if he hadn't been photographed next to a giant red bus which said in giant letters that this money could be used to fund the NHS. Evidence is such a bitch sometimes.
Those are two astonishing admissions, but the Brexiters have managed to top them. The most astonishing thing to come out of the leave camp post referendum is that many of them don’t actually want to leave the EU at all. Liam Fox (someone who you could never accuse of flip-flopping on this issue) today became the latest is a series of Brexiters who suggested that Britain didn’t need to trigger Article 50 any time soon, if at all.
This gets to the fundamental dishonestly of the Brexiter position. Many of them don’t want Britain to leave the EU at all and almost none of them want to leave the single market. However, to win, they’ve made a Faustian pact with millions of people who do want Britain to leave the EU, and now rightly expect that to happen.
So, Boris, before you complete your admittedly impressive rise to the top job, let me give you some advice based on what you might call “similar experience”.
This won’t end well for you.
The public think they’ve been sold two very clear things – a huge cash injection into the NHS and an end to mass immigration. You painted the big red bus, made the promise and won the referendum. Now, if you don’t give people what they voted for, they’re going to destroy you. And their cheerleader, Nigel Farage, will welcome them with open arms.