ROSS CLARK: Until recently, Boris Johnson had a reputation as a libertarian


Coming from any British prime minister, the new restrictions on our day-to-day lives imposed over the past couple of weeks would be extraordinary.

Over large parts of England it is now illegal to meet up with a friend or family member, even outdoors where the virus is far less likely to spread.

Up to 16million Britons are suffering from draconian restrictions on their personal liberty and a growing band of Tory MPs are warning of ‘national lockdown by default’ – with Boris Johnson facing a looming rebellion from his backbenchers.

The new rules are being backed by eye-watering fines and pettifogging officials empowered to use ‘reasonable force’.

In as much as Johnson has a political philosophy, it has always revolved around getting the State off our backs. Pictured: The Prime Minister arriving to Exeter College this month 

Almost incredibly, pubs now face being fined up to £10,000 for allowing singing on their premises. 

Individuals who fail to self-isolate when ordered to do so can be fined £10,000 – as much as many people earn in six months. 

Even employees – who may be worried about keeping their jobs – who do not tell their boss they are self-isolating risk being stung for £50 levies.

I accept that the Treasury has been somewhat depleted by the Covid recession, but trying to make up the deficit by picking on people who fail to understand the rules is a step too far. 

Remarkably, not one of these regulations or fines has been debated in Parliament. Rather, they have been imposed under executive order by the Prime Minister himself, using emergency powers which at the beginning of this crisis we were led to believe would only be needed for a short period.

But what is most astonishing of all is the fact that this assault on our everyday freedoms has been imposed by a man who, until recently, had a reputation as a libertarian. 

In as much as Johnson has a political philosophy, it has always revolved around getting the State off our backs.

A growing band of Tory MPs are warning of 'national lockdown by default' – with Boris Johnson facing a looming rebellion from his backbenchers

A growing band of Tory MPs are warning of ‘national lockdown by default’ – with Boris Johnson facing a looming rebellion from his backbenchers

Over large parts of England it is now illegal to meet up with a friend or family member, even outdoors where the virus is far less likely to spread

Over large parts of England it is now illegal to meet up with a friend or family member, even outdoors where the virus is far less likely to spread 

How hard it is to reconcile the tinpot dictator who now resides in Downing Street with the editor of The Spectator who wrote of the Blair government’s ‘lust to interfere in every aspect of our daily lives’?

Can the Prime Minister who now threatens us with £10,000 fines for seeing our loved ones really be the columnist who so bitterly opposed Tony Blair’s attempts to introduce 90-day detention without trial?

Or the man who in 2011 wrote eloquently in reaction to suggestions that skiers might be forced to wear crash helmets: ‘I object furiously to the element of compulsion, not just because it offends the principles of liberty but because the whole problem of politics over the past 30 years is that we have proceeded by central legislation rather than leaving decisions to individuals and to communities?’

What, in short, has happened to the freedom-loving, carefree man the country elected by a landslide under a year ago?

Is it the taste of power – coupled with his own fear of the virus, born out of a very severe case of it – that has transformed him into such a strangely authoritarian Premier?

The shift seems almost incredible – and to no one more than me. I know quite a lot about how Johnson thinks because for several years, when he was editor of The Spectator, I wrote many of his leading articles. 

One, in March 2001, concerned what we both saw as the excessive reaction of the Blair Government to an earlier epidemic – foot and mouth disease.

With hearty encouragement from Johnson, I ridiculed the way the countryside was being closed, mobile libraries taken off the road and how the Bishop of Carlisle had been imprisoned in his home on the grounds that the field next door had seen an outbreak of what I called the ‘bestial equivalent of athlete’s foot’.

Events proved Johnson was right in his instincts about Blair’s knee-jerk approach to foot and mouth – a University of Edinburgh report later concluded that many more animals were slaughtered than necessary.

Some of the measures were plain daft – for example, closing thousands of miles of footpaths, including those through arable fields and woodlands miles from the nearest farm animal. 

In 2005, remembering how he had once been consigned to an Oxford police cell overnight after a riotous Bullingdon Club dinner, Johnson wrote in The Spectator: ‘I was suddenly conscious of the immense practical power of the State and its ability to make my life hell. 

‘I think back to that weird moment of shock – when I realised the cops were capable of making something up.’

Yet now he thinks nothing of threatening the population with huge fines and unleashing troops on to the streets, with regulations even he struggles to understand or still less articulate. 

One person who found himself at the wrong end of Johnson's reign of terror is weather forecaster Piers Corbyn (pictured), who has been fined £10,000 for organising a protest against lockdown

One person who found himself at the wrong end of Johnson’s reign of terror is weather forecaster Piers Corbyn (pictured), who has been fined £10,000 for organising a protest against lockdown

One person who has already found himself at the wrong end of Johnson’s reign of terror is weather forecaster Piers Corbyn, Jeremy’s older brother, who has been fined £10,000 for daring to organise a protest against lockdown. 

(The organisers of the summer’s anti-racism protests appear to have been left well alone.)

How ironic that Johnson was once one of the biggest fans of Piers’s forecasts. Of course, there are some people who will dismiss Johnson’s former libertarianism as irresponsible.

Opposing compulsion in health and safety matters is one thing, but it was his cavalier attitude toward his own health and safety that led to his boasting of shaking hands with everyone he met on a hospital visit in March – at a time when Covid-19 was rampant.

Three weeks later, he nearly lost his life to the disease. Johnson acknowledges that being overweight contributed to the severity of his illness. 

That, too, may have struck home, given that he had often ridiculed efforts by ‘Nanny State’ governments to legislate on obesity.

Yet his insight before he became PM was absolutely right: Governments can make problems worse by jumping straight to passing laws rather than appealing to individuals’ sense of responsibility.

As Johnson himself wrote in 2004 when a committee of MPs proposed ‘fat taxes’: ‘The more the State tries to take responsibility for the problem, the less soluble the problem will become and the more people will indeed feel that they are the ‘victims’ of an affliction, when it is nothing but their own fat fault.’

Sorry, Boris: You were right first time. You once saw and powerfully argued that governments can’t resist passing silly laws and threatening us with ever-bigger fines if we fail to obey. 

Your new-found authoritarian principles are destroying our freedoms and bringing the economy to its knees.

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