This may become Britain’s wettest February for 30 years. Storms Ciara and Dennis have come and gone, and more foul weather may follow. The Environment Agency issued 90 flood warnings and 153 alerts yesterday. Parts of central England, Wales and the North have been severely affected, and the worst of the weather may spread.
Amidst these battering storms, where is the Prime Minister? Therein lies a tale.
Boris Johnson spent most of last week at Chevening. (Not Chequers, please note.) He didn’t leave it to visit weather-beaten areas and the floods’ victims. It is claimed in the Sunday Times today – ever a useful source of information about Camp Johnson – that he has asked for shorter memos: “no more than four pages, or he’s never going to read it. Two pages is preferable”. A Whitehall claims that the Prime Minister is running “government by ADHD”.
It seems to us that the very opposite is true.
Johnson’s decision to stick it out at Chevening is part of a bigger picture – one that also features the boycott of The Today programme and Good Morning Britain, the row with Kay Burley, and the to-and-fro about moving some lobby meetings. To put it at its starkest, Downing Street is telling a big slice of the media to get stuffed.
Not so long ago, it would put the Prime Minister, whoever he or she might have been at the time, front of house – more and more. Flood visits offer a classic example. Pre-election, Johnson visited flood-stricken south Yorkshire, where the inevitable followed: he was asked to apologise and heckled by locals. Or at least that’s the part of his trip which the media highlighted. But that was before the following month’s general election and the new Conservative majority of 80. So no more.
In essence, Number Ten wants to get government back to the tone of the pre-Blair era – when the Prime Minister was seen less and other Ministers did more. It argues that George Eustice, who has been out and about, is a perfectly good visiting Minister. His department leads on floods (at least when it’s raining). He’s very experienced in his field. If any policy changes are needed, they are unlikely to miss his eye. And he should have his day in the sun, so not to speak, and the opportunity to apply a little balm and comfort.
There may also be an element of Johnson seeking to avoid the downbeat – remember his slowness to return to Britain during the London riots of 2011 – but it is not the main decision-driver.
The media doesn’t like not setting the terms of coverage, and is fighting back. Hence the cry of “Where’s Boris?” And articles like this one last week by the political Editor of the Daily Mail.
To which Downing Street’s response has been: tough. Its take is that much of the media is a bit of a busted flush. The run-up to the election and the campaign itself featured a mass of stories critical of Johnson and the Conservatives: the boy on the floor of a Leeds hospital, claims that the Prime Minister hid in a cupboard, groping allegations from his past, and goodness knows what besides.
None of it stopped Johnson from winning the election by a near-landslide, and Number Ten concentrating on getting its message out on YouTube and Facebook, as this site has reported before.
So to say that this is government by Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is simply wrong. Hyperactivity and Johnson don’t really belong in the same sentence. This government may well not be strategic – though it is just a bit too early to be sure – but it is certainly not leaping, contorting itself or straining when the media asks it to jump.
The policy won’t be sustainable in electoral conditions, and so won’t carry on indefinitely. And it may yet be that the Prime Minister changes his mind and sends for his wellies. But for the moment, he can see the media off. “Where’s Boris Johnson?” Jeremy Corbyn tweeted forlornly yesterday, after his own visit to flood victims. To which George Osborne’s reply was: “In Downing Street – where you put him”.