Expectation management is a precious commodity in politics. It is not something Boris Johnson is naturally suited to. His inclination is to proffer optimism – to brush aside dreary concerns about how much something might cost, or how long it might take. “Boris is reliably unreliable,” as Charles Moore put it in the Daily Telegraph. It is hardly surprising that after the heady mood of a couple of years ago, some disillusionment has set in.
Part of this is about personal style. The public mood can be fickle. Peter Mandelson is among the Prime Minister’s critics who hopes to have spotted a fundamental change:
“His strengths – like his informality bordering on idiosyncrasy – have become his weaknesses. His foppishness now irritates, and the non-conformity that people rather enjoyed now looks like a contempt for the normal rules and conventions that everyone else has to respect.”
The Conservative Party was never just the Boris Johnson Fan Club – though it may have seemed like it at times. It is certainly not now. Our latest survey of Party members showed that 53 per cent thought he should resign. Only a handful of Conservative MPs have called for this publicly, but privately the question is at the forefront of their minds.
It is often said that support for Johnson from within the Conservative Party is “transactional”. That is true. But it is not only about winning elections. There is a bit too much cynicism about politicians, including Conservatives, just wanting power for its own sake and being in it for themselves. Most of us were motivated to join the Conservative Party because we believe in certain things. Patriotism, individual freedom, the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, free enterprise, personal responsibility, defence of the realm, home ownership, low taxation, civic pride, a small state. There will be always be plenty of debate. But there will be a broad expectation that a Conservative Government should implement policies that reflect those Conservative principles, rather than socialist ones.
Johnson has never put a great premium on ideological consistency. I suspect that in his heart he believes in the robust libertarianism he used to champion with such panache in his journalism for The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph. But he has always given a sense that sticking to principles is a bit of a mug’s game, rather unsophisticated. More cunning to swerve off in an unexpected direction to wrong-foot his opponents. Thus, for example, Johnson was elected as a “social democrat” to become President of the Oxford Union in 1986. He backed Ken Clarke in the 2001 contest for Conservative leader.
Then when Johnson was Mayor of London for eight years he would be unpredictable. As he travelled light ideologically, the choice of his team was crucial to the direction that was taken. At first, Sir Simon Milton and Anthony Browne were key figures. This meant much of the Livingstonian legacy remained intact. Planning policy continued to favour tower blocks. Political correctness still had its army of enforcers at City Hall – despite Johnson having previously derided “diversity officers” via the pages of the Telegraph. Spending went up.
But later Mayoral appointments – Edward Lister, Munira Mirza, Daniel Moylan, and Stephen Greenhalgh – brought a more positive outcome from a Conservative perspective. Crime fell and more police were recruited – despite a reduction in the Met’s budget. The Council Tax precept started being cut rather than merely frozen.
It is also worth just reflecting on the guts Johnson showed in standing for election for Mayor of London in 2008, despite the sneers from Conservative colleagues that it would prove unwinnable.
As Prime Minister, we saw the importance of advisors once again with the disastrous recruitment of Dominic Cummings. Johnson’s reliance on such figures is curious. He has great courage, ability, and self-confidence. Yet there is also this vulnerability. I am reminded of the Walt Disney character, Dumbo, who feels reliant on a “magic feather”. Along with the crows, I feel like shouting at the Prime Minister:
“Open them ears! The magic feather was just a gag. You can fly!”
That should mean following his own instincts. In particular, the Prime Minister should be less nervous about ditching swathes of regulation we have inherited from the EU. We are waiting for action to follow the rhetoric. Some impatience on the backbenchers is welcome. But a vote of no confidence would be premature. A better approach would be to push the Government along with some specific proposals.
It would be misguided to regard Johnson as the obstacle to Conservative policies. Embracing the free market and eradicating the “woke” tyranny from our institutions will not be achieved simply by putting in a new PM. If only it were so simple. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, presides over record levels of taxation. Both in public and in private he is utterly defeatist about achieving any reducton in state spending. Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, is honest enough to openly proclaim his belief in the big state. Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, proposes tinkering with the Human Rights Act and our interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights which some suspect will prove ineffective.
We do not have a presidential system. It is reasonable for the Conservative Party to insist to Boris Johnson that this year a switch is made towards Conservative policies. But it’s a team effort. Is he blocking proposals from his colleagues to cut regulations? Or abolish Quangos? Or end subsidies? Or employ fewer civil servants? Not that we hear of.
Then there is the pandemic. Leaving the European Medicines Agency saved lives by allowing us to proceed with our vaccination programme independently. While many disagreed with the lockdowns and other restrictions, the Government has been more liberal than the approach adopted in many other nations. Johnson’s judgement has been vindicated on those big calls.
Reflecting on necessary leadership qualities, the Rev Jesse Jackson once commented:
“Leaders must be tough enough to fight, tender enough to cry, human enough to make mistakes, humble enough to admit them, strong enough to absorb the pain, and resilient enough to bounce back and keep on moving.”
Our Prime Minister meets these criteria. He should keep at it. The deal should be that he starts to deliver. That our Conservative vision for a strong, free, prosperous country is realised. A clear sense of direction from Downing Street would be a useful start. But the rest of us need to help. The parliamentary party need to be participants rather than spectators. The Prime Minister has notched up some remarkable accomplishments. His best days may still be to come.