20 January 2022
Send the letters.
By John Watson
No, it isn’t a spelling error. Nor is “functus” the polite Latin equivalent of a much overused 16th century German word which sounds rather similar. It is an abbreviation of the expression “functus officio” used by lawyers to describe an official whose mandate to act has run out, either because of a time limit or because his or her role has been completed. Merriam-Webster gives the etymology as: “having performed his duty, having served its purpose”. Used, loosely, of a politician it could be taken to mark the point when he or she has achieved their purpose and nothing further of use could be expected of them; time to bow out.
So what was the purpose of Boris Johnson? Why did the Conservatives bring him in as party leader and Prime Minister back in 2019? If you remember those days, you will recall that we were in an appalling political jam. Theresa May’s government could not get its deal with the EU through the Commons and was being tormented by its political enemies who would neither give it the necessary support nor allow it to call a general election. Something needed to be done urgently and the country watched appalled as we slid towards a No Deal exit while the politicians played to their own advantage with the insouciance of latter-day Neros. It was an ugly moment and there seemed to be no way out. May resigned and Boris came in to break the logjam, forcing a general election and winning a huge mandate to “Get Brexit Done”, something which to be fair he broadly did, however much one may carp over loose ends on fishing and areas like Ireland where he probably realised the agreement would need to be revised in due course.
It was a great achievement and a contribution which will no doubt be recognised in the history books but his other manifesto pledges on levelling up and reinvigorating the North have been pushed aside by Covid, have been made harder to achieve by increased government borrowings, and will need careful control and application from the centre if they are to be even partly achieved. That is the key to the public concern about the recent political scandals. Yes, it was annoying to see him trying to shield Owen Patterson from the parliamentary system on lobbying; yes, it is even more annoying to see parties at No 10 which breached the Covid rules; the public is right to be angry on both counts but the real political message is much stronger. Whether Ms Gray’s forthcoming report shows that Boris was personally culpable regarding the parties, it is absolutely clear that the centre of government is out of control and, if that is the case, how are difficult reforms to be carried through wisely and well?
One can debate at length about how things have come to such a pass. Boris had a very bad dose of Covid at a time before the doctors had much experience of treating it. There may be an element of post-Covid fatigue affecting his powers of concentration. He has very young children, hardly a rest cure, and perhaps all this allied to an instinctive preference for bombast over detail have destroyed his ability to lead an administration. Or perhaps he never had the abilities for his job in the first place. Either way it does not matter a damn. It isn’t working and short of a major change he is unlikely to head a well-organised focussed achieving government in the foreseeable future. And he won’t change, will he? He is too deeply set in his ways. We all know young people who get married to difficult partners in the expectation that they will change them but it doesn’t often happen. Human beings don’t work like that and the divorce courts provide plenty of evidence that that is the case. You cannot teach an old dog new tricks and you cannot transform Boris Johnson into a shrewd, careful, administrative genius. Nor can matters be cured by his appointing abler ministers to do the detail. Reagan made that system work but Reagan had a good sense of when to step back and let them get on with it. There is no evidence that Boris has this sort of judgement or would be able to resist interfering when he felt that there were cheap popularity points to be scored. No, he is functus in the sense that he has made his contribution and will contribute little more; the only outstanding question is the order of his going and it is on this which his party must concentrate.
And here they have a marvellous opportunity. If you look back to the 1936 abdication crisis there were two quite separate themes. On the surface it was about Wallis Simpson’s status as a divorced woman and it was there that the press, and indeed Churchill, concentrated their attention; but behind that there was a far more serious issue, the sympathy which Edward VIII felt for Hitler’s Nazis. How relieved the political hierarchy must have been to be able to use the divorce issue to push Edward aside.
Here again there are two levels of issue. On the surface there are the scandals, Patterson, the costs of renovating the flat and partygate; but behind that there is something much more worrying, an administration which lacks grip and will not be able to deliver on its programme before the next election. Surely the Conservative members must see the attraction of using the first issue to solve the second. 54 letters to the 1922 committee are needed to get matters rolling. Whatever Ms Gray may or may not say, the time has come to send them in.
Cover page image: Annika Haas / EU2017EE / Creative Commons.