3 June 2021
Boris the Bull
A Man for all Seasons?
By John Watson
Bulls and bears; optimists and pessimists; familiar characters on the stock exchange, certainly, but also drivers of opinion outside it and for most of us the answer to the question whether the ending of lockdown currently scheduled for 21 June should be postponed will depend upon which category we belong to. Everyone knows that postponing the lockdown would save some lives. Of course it would. We don’t need the scientists to tell us that. How many lives? Who can say? The views of the pundits fluctuate with a bewildering regularity. It all depends on whether the vaccine protection has more effect than the increasing virulence of the virus. But the number of deaths isn’t everything. On the other side of the ledger are the social effects of postponement, long term damage to education, huge disappointment to those who had planned their “return to life”, more economic problems.
Apart from a scope for misjudgement as to the consequences of the decision, there is no right or wrong answer to the 21 June question and the suggestion that we should “follow the science” is misconceived. Science may produce data but the choice to be made depends on personal preference, something based more on inclination than anything else and those who have listened to the evidence from Dominic Cummings must know that the Prime Minister’s, and thus the government’s, instinct will be to keep to the June date if they can.
It was Boris Johnson’s bullish attitude to politics which brought him victory in the 2019 general election. At that time, readers will remember, there had been a period of paralysis and the electorate wanted someone who would “get Brexit done”. That required an aggressive approach and an acceptance of risk. It did not occur to the public to wonder whether that approach would be suitable for a pandemic. Politicians are not necessarily men for all seasons and what is strength in one context may turn out to be a weakness in another.
That however is all in the past. As a race we are protestant and pragmatic, more concerned about how our leaders will measure up to the challenges of the future then what sort of a job they made of those of the past. That is why Mr Johnson’s popularity does not seem to be much affected by the recent evidence from Dominic Cummings (a little lesson for Mr Cummings in parenthesis here, if I may. If you want people to listen to your comments you need to keep them down to a couple of hours, not speak for seven) and the theory peddled by the journalists that it will eventually bite him in the butt is about as sensible as the old theory that Mrs Thatcher would be brought down by the sinking of the Belgrano. No, there is work to be done in modernising the country and the real question is whether Mr Johnson is the right man to do it.
Let’s start with his insatiable ambition, the fact that he went into politics because people do not put up statues to journalists. That carries with it an inclination towards fundamental change. No one will get their statue for tinkering with the rate of VAT. We have already had a smell of the big projects, a new railway line to the north, ambitious climate targets, a revival of the North of England. Yes, he can talk the talk all right but for that to work you need two things. The first is the drive to make the dreams reality. In the words of TE Lawrence after whom this paper is named:
“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. ”
Well, is Boris a dreamer by night or by day? Instinctively one might write him off as yet another prating journalist, all words but no bottom, but then he did deliver Brexit, didn’t he? There may be things wrong with the deal but it was driven through. Perhaps behind all that fluff the will is slightly steelier than you would think. Ah you may say, Cummings was the architect of that; maybe, but then reliance on able subordinates is a perfectly good method of delivery. We have yet to see how Boris will go about delivering other difficult things like environmental targets but for the moment the public gives him the benefit of the doubt. Probably they are right.
The other important thing is grounded colleagues. Churchill came up with some fairly silly ideas in the war but men like Attlee pulled him back when that needed doing. Whitelaw probably did much the same for Mrs Thatcher. If Boris is not going to lead us over a cliff like some 21st-century version of the Gadarene swine he will need men and women at his elbow who are different from him, saner, more into detail, less bullish.
It may be that he has some of those already but there is no evidence that his current cabinet was constructed with that in mind. The main criteria for the senior ministers seems to have been loyalty and a similar approach to Brexit. That doesn’t mean that they are second rate, and indeed Dominic Raab has proved unexpectedly competent as Foreign Secretary, but it would be a great coincidence for this method of selection to provide the restraining team that he needs. There is the talent there, and it was impossible to watch Greg Clark’s meticulous approach to quizzing Cummings without wondering whether very considerable abilities are being underused in his case, but a thoughtful selection has to be made to get the right balance. As the government moves on from a tight focus on the pandemic and Brexit to wider issues, the team needs to be refreshed. It is understood that in fact a reshuffle may be in the offing. If Mr Johnson wishes to write his name across the history books he needs to think that reshuffle through very, very, carefully.
 Lawrence changed his name to Shaw after returning from Arabia.