Exploiting Mr Johnson

8 September 2022

Exploiting Mr Johnson

A plan.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

Such is the lamentable state of the British education system, both public and private, that even among Shaw Sheet readers there are some who do not understand why people refer to ‘a curate’s egg’. Perhaps then a short explanation would be in order.

There was once a curate, Mr Jones, young, meek, inexperienced and newly appointed and, as was the custom in those days, the Bishop asked him to breakfast to discuss his new role. He was a young man of modest appetite and so when invited to help himself from the sideboard he selected a boiled egg. Unfortunately the removal of the top let out a sulphurous smell and the albumin was disfigured by the black lines of decay. “Mr Jones,” said the Bishop “I am afraid you have a bad egg”.

“Oh no, my lord”, replied the meek curate, “I assure you that parts of it are excellent.”

Anyway, that is the story as told by Punch in 1895 and so the expression ‘a curate’s egg’ entered the English language as referring to something wholly bad which is, out of politeness, described as having good parts. Still, things have moved on a little and nowadays the expression is used to describe things which are partly bad and partly good, a different thing altogether.

Boris Johnson administration was a curate’s egg in the second of these two senses. Unless you are a political bigot it is hard to argue that it was wholly bad or without achievement but, against that, plenty of it was not very good at all. Forcing a general election to break the Brexit logjam – good; failing to agree a sensible regime for Northern Ireland – not so good. Vaccine rollout – good; failure to focus on pandemic early enough – not so good. Toughness on Ukraine – good; failure to stop people smuggling across channel -not so good. 5G broadband rollout – good; levelling up – a bit to go; et cetera et cetera.

Perhaps it is always like this, a mixture of achievement, half achievement and failure, but of course it wasn’t really that which sank Boris’s ship. It was a lack of focus, a casualness in administration, a willingness to bend the truth and a failure to concentrate which led the public to lose confidence in him. Whatever his good points he did not have the qualities of probity and diligence which we expect from a Prime Minister. So bye bye Boris, off you hop – but where to?

At this point the Fleet Street conspiracy theorists leap out from behind the curtain: “aha,” they say, “it is obvious. He is planning a comeback!” Piffle of course. Complete piffle. His demeanour recently suggests a well-mannered backing away from party politics rather than some eye-swivelling Trumpian revenge-fuelled countercoup. Still, good manners and a wry acceptance don’t make much of a story so we will have to put up with imaginary Machiavellianism for some time. It would be a pity, though, if it were to cloud a more sensible question: where ought Boris to hop to?

In the near term I imagine that he will feel that he deserves a holiday and one could hardly grudge him that. Perhaps he will also want to devote some time to his work on Shakespeare which has been pushed aside by his political commitments. That no doubt will serve to keep him out of the limelight for a bit as well as, hopefully, giving us all something interesting to read. Whatever you think of Boris’s politics he can certainly write. But after that, what? Highly paid lectures at American sponsored dinners? An ambassadorial role for business, like Nick Clegg? Academia? A big role in the charitable sector perhaps in collaboration with David Miliband? Who knows, but the trouble with all these things is that attractive as they may sound for Boris they do not do much for us.

Look for a moment at Gordon Brown. He has perhaps the finest economic brain to reside in number 10, at least since the days of Harold Wilson. He was the man responsible for the survival of the economic system following the crash of 2007. He is widely respected as a man of gravitas and decency who, like Boris, has a considerable array of talents, albeit not the particular mix required to be a successful Prime Minister. What use do we make of him?  He is wheeled out at moments of national crisis to calm everyone down and talk a little bit of sense, but why can we not get more from him? Suppose he was given a peerage and suppose it became conventional for governments of whatever hue to call on senior members of the House of Lords for their advice and help. Would not any government, whether Tory or Labour, welcome Brown’s assistance in the current economic difficulties? Similarly are there not areas – perhaps in our dealing with other powers – where Boris’s bonhomie and charm could be put to good use by an incoming Starmer government? Of course there are.

It is one of the weaknesses of a two-party system that the talents of members of the opposition should largely be wasted. At many levels that is inevitable but once you get to the level of ex-prime ministers, a level at which political ambition must inevitably have been exhausted, it should be possible for either side to use them without embarrassment. So when Boris has had his holiday, and when his volume on Shakespeare lies on every bedside table, his next hop should be to the Lords from whose red benches he should indicate that, whether Truss or Starmer is in office, he will be happy to use his undoubted talents to contribute in any way they would find useful to the good of the country he once led.

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