19 December 2019
His Next Trick
Who is Boris?
By John Watson
Whatever your political views may be it would be hard to grudge Mr Johnson the breakfast which he promised himself on Friday morning. Forget for a moment the big issues: Remainer or Leaver, Corbynism or Austerity, and stand back to admire the political footwork. It was not so long ago that Mr Johnson took over from Mrs May, and few at that time thought that he could survive very long. Surely he had no prospect of doing a different deal with the EU. Even if he could, the opposition would destroy it in the Commons with the enthusiasm of a playground bully pulling the wings off a fly. There was no way that he could call an election and, even if he did so, how could he deal with the Conservative Remainers? No, it was all way beyond him, a tousle-haired braggart who would flounder around miles out of his depth.
Since then he has surprised us all, friends and foe alike, with his energy and his tactical ruthlessness. He did negotiate a new deal with the EU, not much different from Mrs May’s in many respects but with a solution, albeit a fudged one, to the vexed question of Northern Ireland. He dealt ruthlessly with those who voted against his deal, thus purifying his party for a “Get Brexit Done” campaign. Then he used the surge in Liberal Democrat support to seduce them into forcing Labour into an election which they could not win. Wow! Like him or loathe him, the footwork has been breathtaking.
Of course he did not do it alone. As Richelieu had his Father Joseph, Johnson’s eminence grise was the tough and abrasive Dominic Cummings. Who knows which of them had the ideas? Who knows whose hand was on the tiller at which stage? But the answer to these questions does not take away from the political achievement. It is of the essence of leadership to choose and trust able subordinates.
So where now? In his victory speech Johnson was careful to reach across to his new working class supporters in the north where he will strive to make temporary Conservatives into real ones. He has always stressed his ambition to be a prime minister for everyone and there is no reason to think that that is not perfectly genuine. The question is of competence. Can he deliver what is needed?
Election campaigns tend to focus on figures because they are hard and tangible. That results in absurd targets like the one of the date on which zero emissions will be achieved. How can it make sense to say that one party will achieve it five years or so before the other? No one knows enough about the future to predict that. The real position is that any government will fight to contain emissions and that who will do it best depends on political will and ability. The judgement is of men and women and not of numbers. That is why Rory Stewart was wrong when he deplored the absence of detail in political pledges. For the public the question is just who they trust the most.
So do we believe that the skill with which Boris has landed this victory will be applied equally effectively going forward? As far as Brexit is concerned it probably will. He can now go back to the EU on a far more confident basis and it would be surprising if something constructive could not be produced. Anyway that’s certainly what the markets think and they are probably right.
But that leaves the wider political agenda where the problems facing the new Government seem to fall into two categories. There are those which primarily depend upon cash; the proper funding of the health service and welfare generally being at the top of the list. The Conservatives were careful not to promise too much in the manifesto but no doubt the usual balancing acts will take place at budget time, the pressure for expenditure being reinforced by Boris’s pledge to his new Northern supporters.
Quite apart from that, however, there are the “political areas” where reform, not merely cash, is needed. The roll-out of universal credit in a way which works for its recipients and does not lead to sick people having to attend countless unnecessary appointments is one of these. The closing of the gap between the private and publicly funded education systems is another. Then there is the completion of the reform of the House of Lords, a reduction in the burden of university fees, an end to the housing crisis, and the shape of infrastructure projects. All of these will require wisdom and tenacity as much as cash and Mr Johnson’s success or failure will depend upon the extent to which he, or those who he appoints as his surrogates, can deliver that.
It certainly will not be enough for him to rely on the successful outcome (assuming there is one) of his Brexit negotiations and to allow the rest to float along. New technologies and climate change make this an age of reform and if he wishes to preserve those things which he values in British society, reforms must be carried out. “For things to remain the same, everything must change”.
Has he the strength and hunger for this? It is very hard to say, but those of us who doubted whether he could ever escape the Theresa May trap have been proved wrong, so let us hope.
Labour’s performance in the election is a disaster both for them and for the public at large. That is not so much because they only secured 203 seats but because of confusion over whether the reason for that was Brexit or public dislike of the Corbynist agenda. Clearly it was both. True, they lost more votes in high Leave areas than in high Remain areas but that does not disguise the fact that they lost votes in the latter. Put this together with anecdotal evidence from campaigners and you come to the conclusion that their offering was too left, too cultish and too revolutionary for the British voter to support. In the ordinary course of politics that should give rise to a reaction with a resurgence of the more moderate left of the type which pushed Blair to power in the late 1990s. The trouble is that this time the far left, who hold the levers of power within the party, will put all the blame on Brexit and resist any movement into the centre ground. Indeed they are already doing so.
That is a great pity because they are likely to be in opposition for the next five years during which it is to be hoped that the new Government will bring in programmes of reform. It would be better if Labour contribute its ideas into that process rather than spitting from the wings. Alas, that seems unlikely now.
Boris Johnson is well known to be a great admirer of Winston Churchill and has indeed written a biography of him. If you want to understand what is going on at the moment, however, do not read about Churchill, despite the fact that he shared Johnson’s insatiable ambition. Read about Disraeli and his ruthless destruction of Peel. Then go on to look at his transformation of the Conservative party into a party attractive to the working classes. That is where Johnson will try to go.