9 June 2022
By John Watson
Many years ago I went to the theatre in Islington, either at the Kings Head or the Almeida no doubt, and saw a play about a revolt by a British garrison deep in the African desert. It was quite a good play generally but one exchange between the politicians in charge was particularly memorable. Asked why the garrison was there, the Minister replied that it was there to protect the railway. Asked why the railway was there, he responded rather impatiently that its purpose was to feed the garrison.
Listening to the commentary following the Conservative confidence vote I was struck by how fixated the commentators were on the next election. “The party needs somebody who can win” a journalist would intone and those around him would nod sagely confirming that this was the real point. The politicians, to be fair to them, took matters more broadly with the emphasis on the need to press on with the Government’s agenda / the need for a new Prime Minister who the public could trust, according to political preference. David Lammy in particular sought to go beyond party politics to the national interest. None of this, however, seemed to impress the media who continued to blather on about whether Johnson’s majority was larger or smaller than that enjoyed in similar circumstances by Thatcher, Major and May. “The main point of government is to ensure victory at the next election” the newshounds will have chuntered knowingly to each other in the bar. And the main point of the election victory? Why, to stay in government of course.
One can see the attraction of this focus on elections with its analysis of parliamentary arithmetic. It enables newspapers to fill their columns, and broadcasters their screens, with something tangible. They can look at graphs and predictions for the forthcoming by-elections and do lots of humming and haa-ing, to the accompaniment of significant looks. How will the blue wall poll? The red wall? The yellow wall? The green wall? And in their silly bleatings about polls and masonry they miss the big question. Can Johnson get all back on top of things and run the country effectively as we deal with the cost of living crisis, war in the Ukraine and what is hopefully the butt end of Covid?
At first sight you would think that the answer was “no”. His operation so far has been unfocused with far too much accent on what he thinks will be popular and far too little consistency. That is the problem with having no political principles. There is no star upon which you can fix your sextant so you drift around changing your view each time you talk to someone different. “Try this? Oh, dear, it seems unpopular, let’s try something else”. Advisers with differing approaches smell opportunity and all get a hearing as if number 10 was a mediaeval court. The result: vacillation and ill discipline of a sort with which we have become familiar.
So is a Prime Minister with no political principles doomed? The answer to that is that it depends. In normal times a lack of conviction will lead to rootlessness and drifting. When there is a crisis, however, it matters less because the focus is on practical solutions and these often have nothing to do with principles at all. Actually you can see that if you look at the record of the present government. The two main challenges so far have been Covid and the Ukraine and there it has shown a certain amount of focus. Yes, of course, mistakes were made at the beginning of the pandemic and “party gate” has spoiled the record, but once it had woken up to Covid the Government was clearly concentrating on the issue. In relation to the Ukraine we have been surprisingly consistent in our line and, if you exclude the rather shrill utterances of the Foreign Secretary, sensible and measured as well.
Johnson is not stupid but he suffers from a lack of consistency deriving, no doubt, from a failure to concentrate and think things through. That is why we have seen fluctuations of policy on the windfall tax for example. But give him a crisis and he has little choice but to focus on the matter in hand and in the case of the cost of living issues that sweeps in taxation reform, levelling up and the rebooting of the economy. In a recent television interview he mentioned how much of his time is now taken up with cost of living and if he grips it successfully his Government could well recover popular support – until it is all sorted, of course, but that is probably too far away to worry about for the moment.