The Interregnum

14 July 2022

The Interregnum

Pomposity and spite.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

Those who read the gutter press will know that there is a certain type of article preceded by the words “we think” which proves that the writer does nothing of the sort. It contains no news report of worth, no analysis worth reading, but rather a statement of a position which it is patronisingly assumed that the reader will accept. When I realised, therefore, that The Times leader on whether Boris Johnson should continue to serve until the new Prime Minister was appointed was headed “The Times’s view: Johnson should leave immediately” I realised that something fairly foolish was likely to follow. I was not disappointed.

Boris is a leader who has failed in a number of respects and perhaps the greatest of those failures is that he has not put a coherent vision of what he wants to achieve and how he wants to achieve it before the public. His successor needs to do that and do it quickly because the response to inflation and the cost of living crisis must depend on the administration’s approach to strategic issues such as levelling up and taxation. The sooner, therefore, that we can get a new Prime Minister in place the better. That is the national interest.

And meanwhile, what? Someone needs to run the country and that could either be Boris or an interim leader. It really doesn’t seem to matter which. The interim cabinet appointments are sensible ones, Greg Clark in particular being an obviously safe pair of hands, and the suggestion that Boris might make major changes in the direction of the country in his last few weeks is clearly fanciful. The obvious thing is to leave him where he is and to expedite the process for choosing his successor. If the rules can be changed to avoid the delay implicit in a poll of Conservative Party members, so much the better.

But The Times regards this as intolerable and in between hissing and spitting it gives five reasons. The first is that Boris has not apologised for his mistakes; perhaps that bit was written by their Chinese correspondent. The second is that he criticised the decision to remove him, not perhaps surprising as he obviously disagreed with it. Third, unlike Cameron and May, he is not a “good chap” in the constitutional context. Yes, sorry, I know it’s embarrassing but that is what they said. Fourth, he is leaving in disgrace, not something which he would necessarily accept; and finally and fifthly that he cannot be relied on to exercise restraint, one for the conspiracy theorists there.

Plainly rubbish you might think, but The Times is not alone in its view so it is perhaps worth thinking about what lies behind it. The first thing is the “oh dear, they shot my Fox” syndrome. Commentators all over the country were expecting Johnson to make some final move to hold on to power. Perhaps an attempt to dissolve Parliament: perhaps a refusal to go until the 1922 committee actually forced him out. What a disappointment when he actually agreed to go. Yes, he hung on until he realised the game was up but so do all premiers who think they might manage to remain: Brown, Thatcher and, if the dramatisation in The Crown is accurate, Eden, all behaved like this. The fact that Boris was only in denial for a day or so deprived the media of many column inches and much debate over constitutional conventions. No wonder that they have tried to make the best of the one issue left to them.

The second motive is even less creditable, the vindictiveness driven by the smell of blood. Every playground bully knows that the time to kick your victim is when he is down and a politician is never more down than when he has just been sacked. In you go then, lads, with the boots. Get in there and start kicking.

Now it would be wrong to suggest that Boris as a sacked Prime Minister has any right to retain his office over the interregnum. He doesn’t but there seems little point in having more dislocation than we need and the reasons for that dislocation throw little credit on those who pursue it (apart, perhaps, from protests made by opposition spokesmen whose job it is to attack the government in any way they can). Indeed, as is so often the case, the calls to go now say more about the commentators who make them than the subject.  What do they indicate in this case? Concern for the national interest? Hardly.  Vindictiveness and self importance? I think so. Perhaps, though, it is just that those making them are pompous asses, the sort of people who begin their comments with the rubric “The Times‘s view”.

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