“Johnson and Cummings rule from the Trump playbook. Its first page asserts that, if a leader has the power to do something he wishes, heedless of whether it is unprecedented, unsporting, unethical or merely cynical, then do it: consider most of the latest Lords elevations. The two men have no design for making Britain a better place; instead only for Brexit and their own survival, as evidenced by the unprecedented expenditure on opinion polling, to assist delivery of what seems popular.”
Max Hastings www.thetimes.co.uk
Boris Johnson occupies Downing Street with a parliamentary majority of 80. Even if Sir Keir Starmer turns out to be Joan of Arc, there is little prospect of Labour displacing the Tories before 2024. Thus critics of this administration, rather than merely wringing our hands, should instead propose ways in which it might govern a little better.
Its gift for winning votes is proven. Johnson’s magic in enthusing his admirers is indisputable. Yet, outside election campaigns, telling the nation what it wants to hear — for instance assuring us, as the prime minister did last month, that it will all be over by Christmas — gets a government only so far.
He and his chief adviser have yet to show that making the country work is their thingy: witness the exam chaos; the intractably muddled planning reform proposals; that, after the fiascos of Covid-19 management, among major European nations Britain has by far the lowest proportion of its labour force back in offices and factories; and much else.
The cabinet cries out for reinforcement by some men and women competent to get stuff done. Pessimists claim that the talent is not out there. It seems mistaken, however, to idealise the parliaments of the past: remember all those Tory squires and Labour union hacks. Some of Tony Blair’s appointments were almost as embarrassing as Gavin Williamson: think of Geoff Hoon, though few people do.
Today there are men and women on the back benches, starting with Jeremy Hunt, Tom Tugendhat, Greg Clark, Edward Timpson and Stephen Hammond, who would make far more plausible ministers than those we have got. Their elevation depends, however, on Johnson, or perhaps Dominic Cummings, relaxing their marking of the loyalty exam all candidates are required to pass before being considered for admission to office.
In the summer of 1980, a year after Margaret Thatcher gained power, the tensions between “wets” and “dries” within her government were fare for headlines, occasional frenzies. Such grandees as Sir Ian Gilmour, Peter Walker, Francis Pym, Jim Prior and even Lord Carrington made little secret of their view that “the Lady” was potty.
John Major was throughout his premiership morbidly personally insecure. Though he and his foremost colleagues Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke and Douglas Hurd were on the same side ideologically, he seemed fearful that all three were more substantial people than himself. The relationship between Tony Blair and his chancellor, Gordon Brown, was chronically difficult, latterly poisonous.
My point here is that friction and faction are commonplaces of government. Normal prime ministers feel obliged to work with colleagues whom they dislike, and who do not much care for them. Political parties embrace differing strands of opinion, sometimes about key aspects of policy. Leaders think it wise to give jobs to all but the most extreme dissenters, so that they may relieve themselves towards the outside of the tent, rather than the reverse.
Moreover, prime ministers must choose colleagues from a limited pool of remotely capable people. If they require office-holders to display blind fealty, they get compliant bunglers. Leaders who possess wisdom and self-confidence are willing to pay a price for talent, which includes knowing that their big beasts privately mock them, as was the fate of Harold Wilson at the hands of George Brown, Dick Crossman and Roy Jenkins.
A year into the Johnson government, the prime minister suffers few such embarrassments. It would be hard to identify a cabinet member who has got into the papers for abusing their leader behind his back. His is the most loyal administration of modern times.
Ah, you interject, this reflects our national crisis: ministers recognise that they must hang together, or separately. Yet throughout the 1982 Falklands conflict there were Tories who said privately that they thought the dispatch of the task force absurd. During the Second World War there were many moments when Winston Churchill’s colleagues, not to mention his commanders, confided to journalists their despair about the nation’s leader.
No, the present façade of solidarity is absolutely not the way normal government is. It has been brought about by the insistence of Johnson and Cummings upon fidelity to themselves, and to their interpretation of Brexit, as almost the sole qualification for office.
This is why today’s cabinet is the least impressive of the past century, granted the exceptions of the chancellor and Michael Gove. Power is monopolised by No 10 in a fashion unknown between 1940 and 1945, and indeed during the Thatcher era.
We are witnessing an attempt to impose upon Britain a presidential polity, wherein almost every key initiative derives from the prime minister’s unelected chief adviser. Who has ever before heard of a figure such as Cummings making a tour of military installations, such as he recently undertook, before overseeing reform of Britain’s defences?
From October, we are promised daily televised prime ministerial press conferences, further personalising the government and airbrushing into irrelevance Johnson’s stumblings at prime minister’s questions. If Alastair Campbell had created such a forum for Tony Blair, both men would have been accused of megalomania.
Frontbench unity is a fine thing, but not if a cabinet is unified in inadequacy. We should instead aspire to see Britain run by an administration that once more suffers from all the frailties Cummings abhors — argument, faction, leaks, rebellions, backstabbing, if only bigger beasts can be permitted to supplant the lapdogs in key jobs.
Months before Covid-19 struck, my wisest old friend said of Johnsonian governance: “We must never allow ourselves to be lulled into thinking that what is happening is normal; that it represents the usual give-and-take of democratic politics. It does not. It is strange and new and bad.”
Johnson and Cummings rule from the Trump playbook. Its first page asserts that, if a leader has the power to do something he wishes, heedless of whether it is unprecedented, unsporting, unethical or merely cynical, then do it: consider most of the latest Lords elevations. The two men have no design for making Britain a better place; instead only for Brexit and their own survival, as evidenced by the unprecedented expenditure on opinion polling, to assist delivery of what seems popular.
The British people should recognise that one-man rule is as damaging of our parliamentary system as are referendums. And Conservative MPs should demand that some of the ablest of their number are no longer excluded from office, merely because they are suspected of harbouring doubts about the emperor’s taste in tailoring.