His resignation has been a long time coming. When he took the job, he was the obvious choice – a proven winner. His talent, amongst his generation, is exceptional. His methods may be quirky, and his decision-making erratic. But he has got his country out of many tight spots. Nevertheless, his early promise has dissolved into sad disappointment. The magic is gone; he is no longer a winner. His time is up – he must go.
Yes, Joe Root’s resignation as England’s Captain on Friday was certainly justified. An Ashes humiliation, a defeat in the West Indies, and five Test series without a win : English cricket is in a bad place. But Easter is about new life, and hopefully the departure of the finest batsman of his generation will allow a recovery their position under fresh leadership.
Of course, my use of the third person there was a cunning journalistic ploy. We all know there is another English institution currently on a sticky wicket. Its problems are also being blamed on the faults of its captain. Like England’s cricketers, the Conservative Party has an unerring talent for frustrating and disappointing those who most wish it well – and Boris Johnson faces the blame for its plight.
The Prime Minister is a cricket fan. Ian Botham’s peerage was one of my favourite things to come out of his Number 10, and I have never respected him more than when he sacked off leadership plotting in 2016 to go and play. But, as hard as it is for me to admit, politics can be even more important than cricket. What Johnson does in the next few weeks will shape not only the future of his premiership, but the prospect of the Tories winning the next election.
In some ways, December 12th 2019 seems only yesterday. It was my father’s birthday, and that exit poll was better than any present I could have given him. Our national nightmare of the previous three years was resolved. We would leave the European Union. Jeremy Corbyn would be given his P45. And the Prime Minister had a mandate, a big majority, and a glowing op-ed from me in Cherwell.
Ah, the arrogance of youth. Of course, the three years since then have not run as one might have hoped. A global pandemic has left millions dead. Our basic liberties have been robbed from us. Children have lost years of education, hospital waiting lists have exploded, and the economic chaos is proving lasting and painful. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a particularly awful cherry on top.
Yet, even without all of that to handle, this government lost its purpose on the 31st January 2020. It ran on a pledge to ‘Get Brexit Done’. On that date, we left. I drank some champagne and watched The Spy Who Loved Me. It was great. Although there was still a trade deal to negotiate and Northern Ireland’s position remains frustrating, politics was freed to focus elsewhere.
This was a government, we were told, that would dare to be unpopular. It would do the things that its predecessors had been too squeamish for: standing up to the NIMBYs, reforming social care, ending our sclerotic productivity, reversing the devolutionary ratchet, and giving the civil service a right kick up the arse. Even with the humungous challenge bat flu has posed since 2020, there has been ample time for tackling these challenges.
So what has the Government done? Retreated on planning reform after a by-election reversal. Hiked National Insurance for an unworkable social care plan. Productivity remains shocking, and we are slipping into a recession. The Government has backed away from fighting for the Union. And, despite Michael Gove’s warm words, the PPE-ists of Whitehall have won against the misfits and weirdos.
This isn’t surprising. Re-reading John Hoskyn’s Just in Time recently, I was reminded of how difficult it is to actually to implement a program in government unless you have zealous focus and a clear direction. Mrs Thatcher’s government struggled with that as much as any other, and only through damned hard work did it manage to fundamentally change Britain’s economy.
Since Dominic Cummings and the Vote Leave crew have swapped Downing Street for Substack, the Government has had no central mission. Allegations that Number 10 is a court of yes-men may be exaggerated. Nevertheless, it has become an operation primarily preoccupied with appeasing Tory MPs and protecting the Prime Minister’s position. That is not making best use of an 80-seat majority. Compared to Mrs Thatcher’s, this government is a pygmy.
There is some energy. Nadhim Zahawi is desperately trying to rejuvenate a frozen educational agenda. Liz Truss is balancing avoiding a Third World War with upping her Instagram game. Michael Gove is using 300-page White Papers to distract from the inherent meaninglessness of ‘Levelling Up’ as a phrase, his department’s lack of funds, and the Government’s aversion to house-building and planning reform.
The economic climate also doesn’t help. Soaring energy bills, inflation hitting its highest levels in three decades, and tax hikes come alongside real-terms cuts in departmental budgets and public sector pay. The inflation genie is out of the bottle, and rows over our financial dire straits will dominate the coming months. The Chancellor saw this coming before most. But the Prince across the water – or at least at Number 11 – is being treated as damaged goods after the last two weeks.
Yet the Government’s biggest problem is at its head. No, I do not believe that eating salad whilst your colleagues sing you ‘Happy Birthday’, a month after you were fighting for your life, should be a resigning offence. But more fines are undoubtedly on their way. Johnson’s brazen excuses are only going to look worse. And the Prime Minister’s resignation will be called for ever-more loudly, whilst the Chancellor’s position will begin to improve by comparison.
Johnson is having a good war. Yes, Prime Ministers have been replaced in times of conflict before. But neither Winston Churchill nor John Major had to contend with a leadership election format that requires multiple ballots, followed by three months of glad-handing, and a vote by the wider membership. Johnson is partially protected by the sheer faff that turfing him out would be.
Besides that, he also remains in place because his talents, like Root’s, are obvious. He was needed in 2019. The Heineken politician was a necessary pint after three years of Mayite sobriety. But, post-Partygate, the popularity that won him the support of desperate MPs that summer and earnt a stonking majority in the winter may be permanently lost. If his government now exists solely to protect his position and stumble from crisis to crisis for two more embarrassing years, what good is it doing the country?
It certainly isn’t doing myself and my fellow 22 year-olds any favours. So far it has hiked our taxes to protect the assets of wealthy aging homeowners, reverse-ferreted on its attempts to make house prices vaguely sane, and has now put up the interest rates on student loans to an extortionate 12 percent. MPs and voters complain about wokery turning the young off voting Conservative. But with policies like these, who can blame the average Zoomer for leaning to the left?
Nevertheless, I am still hopelessly naïve enough to believe in Johnson. He has been written off and come back enough times that one suspects he will try to tough this out until the bitter end, and still somehow pull through. But I can’t bet the future of this government, of this party, and of this country solely on the Prime Minister’s particular talents. Winning a fifth general election in a row is unprecedented since Britain became a full democracy. If we are pinning doing so only on the PM’s Midas touch, then the Conservative Party really is moribund.
Easter, as I mentioned above, is a time for new life – and resurrection. Boris Johnson is not Christ (although he is also a very scruffy man). Nevertheless, for both his own career prospects and to justify his premiership in the light of history, he will have to do what Root could not, and turn the situation around. Boldness of action and an eye for talent are two things the Prime Minister has long possessed. As we Conservatives sit down for our Easter lunches, we must hope they do not fail him now.