Boris Johnson has a majority of 80, the Conservatives are still above 40 per cent in the polls, there is no leadership challenge pending, and there are still over four years to go until the next election.
But the Tory press this week is behaving as though none of that applies. It hasn’t given up on the possibility of the Prime Minister winning in 2024. However, it seems close to abandoning hope of him achieving anything substantial before then.
The joint catalyst of this development has been the Government’s adventures with international law, to which many voters are indifferent. And its handling of the Coronavirus, to which they are not. The common theme is that the country is all at sea, and that the captain has no sense of direction – or grip.
It may be that the media, some Tory MPs and Party donors are getting everything out of proportion. The hysterical anti-Johnson hyperbole from the Remainer residue certainly muddies the waters. To give an example almost at random, one prominent pro-Remain journalist once implied that Johnson’s Covid illness was faked.
None the less, ConservativeHome thinks that the critics have a point – and then some – for two solid reasons. The first is all to do with the unique circumstances of last December’s election. Johnson was elected to Get Brexit Done and spend a lot of money: at least, that’s what the hostage-free Tory manifesto suggested.
He has delivered Brexit as most voters see it (even if there is no trade deal), and his spending plans have been absorbed by the Coronavirus crisis, along with nearly everything else. “Levelling up” is on hold. So is the economy. The manifesto had no programme for public service reform in any event.
If it had, the virus would make its delivery all but impossible. Covid means all hands to the pump, unless the Prime Minister is prepared to let the disease which put him in intensive care let rip. That isn’t going to happen. Global Britain may not either, at least if one means by it a coherent approach to China, Russia and radical Islamism.
The second reason is all bound up with Johnson himself. We endorsed him last summer as “not the Prime Minister we deserve, but the Prime Minister we need right now”. By which we meant that his character, gifts and personality are best shaped for campaigning rather than government.
Just before he made up his mind to declare for Brexit, he told friends that he was “veering all over the place like a shopping trolley”. That captures the essence of how he works when trying to deliver many ends, as one must in office, rather than single one, as is the case in elections.
A shopping trolley can’t move on its own. It needs someone to direct it. That person is thought by those demented Remainers to be Dominic Cummings. Certainly, parts of the Government’s programme are Cummings-driven: upending the civil service, challenging judicial power, overhauling procurement, “investing in science”.
But Cummings’ hands are only some of those on the trolley. His old Parliamentary supporters, Simon Case, colleagues from his London mayoralty days, Carrie Symonds: all these and others push and pull at Johnson, who has no enduring ideology of his own to steer by, and can be as indecisive in private as he is bombastic in public.
We don’t mean to suggest that the Prime Minister has no beliefs. He does, and his experience in City Hall has shaped them. He wants to build more houses (good for him), invest in infrastructure, spend money on policing – and he has liberal instincts on immigration, as Government policy confirms.
But these are not so much convictions as impulses. This is not the man to throw himself into the culture wars, as his response to the Black Lives Matter eruption confirms. Rather, he is Lord Stanley, pitching in to the Bosworths of the conflict only when they’ve already been decided. So it was with Churchill’s statue and the Proms.
The big point is that his response to Covid-19 is in deep trouble. Success would see test and track taking the strain this winter. Instead, regional lockdowns have already kicked in, and it’s only September. The Government wants life at work to be as close to the old normal as possible, but life at home to be a new normal – under compulsion.
Hence marshalls, curfews and the rule of six. Last spring, voters swung behind the Prime Minister as they’ve sometimes swung behind others when wars break out. Now, there is war-weariness. The winter is shaping up ominously and the Parliamentary Party is skittish.
At this stage in editorials, the usual course is to reiterate advice. Appoint better Cabinet Ministers – not just people who voted for you. Find an Andrew Mackay-type figure to take the backbench temperature. Get a single, strong Party Chairman.
We add: forget trying to carry out, in current cirumstances, a spending review that looks more than a year ahead. Concentrate on sorting testing, keeping schools open – and saving the Union; concede that turning the civil service upside-down will have to wait; prepare for a pro-EU Biden presidency. But there is a fundamental problem.
Johnson just isn’t the man to exercise self-discipline outside an election campaign. This is integral to what makes him so interesting: As Sasha Swire puts it, he has a “greatness of soul…and best of all a wonderful comic vision of the human condition. He is not like any politician I have ever encountered before, and I have met many.”
He will carry on boostering about moonshots, world-beating systems and (James Forsyth writes this morning) hydrogen. It’s a form of manic defence. A David Cameron would think tactically; a Margaret Thatcher strategically. But the Prime Minister doesn’t think so much as intuit. And will carry on doing so because that’s how he is.
Perhaps memory can reach where advice can’t. Johnson has worked at his best when he lurches noisily forwards and someone follows quietly behind, carrying a dustpan and brush: Simon Milton in London (then Eddie Lister), Stuart Reid at the Spectator. To put it more neutrally, he performs and someone else administers.
The safe, secure choice to do this now would be Oliver Dowden. The one that would cause a sensation, explode a mass of leadership speculation and conspiracy theory, and drag up horrible memories of commitment and betrayal would be the psycho-dramatic appointment of Michael Gove.
The media’s field day could last for the rest of this Parliament. But in the meantime, Gove would get on with what he does better than any Minister other than perhaps Rishi Sunak: strategic thinking – and messaging – government with a purpose, and zeal for reform.
The planned New Year reshuffle would be the right time for the change, though we admit that it almost certainly won’t happen. All the same, the Government’s shaping up to be in its own bleak midwinter by then. Sure, the next election is there to be won. And never underestimate Johnson’s strange bond with a big slice of the British people.
But getting the state’s creaking machinery up to responding to Covid, let alone achieving much before 2024, depends on him doing what all of us find it hardest to do: changing what he does; almost who he is.