Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson discredits Blackford by embracing him as a friend

30 Mar

“He is, like me, a living testament to the benefits of moderation in all things.” What a tricky opponent Boris Johnson is. He set out to show the world that he and Ian Blackford, to whom this remark was addressed, are on such cordial terms that light-hearted references to their struggles with their weight are in order.

Nothing could be more damaging to Blackford, leader of the SNP at Westminster, than to be exposed as a friend of the Prime Minister.

Johnson is not popular in Scotland. SNP activists live in hope that the Prime Minister may arouse such antipathy north of the border that their cause triumphs.

But what if affable, comfortable, companionable Scots such as Blackford instead indicate, by their demeanour, that when they come down to London they rather enjoy the Prime Minister’s company, and even find it preferable, as well one might, to that of the most embittered and distrustful cybernats?

Blackford did his best. He accused Johnson of last night throwing a “champagne bash” for Tory MPs just as millions of families were worrying how they will manage to pay “the £700 energy price hike”.

Johnson refused to be riled. His manner indicated that he regards Blackford with fond amusement.

What now is Blackford to do? For the angrier he sounds, the more amused Johnson will be, and the more inclined to show he knows Blackford is only pretending.

Sir Keir Starmer, for Labour, began well, with a short and pointed question: “Does the Prime Minister still think he and the Chancellor are tax-cutting Conservatives?”

Rishi Sunak, who was sitting beside Johnson, smiled, but it was the smile of a bruised man, pained by the denunciations in the last week of him and his Spring Statement.

Quite soon, Johnson was being genial at Sir Keir’s expense: “I don’t know where he’s been for the last two years.” How extraordinary that Sir Keir could have managed “to obliterate the biggest pandemic for the last century from his memory”.

A derisive remark, yet not delivered in a mean-spirited tone. Johnson was robust, genial, almost amused by “this human weathervane” who one week thought the Prime Minister should stay in office but the next week wanted him to go.

What a cunning adversary Johnson is. For if one turns up the volume of one’s attack, one may start to sound rather vicious and lacking in sense of proportion, while there he is, magnanimous and moderate, refusing to take it personally, altogether, perhaps, a more enjoyable person with whom to have a drink or two afterwards in the pub.

Matt Western (Lab, Warwick and Leamington) had a convoluted crack at the Chancellor, “so out of touch he’s contactless”.

Johnson replied in a friendly tone that “much as I admire his style”, the question would work better “as a light essay in The Guardian“.

What lack of rancour! Even references to the Downing Street parties did not spoil his mood. One might as well try to get Bertie Wooster to take a dim view of that beano last night at the Drones Club.

Andrew Gimson’s Conference sketch: Johnson brings Merry England politics to the big stage

6 Oct

Boris Johnson brought Merry England politics to the big stage. Not for him the ascent into the higher platitudes, the infliction on his followers of willed pieties.

The Prime Minister can hardly bear to let ten seconds go by without telling a joke. Within a few words he was saying that when the Government decided to reopen the theatres and night clubs,

“we knew that some people would still be anxious, so we sent top government representatives to our sweatiest boites de nuit to show that anyone could dance perfectly safely.”

The cameras found Michael Gove, looking pink with pleasure as the Prime Minister pointed in his direction and said “Let’s hear it for Jon Bon Govi”.

At party conferences in the olden days, Johnson made Conservatives feel good about being Conservative at the ConHome rally, and for an hour or two stole the party leader’s thunder by some outrageous though essentially minor departure from the party line.

Now Johnson is party leader, and no one has yet worked out how to steal his thunder. There have been very few moments at this conference when he was not in action, not supplying broadcast clips.

With his energy, emotion and comic brio, he has dominated the show, while remaining watchful for any rival who might start to build up an independent following.

Flashes of seriousness were needed during his speech in order to guard against the charge that he is an unworthy successor to the great figures who have led the party in the past. So he told the conference:

“Margaret Thatcher would not have ignored this meteorite that has just crashed through the public finances, she would have wagged her finger and said more borrowing now is just higher interest rates and even higher taxes later.

And he insisted that “this reforming government” is going, “after decades of drift and dither”, to “get social care done”.

Entertainment is placed in the service of worthy aims. Johnson’s style distracts from his substance. He has a gift amounting to genius for making humdrum projects sound adventurous, enjoyable, even poetic.

Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written In a Country Churchyard was pressed into service to illustrate a point about the wasted potential – the flowers “born to blush unseen”, the “mute inglorious Miltons” – which will be liberated by levelling the country up.

And he gave us moments which were pure P.G.Wodehouse: “If you can steal a dog or cat there is frankly no limit to your depravity.”

At the end there was no milking of the applause; no lingering on stage with his wife, Carrie Johnson. Off they went at top speed, hand in hand but only giving the photographers a few moments to snap them.

This was, in its way, one of the most brilliant performances I can remember from a British politician. Nobody in modern times has used humour so effectively to raise his followers’ morale, assert his personal primacy and ridicule his rivals.

But what is left? What will be remembered? Not much, perhaps.

Our revels now are ended, and as I write these last words, the conference centre is being dismantled around me. The four-day Manchester show is over, and tomorrow the Prime Minister will be playing on some other stage.

How to advise Lord North, or Heath, or Thatcher, or Johnson

5 Mar

Political Advice: Past, Present and Future edited by Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose

The press is excited by stories about Boris Johnson’s advisers. Who is in, who out? Who is briefing against whom? Carrie Symonds is running the country from her sofa! The news that leopards are to be reintroduced into St James’s Park shows she is. And anyhow, who paid for the sofa?

Readers who wish to take a longer view of political advice are advised to get hold of this book. But be warned: it does not offer a crib, a cut-out-and-keep guide to how to be an adviser.

The lesson of the book is that there are no lessons. If this volume were by a single author, we could perhaps deduce from it a doctrine, but it is actually the work of 14 different contributors, who on 8th June 2017 met for a one-day conference on Political Advice at All Souls College, Oxford.

We are not fed anything so misleading as a theory of advice, but in these 14 essays we do find intimations, continuities and recurrences as we travel with these authors from Periclean Athens via the Renaissance, Tudor England, the Scottish Enlightenment, British orientalists in Persia, Edward Heath’s managerialists in Whitehall and astrologers at the court of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, to an account of the impossibility of advising Donald Trump.

Nobody can govern alone: every ruler needs help, and as the editors, Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose, remark in their introduction, the people running the show today “have no more time or concentration than their predecessors in antiquity”.

There is a limit to how much advice anyone can take in, let alone make use of. William Waldegrave writes, in this volume, about his experience of being a member of the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS) from 1971-73.

Heath, both as Leader of the Opposition and from 1970 as Prime Minister, had a tremendous appetite for policy advice. He was a man of his time, for as Waldegrave reminds us,

“the late 1960s had seen much discussion of whether Britain’s institutions had sufficiently modernised themselves: the civil service was among those subject to criticism, including self-criticism. This had led in 1966 to the establishment, after a select committee of the House of Commons had levelled the accusation of amateurism at the modern service, of the Fulton Committee…it made trenchant criticisms of what it saw as the cult of the generalist, the lack of influence by scientists, poor training and recruitment practices and other matters.”

The CPRS was one way in which Heath was determined to modernise the machinery of government, by creating a central strategic staff who would engage in long-term thinking and apply the latest management techniques, many of them imported from the United States, to which “two exceptionally able younger Conservatives”, David Howell (now Lord Howell) and Mark Schreiber (now Lord Marlesford) had been despatched on a mission to find out what was happening there.

In 1970, Howell made, in his pamphlet A New Style of Government, the first use in the United Kingdom of the word “privatisation”. According to Waldegrave, these British experts “linked management theory to political doctrine in a more interesting way than is found in most of the American work of the time”, relating “managerial efficiency…to the development of modern liberal free-market doctrines”.

What happened? Heath made a complete hash of things, and in February 1974 the British people threw him out of office. His administration had been characterised, not by long-term thinking, but by desperate short-term expedients which culminated in the lights going out.

And yet all that advice was not entirely wasted. After 1979, privatisation became, with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, one of the Government’s most significant and successful policies.

She too was tremendously keen on getting good advice. She and her advisers learned from Heath’s mistakes, and for a long time her judgement of what was politically possible proved better than his.

But as Waldegrave goes on to say, both Houses of Parliament continue to feel “a deep suspicion of Bonapartist tendencies on the part of the Prime Minister”.

We don’t want a presidential system in this country, and got the central staffs created by Lloyd George and Churchill to fight the two world wars disbanded as soon as those conflicts were over.

Waldegrave, who served as a minister from 1981-97, regrets “the steady erosion” in recent times

“of a sense of Cabinet collectivity. Mr Blair is perhaps most to blame for this, but Mr Cameron is not innocent either. What the press has called ‘sofa government’ – combined with an over-intrusive regime of freedom of information – has taken us back to the time before Maurice Hankey and the establishment of the Cabinet Secretariat in 1916. Some major items of policy are not discussed collectively at all, and if they are discussed, little is recorded for fear of an immediate and politically driven application under the Freedom of Information Act. This is a recipe for bad decision-taking, as well as for ultimate lack of accountability.”

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister too recently for his behaviour in office to be considered in this volume. But one can’t help wondering whether his critics have been asking the wrong question.

They have assumed he is too weak: that he will soon be swept from office. Perhaps they should have been asking, instead, whether he is too strong: whether Bonapartist tendencies are beginning to manifest themselves.

For whoever occupies Number Ten has a near monopoly of the political advice which other ministers would need in order to make forceful arguments in Cabinet, or Cabinet committee, about any subject beyond their departmental responsibilities.

Sajid Javid refused, on being told he would not be allowed to choose his own advisers, to continue as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Jesse Norman, currently serving as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, contributes to this volume an essay entitled Smith as SpAd? Adam Smith and Advice to Politicians.

The first part of this title has a Wodehousian ring. It prompts the thought that in modern English literature, the greatest provider of advice is Jeeves, and the greatest recipient Wooster.

Adam Smith often advised politicians:

“In 1766-7, he supplied information about French taxes to, and corrected the calculations of, Charles Townshend, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, in relation to the Sinking Fund designed to repay debt incurred during the Seven Years’ War; the fund was topped up in Townshend’s 1767 budget. He also advised Lord Shelburne on colonial policy at this time. Lord North thanked Smith for his advice on his 1777 Budget, when he took ideas from The Wealth of Nations for two new taxes, on manservants and on property sold by auction. He took two more ideas in 1778: the malt tax and a very Smithian duty on the rentable value of buildings. Also in 1778, Smith wrote ‘Thoughts on the State of the Contest with America’, a long and considered memorandum setting out different options for British policy towards the American colonies, then in revolt, at the request of his friend Alexander Wedderburn, the Solicitor General.”

We also find Smith advising on trade between Britain and Ireland. Just now his help would be invaluable. He recognised, as Norman puts it, “that the world was an imperfect place, in which evils could exist and persist”.

Smith was not the laissez-faire ideologue for which he has sometimes been mistaken. Nor was he the kind of generalist with which the Fulton Committee, and latterly Dominic Cummings, considered the civil service to be over-provided. Smith was a Commissioner of Customs, active in the regulation and suppression of smuggling.

Colin Burrow remarks, in his essay entitled How Not To Do It: Poets and Counsel, Thomas Wyatt to Geoffrey Hill:

“The figure of the frank speaker condemned to the margins of political life, and thus unable to deliver counsel to his monarch, became one of the major literary personae of the later Henrician period.”

Twitter is just now infested with such frank speakers, who do not turn out to be gifted poets, but spend their days denouncing with hysterical self-righteousness anyone with whom they disagree.

The adviser has to be willing to compromise; often works for palpably inadequate leaders; but is at least on the field of play.