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James Forsyth

Boris has to deliver change without the authority he needs

Boris has to deliver change without the authority he needs
Boris Johnson (Credit: Getty images)
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Boris Johnson needs to be bold: business-as-usual will not save his premiership. But, as I said in the Times yesterday, never has it been more difficult for him to get anything significant done.

The first reason is that Johnson must operate knowing that another confidence vote is a near certainty. The rebels need only 32 more votes to oust him and so Johnson must tread carefully. He can’t afford to lose the support of any more MPs. This acts as a check on radicalism.

The second is that when a system thinks a PM might not be around that much longer, everything slows down. As one of those in the engine room of government laments: ‘When it starts to rain, the snails and the slugs come out. When there’s talk of defenestration, the system becomes gummed up.’ If officials think he may not be around in a year, they’ll be tempted to slow down ideas they don’t much care for in the hope they will be forgotten with a new leader in No. 10.

Under pressure, Downing Street is having to rush out policies before they are totally ready. Take the housing announcements Johnson made yesterday. The verdict of one Tory Whitehall veteran is that they are ‘in the right direction, but not fully thought through’.

The right-to-buy for housing association tenants could have benefits. But it is telling that the policy is unfunded. This is always the sign of something being announced prematurely. No. 10 is adamant that the money for it will come out of existing government budgets. But whose? Michael Gove’s? In which case, where will the cuts to his levelling up and housing budget fall?

The situation is made worse because the government is pumping out ideas in scattergun fashion. One minister at the sharp end complains that what is coming out of the centre ‘is not cohesive or coherent’. They say their small department simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to process it all and that the emphasis on eye-catching initiatives makes ‘it feel like the last days of Theresa May’.

When the Prime Minister tries to rally government departments, they tend to respond by going through the motions but little more, convinced that No. 10 has a short attention span. One long-serving Whitehall hand observes that the ‘view from several cabinet ministers is that the prime minister moves on to the next thing quite quickly, so don’t give him too much’.

In a year’s time, or less, Johnson will almost certainly have to face another confidence vote. By then, he will need to be able to show Tory MPs that things have improved, that changes are happening. But he will have to deliver those changes without the authority that he had back in December 2019.

Written byJames Forsyth

James Forsyth is political editor of The Spectator.

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