At the end of last week, the Prime Minister invited Tory MPs to a massive conference call, a kind of digital fireside chat to lift their spirits. It was a disaster. First the MPs were astonished to learn that he wasn’t taking questions; then his connection failed halfway through — at which point the callers, who had been ‘muted’, became ‘unmuted’ and started talking loudly and all at once. One of them, Michael Fabricant, started singing ‘Rule Britannia’. When the call came to an end, the MPs were all left wondering the same thing. What’s happened to Boris? Where is the man we thought we voted for?
Physically, Boris Johnson is still around. This week he could be found contradicting other ministers in a parliamentary committee, or sulking on the front bench, being given lectures on competence from Ed Miliband. But this is not the effervescent, bombastic, energising leader MPs thought they’d elected. That man is missing. It’s not just Boris; his whole government seems adrift, defined by its avoidable mistakes: Covid policy, Brexit, party discipline… In all these things there is a conspicuous — and baffling — lack of leadership.
Take this past week. The PM’s Brexit argument should have been simple enough: if the EU wants to play hardball by hinting that it might stop food being sent from Britain to Northern Ireland, then Britain ought to make it clear that obviously it could not tolerate this. Johnson should have said so from the outset, explaining what the EU was attempting and why he needed to be polite but firm in response.
He could have said that he would protect the integrity of the UK using flexibility built into the agreement he had already negotiated, rather than send a minister into the chamber to say the government would go rogue and ‘break international law’.