Most people date the beginning of Boris Johnson’s current woes to the start of the partygate scandal, and especially to the revelations from 10 January 2022 onwards about the ‘bring your own booze’ event that Johnson himself had attended.
But Johnson’s problems can also be seen as having started at an earlier date and from a different source. In mid-December Lord Frost resigned from Johnson’s Cabinet, rejecting the additional restrictions proposed in response to Omicron, a few days after Steve Baker and the Covid Recovery Group had led about 100 backbenchers in a revolt against new measures. This meant Boris felt he had to take proposals for a Christmas 2021 lockdown to Cabinet, where it was rejected.
These events burnt the reservoir of goodwill that Boris had built up by reopening fully in July 2021, rejecting the prognostications of doom at the time, and by refusing any additional restrictions in September and October 2021. When new restrictions were introduced in December, I wrote condemning them for this publication and tweeted: ‘This is not good enough, Boris Johnson. Just simply not good enough. Might be time for the Conservative Party to start thinking about an alternative.’ Since then we have had ministerial resignations, huge backbench revolts and commentators suggesting Boris’s removal is not all simply down to partygate.
His fundamental problems are twofold: he has no underlying vision and he has no answer to the great policy issue of the day. If he is to survive as prime minister he needs to address both of these.
First, the vision. What does Boris want to be PM for? We’ve left the EU – Brexit got done. So now what? He’s had three years in office and no one has the foggiest idea. It’s been a year since Covid restrictions were removed, so he doesn’t have that excuse any more. What is a Boris premiership trying to achieve? People ask where the think-tank pamphlets are with proposals for a Conservative government. But without having any idea what they’re supposed to be thinking about, how can think-tankers help him?
Boris’s goal was said to be something to do with ‘Levelling up’. That is as vapid a soundbite as there’s ever been. Even soundbites like the ‘Big Society’ offered some vague idea of their objective. No one knows what the point of a Boris Johnson premiership is supposed to be other than keeping Boris Johnson in office.
He needs to tell us what sort of society he wants Britain to be, what sort of economy he wants us to have, what sort of place we should have in the world, what sort of technologies he imagines us researching, what sort of culture we should seek to develop and spread. For his party to operate in harmony around him, there has to be a melody. At present he is offering us nothing.
Secondly, he needs an answer to the great issue of the day: inflation. Not having an economic policy, and having no stated goal for what inflation should be this year or next – let alone any policy for getting it down – when inflation is headed towards 10 per cent is simply inadequate. He appears to hope to blame the whole thing on the Bank of England, or the Russians, or rapacious capitalists – anyone but taking responsibility for doing something about it himself. In the US, Joe Biden’s government has an explicit anti-inflation policy. In the UK the government has nothing. Giveaways to help people cope with the consequences of inflation are not a substitute for having a policy to actually get inflation down. A ‘Conservative’ government that doesn’t think double-digit inflation matters enough to have a policy for what it should be and how to get it down is not worthy of the name.
To create, promote and implement a new vision (whatever it will be) and to produce a goal and policy for inflation, Boris needs new personnel. Sunak isn’t up to it. Many of his other senior cabinet colleagues are tainted by the past three years of shambolic drift. He needs a large cabinet reshuffle.
A new vision will probably imply other policies – on energy, green issues, housing, ‘woke’ issues, immigration and more – that will be unpopular. But Boris doesn’t have the option of being liked any more. He is hated and he will always be hated. His only choices are to be a PM who was hated, did nothing of substance after his first two months and was turfed out, or a hated PM who tried something and was either vindicated or rejected swiftly.
It’s time to go big or go home, Boris. Artful shambling is no longer enough.