Boris Johnson is shaping up to be a busted flush. In a remarkably short time he has lost the confidence of the country, Europe and, more important from his own narrow point of view, the Conservative party.
Johnson is probably the worst British prime minister since Lord North, who is remembered for having lost the American colonies. These days the best thing about North is that he is remembered in the name of rather a good racehorse.
Disloyalty is the Tory party’s secret weapon. Johnson won them the election, and they are hanging on to him until he “delivers” Brexit.
He has not sacked Gavin Williamson – the worst education secretary in living memory – because even Johnson apparently thinks there ought to be a decent interval before he disposes of the third-rate minister who was good at one thing: being the chief whip who (with considerable dexterity, it has to be said) acted as his campaign manager in the Tory leadership race. One recalls that John Major postponed the sacking of Norman Lamont – his campaign manager, and chancellor at the time of Black Wednesday in September 1992. Lamont acted as a shield for Major, who was actually more responsible for the pound’s fateful adventure in the European Monetary System than Lamont, who was against it.
Johnson’s government is heading for the Guinness Book of Records for the number of embarrassing U-turns it makes, almost daily. While the prime minister’s absurd chief adviser, Dominic “Eye test” Cummings, holds awaydays for other special advisers and tells them to read books about “superforecasting” and “high-performance management”, he and his prime minister seem incapable of forecasting what is going to hit them the next day, and achieve new records in low-performance management.
I am reminded of the joke Bob Monkhouse used to tell: “They all laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. (Pause) They’re not laughing now.” Well, most people who have known Johnson over the years laughed at the idea that he would ever become prime minister. We’re not laughing now either.
Except, except. There is a widespread view that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, can hardly conceal his joy at the situation that confronts him. Until recently unknown to the general public, he surfs the waves of popularity that have greeted his Covid-19 rescue package. Modesty, of course, forbids him to indulge publicly in celebrating the common gossip that he is simply waiting in the wings to take over when the backbench “men in grey suits” tell Johnson his time is up.
Now, before we go on, I must explain to younger readers the origin, as far as I know, of the use of the motoring term U-turn as a political metaphor. It goes back to the winter of 1972-73, when the Conservative government of prime minister Edward Heath abandoned its policy of “non-intervention” – leaving things to the market, and not propping up lame industrial ducks. Instead, as unemployment rose to a previously unheard-of (postwar) million, the policy was reversed to one of all-out expansion.
The biggest U-turn of all under this government has been the way that the pandemic has turned a party whose basic beliefs are not dissimilar to those of the pre-U-turn Heath government into a spending machine that makes what Heath Mark II did look like chicken feed. And the man getting the credit for it is Sunak, whose natural instinct is to keep his cards close to his chest, but who nevertheless wears his ambition on his face.
There is an interesting contrast between Sunak and my old friend Nigel Lawson, chancellor from 1983-89. Lawson, whatever one thought of his policies, was an impressive man, but for a long time did not obviously harbour prime ministerial ambitions – not, that is, until he was at the height of his popularity in 1988, when those close to him thought he was starting to fancy the top job. The fact that Prime Minister Thatcher also shared that thought did not help their relationship, which finally fell apart over “Europe”.
The problem for the ambitious Sunak is one of timing: not to put too fine a point upon it, the epidemic-enforced structural blow to employment threatens to make the problems of the Heath government, and even the Thatcher recession of 1979-81, pale into insignificance. Commentators keep calling this a recession. It is not: it is a hammer-blow to the economy administered by a panic-stricken government. The panic is understandable and justified, but the response is unequal to the moment. This is a catastrophe and they don’t know how to deal with it.
I find it difficult to believe that Sunak’s popularity can last as the damage grows – especially if the next panic is about withdrawing help and making matters worse.