This Prime Minister is suffering a political, intellectual and moral implosion. The government is becoming a laughing stock. There is only one conclusion to be drawn from the clearly truthful reports that Boris Johnson contemplated demoting Rishi Sunak, who would then have resigned. Our PM is losing contact with reality. There are twenty-three members of the Cabinet. If Mr Sunak were forced out, it would be time for some simple arithmetic. Twenty-three minus one would equal nothing.
In Boris’s days as Foreign Secretary, I once wrote that he brought to his high office all the gravitas of a clown running away from the circus because a bailiff had arrived with a paternity suit. For Foreign Secretary, now read Prime Minister.
At this stage, anyone who bothers to monitor my journalistic output might well be chuckling, and they would have a point. On Boris, I have ratted and re-ratted. But it is now, belatedly, time to be consistent. He has failed. He had a great opportunity. It has been thrown away – and it is all his fault.
His defenders might protest. What about the virus? Surely that provides him with an excuse for anything that has gone wrong? To that, there is a simple answer. No, it does not.
Admittedly, he deserves credit for the inoculation programme, though I have heard on excellent authority that the credit ought to be shared with Dominic Cummings. For understandable reasons, some immunologists raised concerns. The government was proposing to press ahead with vaccines before the drugs had been properly tested. Suppose it all went horribly wrong? Millions of people could be poisoned. The compensation claims would tear a great hole in the GDP and the government would be doomed. Cummings, apparently, virtually bludgeoned the PM into over-ruling the better-notters, and the rest is history. But even if Dominic Cummings had a crucial role, it happened on the PM’s watch. He took the decision. He got it right. He is entitled to plaudits (which he has received).
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There is only one problem. That was the only thing he has got right. Yes, the virus would consume a huge amount of Prime Ministerial energy, but that is why there is a body called the Cabinet. Beyond the virus, and the economy, there were two great domestic issues: education and housing. In each case, morality, politics and intellect ought to have come together. They are vital for social well-being, and equally important for the government’s electoral prospects. If the PM had no time to devote himself to the detail, let him find ministers who have the intellect to take charge. Instead he chose Gavin Williamson for education and Robert Jenrick for housing: a dunderhead and a nonentity.
That is an insult to millions of people in this country who are entitled to expect that the government will have their best interests at heart and that the Prime Minister will appoint able ministers to safeguard those interests. But this Prime Minister does not care.
Dunder-headed nonentity makes one think of Conservative headquarters, CCHQ, and two questions which have the same answer. First, who is the most obscure member of this Cabinet? Second, who is the Tory Party Chairman? Answer to both, Amanda Milling.
That is such a missed opportunity. The beginning of a parliament and a majority of eighty: it was the perfect moment to review and assess the Party’s structures. If the Conservative Party were start afresh tomorrow, whom would it employ? Which buildings would it need? Could new technology deliver enhanced efficiency?
In asking those questions, no insult should be intended either to the paid staff or the voluntary workers. Most of the party’s employees are hard-working and often underpaid. Most of the volunteers are hard-working. All are unpaid. So the review should be conducted in a sensitive though firm manner, by someone who understands the party and knows that it cannot be run like a normal commercial enterprise. What does Amanda Milling understand or know?
That brings us to Ben Elliot. Officially, he is the co-Chairman. In practice, he appears to be in charge. If anyone could control him, it is certainly not Amanda Milling.
Political parties need money. Raising that money is always a sensitive matter. Back in the 1980s, the then Treasurer Alistair McAlpine would say that it was not hard to obtain money. The tricky moments came when deciding which donations to turn down.
There is no suggestion that Elliot has done anything wrong. But there may have been a difficulty. He runs an international concierge service which makes life easy for the world’s very rich when they come to London, and charges them accordingly. All well and good – until they stop travelling, and paying. Moreover, some of his clients are also potential donors to the Tory party. Although that does not necessarily create a conflict of interest, it requires skilful handling. It would have been better if Ben Elliot had merely been Treasurer, under the supervision of a politically savvy Chairman. As it is, he has marked his own homework.
He has also made enemies, who show no sign of losing interest in the story. Whatever the state of the Tory party’s finances, it cannot afford to haemorrhage political capital. That is all needed to deal with Boris Johnson’s betises.
Which brings us to Scotland. Any trip that Boris makes to Scotland would always be problematic. In North Britain, he is toxic. That is not altogether his fault. The widespread anti-English sentiment in Scotland goes far beyond joshing at sporting contests and is shameful. We Scots (In my case 100 percent) pride ourselves on being an upstanding and indeed martial race who can always summon up dignity and stoicism. Yet when it comes to the English, many of my fellow-countrymen give way to girning and self-pity.
That said, one can understand the reaction to Boris. He always gives the impression that he has walked straight out of the pages of P. G. Wodehouse, a bumbling, goofy confection of entitlement and privilege, utterly lacking in moral seriousness and intellectual depth. Yet, think many Scots, this is the man whom the English have chosen to be Prime Minister.
It would never have been easy to efface that impression. But there were steps that he could have taken. Sound serious and prime ministerial: brush his hair so that he would look slightly less un-prime ministerial: all that could have helped. For about forty-eight hours, he stuck to such a script – the seriousness, that is, not the hair. Senior Scottish Tories, who had been full of foreboding, were just beginning to relax. But forty-eight hours is a long time in Bojo-land. Suddenly, prime ministerialism gave way to the clown’s cap and bells. He had gone to Scotland to help to strengthen the Union. He left his own party despondent, and Nicola Sturgeon delighted.
The history of British coal-mining is long and complex. Its decline had little to do With Margaret Thatcher’s interest in the environment and far more to do with Arthur Scargill’s insurrectionary socialism, plus technological changes. Moreover, nostalgia for mining so-called communities owes more to sentimentality than to substance. Underground mining was a dirty and dangerous occupation. You would not have needed to be a D. H. Lawrence character to want to escape.
All these themes would provide enough material for a day-long academic seminar. They are not suitable for an off-the-cuff remark. That is like playing with matches in a dynamite factory.
So why does Boris behave like that?
There is one possible explanation. It may be that he does not care about his party’s political future because he does not intend to be part of it for much longer. Partly spurred by jealousy of David Cameron – not something that Cameron ever felt – he was desperate to be Prime Minister. He is also looking forward to the freedom and the income that will accrue once he is a former PM. It is merely the bit in between that he is not enjoying: the constraints on his time, both official and domestic. There are regular rumours that he will not fight the next election. If he were to take that decision, he would have no further interest in the fortunes of his party, or his country. This is a man with no loyalty to anything except himself.
Boris has no reverence for institutions. He has no understanding of economics. Imagine him in front of a forensic interviewer, being questioned about inflation, quantitative easing and the prospects for growth. It would be peak-hour comedy. Needless to say, as long as he is in No.10, his staff will ensure that no such interview takes place.
This is a charismatic narcissist with very few friends and no interest in other people except as a means of his own gratification. He has survived because he has formidable powers of charm, but there comes a point.
The Conservative party is a national party or it is nothing. As long as Mr Johnson is in charge, the unity of that nation is in jeopardy. He cannot be trusted with Ulster and it is not safe to let him loose in Scotland.
He is simply not fit to be Prime Minister. It is time for his party to rid itself of this frivolous amoral clown.