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It was the best speech Boris Johnson has ever delivered. Indeed, it is probably the best speech that he will ever make. He gave it his all, and it worked, subject to one caveat. It worked for those who buy Boris’s act: who are enthralled by the Wooster-boosterism. Others were repelled.
There is a comparison with Brexit. Although there were plenty of highly intelligent and well-educated Brexiteers, there was also a correlation between educational achievement and attitudes to the EU. The higher the academic credentials that individuals possessed, the more they were likely to vote Remain. In Boris’s case, the distinction is sharper. The more intellectually sophisticated people are, the more they are likely to be repelled by the PM’s junk-bond populism. This has been apparent from much of the coverage over the past few days.
That leads to an obvious question. Does Boris care? As has often been observed, it is hard to read his mind. There is no relationship between the bumbling goofy exterior and the inner, cold, calculating mental processes. It is often said that he likes to be liked. It has also been observed that he has no interest in other people except as a means of his own gratification. But he has found a way of bridging that divide: charm. He uses it ruthlessly to ease his way out of difficulties. Charm is not synonymous with sincerity, and that has never been more true than with Boris. He may well have concluded that he does not need the sophisticates. Let them cavil in small-circulation newspapers while he wows the mass market.
Small circulation leads us on to Keir Starmer. He is not designed for mass markets. If you ever think that you are on the verge of understanding his politics, he will produce a twelve-thousand-word essay or a ninety-minute speech to persuade you otherwise. That speech: what were he and his aides thinking of? There is a common-sense point, often attributed to Prince Philip, a master of that genre. Once the backside grows numb, the brain stops working. But common sense is not a common quality, especially in Starmer-land.
Poor old Sir Stumbler. It is possible that he could sue Boris for causing him psychological damage by undermining his peace of mind. He cannot understand how the Tory Leader gets away with it and clearly despises him, regarding him as unworthy of his office and a stain on his country’s reputation. Both are tenable judgments. Neither is easy to enforce. Sir Keir is like a prosecutor – which he once was – of considerable forensic prowess who has built up an impeccable case. There seems no way out for the man in the dock, except down the steps which lead to the cells. But this particular malefactor has not read the script. Bolder than brass, a master of bluff and bluster, he is making the jury laugh. Once that happens, acquittal beckons. The prosecution counsel cannot believe it: a common reaction among wives, mistresses, editors, ministerial colleagues and others who have tried to deal with Boris over the years.
But – and this is a huge but – what about the economy? Anyone listening to the PM on Wednesday would have concluded that all was spectacularly well. Anyone reading City pages or stock-brokers’ circulars, anyone listening to central bankers’ scuttle-but, would quickly form a different impression. Almost every Western economy has problems. Everyone needs growth; everyone fears inflation. The spectre of stagflation is looming over the advanced West, with the threat of political dislocation and social unrest, at a time when political leadership has rarely if ever been as weak while our enemies are emboldened. Mario Draghi is the one good leader in the West, and there is a limit to what he can do, as Italy’s economic problems are insoluble. Then again, they always have been, and it never seems to matter.
It would matter in Britain. Boris cannot be blamed for the global debt mountain or for Joe Biden’s fiscal incontinence. But he is responsible for failing to think through the consequences of Brexit. He tells us that he wants strict controls on immigration and a high-wage economy. He almost seemed ready to quote Gordon Brown: “British jobs for British workers”. Well and good, but where are these workers to be found? If we have to do without Eastern European builders, HGV drivers from the EU, not to mention doctors and nurses from all over the world, there will be multiple crises. This should have been foreseen. We should not have been in a position where the vulnerabilities of various supply-chains are suddenly sprung on us.
Admittedly, more should have been done over the years to prevent the growth of a dole-junkie underclass and to steer those British workers towards the right training, but all that would take time, which we have not got. It is to be hoped that serious people throughout Whitehall are now hard at work. On present evidence, they do not include the Prime Minister. One of Boris’s more disagreeable traits is his petulant reaction when anyone tries to puncture one of his wheezes. He will come out with a daft idea: Boris Island, the Boris bridge across the Thames, not to mention the even more lunatic Boris bridge across St George’s Channel. The impossibilities will be gently pointed out, to which his response will be peevishness.
In recent days, Simon Wolfson of Next has tried to give the Government good advice. Far from displaying gratitude, Boris responded with an insolent dismissal. Richard Walker of Iceland was moved to conclude that the PM is economically illiterate. That seems a fair comment. Some time ago, it was alleged that Boris had said “f*** business”. His spokesmen hurriedly insisted that even if he had used those words, he had not meant it. When uttering a casual obscenity, we are none of us on oath. That would seem to apply a fortiori to Boris, where nothing is on oath and everything is casual. But after recent days, one is not so sure. He certainly could not claim to believe the opposite of “f*** business”.
Our PM could not be accused of resembling Calvin Coolidge. Boris is more like his predecessor, Warren Harding. Coolidge was a master of laconic wisdom. One such was “The business of America is business”. Boris would be sensible to ponder that statement, for if things go badly wrong for British business, he will get the blame. A repeat of the Party Conference performance would not save him.
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So he has to hope that the spikers are right and the stagflationists wrong. Inflation at four to five per cent would not be fatal, economically or politically, as long as it was clearly temporary, and as long as the markets held their nerve, so that interest rates did not have to rise to growth-throttling levels. In the face of that, Boris’s insouciance is irrelevant.
Although he cannot work out what is going to happen, nor can anyone else. To an alarming extent, the UK and indeed the Western world are at the mercy of events.
The supply chain is another matter. If Boris cannot fix that, he will be in big trouble. There would be no point in his heaping expletives on businessmen. That would not help him to avoid a change in political sentiment, which might prove irreversible – for him personally.
There are reports that the Christmas turkey is under threat. Boris must remove that threat, for if it turned out to be true, he would turn into a political turkey.