The story is as old as time itself. This weekend we have been treated to two versions of it. The heir apparent to a big job grows increasingly impatient for the top job. Instead of keeping his head down and being a good team player, the next in line succumbs to the beguiling temptation to plot and position, to let fraying nerves show, and to try and hurry things along. In the history of politics and the monarchy, impatient successors have a long and troubled record.
The Prince of Wales and the current Foreign Secretary are both suffering from the burden of being the next in line. Both have a distinguished record of achievement, both have much to offer, and both, through self-inflicted and unforced errors, are threatening to tarnish their hard earned reputations and their chances of future success. Whilst the Prince does not have to worry about winning elections as Boris does to achieve his life’s goal, both are ultimately dependent on popular support. Their actions threaten shattering public confidence in their ability to do the top job well.
Over the long years of being the Prince of Wales Charles has done much that deserves praise and support. He has championed often unpopular causes, has made countless visits, and supported effectively many charities. Above all the Prince’s Trust, started with the Prince’s own money when he left the Royal Navy, stands as a huge testament to the Prince’s care and concern for others. Tens of thousands of young people have benefitted from mentoring and grants the Trust has provided. Prince Charles can be hugely proud of his creation, and we can be hugely respectful and appreciative of this enterprise. The Trust’s success is a shining example of what a Royal person can do to make a substantial contribution to national life. He has shown he can make worthwhile things happen. With Camilla by his side he is evolving into an attractive grandfatherly figure.
Boris has earned his place at the top of politics. After a brief and unhappy first stint in the House of Commons Boris rightly turned his attention to being Mayor of London. Twice resting London from Labour’s grasp, his two terms provided the nation’s capital with effective leadership. He has proved he can learn from his mistakes. His Mayoralty started shakily but he had the wisdom to draft in heavy hitters like Simon Milton and Kit Malthouse to provide wisdom and experience. He then emerged as the surprise leader of the Brexit campaign in the referendum. Using his charisma and ability to turn a good phrase he proved as potent a campaigner on the national scene as he had in London. His success directly ended the political career of David Cameron and indirectly that of George Osborne, but he was not able to bid for the Conservative Party leadership when the vacancy occurred – and instead had to settle for being Foreign Secretary.
Both then have achieved much and there is no reason to think that either are in their last job in public life, but instead of sticking to their respective day jobs they can’t quite resist trying to push the person occupying the job they want out of the way before they are ready to go.
No-one anywhere wants the Queen to stop. There was huge sadness when Prince Philip announced his retirement, whilst everyone accepts that the passage of time means he, and the Queen, have more than earned the right to do their duties at a tempo and in a manner that suits them. The continual stream of briefing and comment about transition, preparation for taking over and the growing sense that somehow the Queen is being pushed around is deeply unattractive. Being forced to sack your top advisor, as apparently the Queen has been made to, is a worrying signal to send. The Royal machine seems, belatedly, to have understood this and went into damage control mode. The impression, however, of the Queen being bullied lingers. Charles and his team would be well advised to stop the manoeuvring and leave the Queen alone. He can do himself nothing but harm and damage his fragile standing in public affection if he does not. The success of his future depends on rock solid support for his mother.
Similarly Boris needs to stop his manoeuvring. His eruptions are usually preceded by weeks of briefings emerging in the print that he’s unhappy, lonely, unloved, not being consulted, being cut out. Like one of those World War One offensives that were preceded by days of heavy shelling, Boris then emerges from his trench to make his views known. This time it was back on his old stomping ground on the comment pages of the Daily Telegraph, his natural home. Boris is a proper journalist. He writes beautifully and knows what makes a story, but as a politician he struggles to be a team player – and Westminster politics is a team sport. The spectre of Michael Portillo’s failure to make the final round of the leadership contest stalks all those billed as favourites for the job, and should serve as a stern warning and guide for Boris. At Westminster he needs to build support among Conservative MPs. In the party across the country he needs to build a reputation as an effective Cabinet Minister and support to the Prime Minister at a time of great challenge. The fact that he had to issue a statement supporting Theresa May on the day his article was published demonstrates it was a mistake to publish it. The timing ahead of the Prime Minister’s own speech on the same subject and ahead of Party conference was an error.
Both men need to stop making the story endlessly about themselves – their hopes, frustrations, and feelings, and instead make the story about their effectiveness in doing their jobs and loyalty to their respective bosses. That is the way to earn the popular support both need to achieve their goal, without it both will be disappointed and disappointing.