“You’ll miss Boris when he’s gone,” is what Johnson devotees say. But is he still here, in any meaningful sense?
He was widely criticised for jetting off to Slovenia last week (a location apparently so secret his own Business Secretary was unsure of Johnson’s location). Labour has stated Johnson leads a “zombie government” lacking any purpose. Labour wanted a caretaker Prime Minister while Johnson’s replacement was chosen.
At a time of national crisis, politicians are certainly missing in action. Both Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke were away when the interest rate rise was announced. Ofgem’s plea for people to pay their bills saw the government shrug its collective shoulders. As Gordon Brown remarked, “there’s no one at the wheel”, let alone asleep at it. There are calls for more emergency action now on energy. European governments are doing it. Johnson says no, it’s for his successor. He seems absent, even though he’s now back.
This is not new for Boris Johnson. In August 2011, the then London Mayor took days to cut short his North America holiday to deal with the London riots. Arguing at the time “I came as fast as I could” did not pass the sniff test. A decade later, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was also condemned for an “absence of leadership” as the Taliban retook Afghanistan. That the nation’s fall occurred in August meant many ministers and civil servants were away.
Of course, politics stops for nothing. In 2013, David Cameron recalled Parliament in August in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. In 2007, Gordon Brown quickly returned from his August holiday to deal with an outbreak of foot and mouth.
August has long been regarded as silly season, the time when politicians and political journalists vacate Westminster. Yet newspapers still need writing, news bulletins must be broadcast. Sometimes that means leftfield proposals are given far more coverage than they usually deserve. In 2018, BBC Home Editor Mark Easton claimed August was actually “the month of common sensse”, with the lack of urgency providing time for contemplation and reflection.
Except for the Prime Minister. Leaders on their way out usually try to carve out a legacy. Theresa May, for example, used her final days to pass new domestic abuse legislation. By contrast, as the Observer found, ‘more than half of the government’s key departments, ministerial announcements have been pulled at short notice’, with dozens of government consultations unanswered. Civil servants remember, can only enact what the government tells them to.
Speculation swirls about Johnson’s life post-premiership. Will he return to his home at the Daily Telegraph? Can he complete his delayed Shakespeare biography? Or is it already finished? Was he working on it in the early days of Covid?
Metaphorically throwing in the towel a month early is, as Sir Anthony Seldon argues, an “enigmatic end for an enigmatic premiership”. Critics will say it demonstrates the title of Prime Minister was more important for Boris Johnson than the grave responsibilities the role entailed.