Boris Johnson’s leadership skills are in doubt

20 July 2020

8:44 PM

20 July 2020

8:44 PM

Two ‘c’s come easily to Boris: charm and cheerfulness. He has always believed that he can charm his way out of trouble and to be fair to him, he often has. He is also a naturally cheerful cove. He is never happier than when dispensing good news, even if it has been necessary to invent it and convince himself that it exists. So when Boris tells us that we can look forward to normality by Christmas, we can be sure on one point: that is what he believes.

But what is normality? Leaving aside the virus and the EU – big things to leave aside – there is one other crucial factor: Boris’s own leadership, which is now in doubt. That ought to seem extraordinary. When he won the election, everything seemed set fair. He was the first Tory leader in decades to secure a whole-Parliament majority and because of the austerity years (whose successes he was slow to recognise) the public finances were in good order. He could spend money.

As for his opponents, Labour was still in the grip of Corbyn virus, while who cared about the Liberals? Back then, it looked as if Boris had probably won two elections in one. Arguably, he was in a stronger position than Churchill had been in 1940 or Thatcher in 1979. In 1940, it was not clear whether Churchill would be able to win the war and hold the Tory party together. In Thatcher’s first phase, it was equally unclear whether she could win the peace and hold the Tory party together.

There was only one small problem for Boris. Within his own Parliamentary party, his support was a Mississippi mile wide, and a yard deep. Very few people were rallying to him out of affection, or even respect, except in one regard. He gained the leadership because he was seen as a winner – and he won.

Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron had Parliamentary colleagues who were inspired by their political vision (not that this saved either of them). That is not true of Boris, for one obvious reason. Where is the vision? All that is left is the win factor, which is no longer unique.

It is not that his colleagues are losing faith in Boris. They are merely wondering how much faith they ever had. The support is now six inches deep and as for the mile, rocks and islets are now visible and growing in number.

This is, of course, unfair. Boris had always taken his health for granted and suddenly he was in intensive care. He probably needed a couple of months to recuperate. Churchill took longer than that after his concealed stroke in the early summer of 1953, but it was easier to hush things up in those days and the country was not in the grip of a pandemic. Moreover, Boris is a high-wire artist. That requires a steady nerve, iron calm and absolute fitness. Since he left hospital, Boris has not been able to take any of that for granted. There have been days when it looked as if Bojo had recovered his mojo: many others, when he was below par.

But that does not explain the little mistakes, two of which have caused far more exasperation than their importance justified. What was the government’s policy on face-masks, and why? Even Cabinet ministers appeared to be confused. Then there was the Chris Grayling business. It was a bizarre idea to make Mr Grayling Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, for a simple reason. He is not bright enough. He has always been an industrious fellow, which explains a recurrent theme throughout his political career. His hard work earns him promotion to positions in which his lack of judgment becomes apparent. So Boris lost that battle, which he should never have fought.

He then compounded the error by the treatment of Julian Lewis. Over the years, Mr Lewis has demonstrated his independence. He has a hugely safe seat and is probably in his last Parliament. And he has never been an easy man to intimidate. So why try? Bullying is not a pleasant spectacle. Failed bullying is even less attractive. Boris is keen on Churchillian maxims. He should have remembered ‘square or squash.’ Instead, he merely descended into petulance, something which Prime Ministers should always avoid. A lot of Tory MPs were unimpressed. There was a muted chorus of ‘If he can’t even get that right…’

No wonder, for there are far bigger issues in play. Is the virus now in retreat? Although no one seems to know, the pessimists are alarmingly numerous and one wishes that they were less convincing. Then there is the economy, and the economists seem as divided as the scientists. We know what we want: a fiscal stimulus, through a mixture of tax cuts, borrowing and more quantitative easing, to restore the economy to its pre-virus position, without risking sustained inflation. Get all this wrong and we either face heavy unemployment and social dislocation – or stagflation and social dislocation. Either route leads to electoral disaster. Fortunately, there is a youngster called Sunak, who seems to have majored in miracle-working. Can that be sustained?

The Chancellor has a further advantage. He would not be toxic in Scotland which, alas, Boris is. Most Scots simply will not buy Boris’s act. The jokes and japes which many English find endearing merely grate on Scotland’s prominent social chips. This is not to the Scots’ credit, but how should Unionists respond? Boris has become the principal threat to the Union.

The challenges facing him are by no means all domestic. The EU negotiations have still to be finalised. A deal would be in everyone’s interests, but does anyone believe that human beings always act in their own interests? There are no reports of pigs flying past the windows in Brussels or Whitehall. Nor is Europe the only international problem. The world is in a profoundly uncertain state. The calibre of Western leadership has never been lower. It would help if the UK were in a position to punch above its weight. But what is British foreign policy? To paraphrase Dean Acheson, the UK has lost an EU and has not found a role. Could that be rectified under Boris?

In considering Boris, it is important neither to underrate him nor think that you understand him. The latter is impossible, for he does not understand himself. But he now faces difficulties which dwarf committee chairmanships into insignificance. The Labour party has a plausible Leader, who will make the moral case for virus socialism.

Normal service by Christmas? In the Tory party’s recent history, normal service has meant tensions over the leadership. To the two ‘c’s mentioned above, Boris needs to add a further couple: competence, and building confidence. If he does not get a grip before Christmas, normal leadership service will return.

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