The missing leader: Boris Johnson needs to find his purpose again

Boris Johnson needs to find his purpose again

19 September 2020

9:00 AM

19 September 2020

9:00 AM

At the end of last week, the Prime Minister invited Tory MPs to a massive conference call, a kind of digital fireside chat to lift their spirits. It was a disaster. First the MPs were astonished to learn that he wasn’t taking questions; then his connection failed halfway through — at which point the callers, who had been ‘muted’, became ‘unmuted’ and started talking loudly and all at once. One of them, Michael Fabricant, started singing ‘Rule Britannia’. When the call came to an end, the MPs were all left wondering the same thing. What’s happened to Boris? Where is the man we thought we voted for?

Physically, Boris Johnson is still around. This week he could be found sulking on the front bench, being given lectures on competence from Ed Miliband. But this depressing sight only underlined what is missing: the effervescent, bombastic, energising leader who has deft political judgment and specialises in rallying cries. It’s not just Boris; his whole government seems adrift, defined by its avoidable mistakes: Covid policy, Brexit, party discipline… In all these things there is a conspicuous — and baffling — lack of leadership.

Take this past week. The PM’s Brexit argument should have been simple enough: if the EU wants to play hardball by hinting that it might stop food being sent from Britain to Northern Ireland, then Britain ought to make it clear that obviously it could not tolerate this. Johnson should have said so from the outset, explaining what the EU was attempting and why he needed to be polite but firm in response.

He could have said that he would protect the integrity of the UK using flexibility built into the agreement he had already negotiated, rather than send a minister into the chamber to say the government would go rogue and ‘break international law’.

Perhaps the intention was to scare the EU. It ended up appalling the Conservative party and handing ammunition to the Prime Minister’s enemies. International law is a dubious concept in the UK system, but what mattered to Tory MPs was the idea
of breaking a promise and reneging on legislation he had only recently asked them to pass. It became a matter of reputation and honour.

By the end of the debacle, the Prime Minister softened his tone, insisting that he is merely seeking a reserve power that he hopes never to use. It was another embarrassing, damaging, avoidable mess.

The MPs who bumped into Johnson in the chamber last week said he looked exhausted, broken — and astonished at what he had unwittingly unleashed. It made them wonder: what did he expect? And if he’s the great communicator, why didn’t he bother to communicate?

On Covid, too, his tactics are coherent and should be defensible. He fears that a second wave is underway in Spain and France and seeks to take stern action to stop the same thing happening in Britain. But why the sudden unexplained jump to Covid marshals and a police-enforced ‘rule of six’? These ideas blindsided the cabinet and the country. A bit more discussion beforehand and a proper understanding of the consequences would also have helped. Is he seriously asking people to inform on neighbours whose children have six friends in the garden? If so, why? To ask us not to enjoy the company of our friends and families is a big deal. If he’s serious about governing by consent then we need to understand the reasoning behind the policy; we need to see the evidence.

Johnson’s overall Covid policy is now a mystery. Does he seek to ‘flatten the curve’ again? Is he trying to eliminate Covid altogether? We might think that his strategy inspired; we might think it insane — but we need to know what it is. We need to know, for instance, why children aren’t being excluded from the rule of six as they are in Scotland and Wales. There may be perfectly sound, scientific, rational answers to all such questions — but we don’t know, because Johnson is still using emergency legislation to bypass parliament. It’s a strange kind of leadership, and it doesn’t seem like him.

And where was he during the Black Lives Matter protests? This ought to have been the perfect chance for him to rise above his other troubles and defend the country and its values. Instead, his government stayed mute while statues were pulled down and public buildings vandalised. Only when the Churchill monument outside parliament was defaced did the Prime Minister venture to say that it was all a bit much.

As Mayor of London, he made several eloquent defences of his city. It’s the Rome of the globalised empire, he’d said, a place of opportunity for all. Kemi Badenoch, his equalities minister, caused a stir when she said that Britain was one of the best countries in the world for black people to live. Why not make that vital point now? Why doesn’t the PM stand up and remind every-one that Britain is among the most successful melting pots in Europe — if not the world? It’s not hard to imagine what Boris the columnist would have been writing in the Daily Telegraph. Why, he’d fume, will no one speak up for Britain?

There are indeed racial disparities in our country. People of Indian heritage earn more than whites, while Bangladeshis earn less. Those of black African descent do well at school, those of black Caribbean descent do less well. The ethnic group least likely to go to university is white British. There is a fascinating discussion to be had, and there are certainly inequalities to be addressed, but Britain is absolutely not a country defined by racial discrimination and the Prime Minister should have said so. Instead, he looks as if the debate terrifies him, and that he would rather stay quiet and let the two sides battle it out. This is cowardly and entirely unnecessary. The case for liberalism is there to be made.

The rise of cancel culture, statue–toppling and no-platforming is spreading far beyond university campuses. If the left is so clearly abandoning the basic idea of tolerance and real diversity, then it’s a gift that ought to be seized with both hands. Yet the lack of direction from No. 10 has seen the rot set in even within his own government. Whitehall officials have discouraged the use of words like ‘blacklist’. There have been serious discussions about renaming the Churchill Room.

Perhaps the trouble is that the Prime Minister is a writer, campaigner and entertainer — but not really a fighter. He dislikes making enemies. He loves to be liked. Critics say he’s a bit too keen to agree with the last person he spoke to. This can lead to contradictory policies and confused messaging. He very much approved of Rishi Sunak’s push to go back to restaurants and the office — but very much sympathises with Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, who is terrified of a second wave. So he goes with both. But the last thing you need in uncertain times is uncertain leadership.

The optimist in Boris Johnson hates delivering Covid bad news — so he tries to leaven his press conferences with cheerful notes, realistic or not. As a result, we’re promised 500,000 tests a day by the end of next month — and never mind if his government is falling at the 230,000 level. We hear of ‘moonshots’ of testing regimes, ‘world-beating’ Covid apps, the world’s finest track-and-trace system. The trouble is that when these promises aren’t met, it leads to disappointment and disillusion. This is far, far worse than the simple bad news would have been.

As things stand, polls show that no country has been judged by its people to have done a worse job at handling the pandemic.

All this, to his enemies, is to be expected. It fits the caricature of Boris the clown, who transplanted his Brexit campaigners into government. Hence the chaos, the critics say. The country is being run by Brexit ideologues. But it’s his supporters who are most surprised, even hurt, by recent events. They see in Boris the potential for an exceptional, gravity-defying politician who could reset politics and run government; someone who could inspire and hire brilliant people, and work with them to enact the agenda of his signature liberal conservatism. So why, they wonder, isn’t this happening?

For a team to sing from the same hymn sheet, there needs to be a hymn sheet. At the moment, there isn’t one. One of the more depressing events of the last few months was Johnson’s June relaunch, a speech in Dudley billed as his great vision of what lay beyond Covid. His answer seemed to be construction spending, dualling the A1 and building a zero-carbon passenger jet. He spoke about his ‘levelling up’ agenda as if he could pick up where he left off. There was no recognition of the damage that lockdown has caused, or how ‘levelling up’ will now mean repairing that damage — in education, the economy and society at large.

Rather than relaunch his premiership, the speech highlighted its main problem: a lack of vision and direction, which is odd from a leader who was elected precisely because he could articulate his vision. Once upon a time, he did this better than anyone. Now he hardly does it at all.

It would be easy for Team Boris to ignore all this. The next general election is four years away, he still leads Labour in the polls, and even with last week’s rebellion his Internal Market Bill still passed with a majority of 77. There is moaning, but no mutiny. And certainly no other contender. The huge majority was won by him, personally. If it wasn’t for him, scores of the disgruntled Tory MPs would simply not be in parliament.

The question now is whether he can become a proper leader with a sense of direction and purpose, or whether the pattern we have seen in recent months — of disorder, debacle, rebellion, U-turn and confusion — is what we should henceforth expect. Johnson still has millions of supporters willing him to succeed, baffled to see this forlorn creature skulking around Westminster. They know that he’s not responsible for the pandemic, but they do require of him a sense of what might lie on the other side of it: some promise for the future.

On the day he was elected party leader, he promised that Britain would, like a slumbering giant, ‘rise and ping off the guy-ropes of self-doubt and negativity’. This is how many of his MPs now think of him: a slumbering leader capable of great things, who must begin to rise.

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