The partygate farce drags on. Do we have a government, sustained by a dominant political party or do we have an ill-run children’s playground? The PM has suffered a humiliating loss of authority, which is surely irreversible. He is no longer the First Lord of the Treasury. He has become the first laughing-stock of state.
In one respect, Boris Johnson was always an improbable Prime Minister. From Attlee onwards, all post-war premiers could have claimed to be serious people. History might question whether that was really true of Harold Wilson or Tony Blair but at various stages they both dominated British politics. At least for a season, to use a phrase of Joe Chamberlain’s, they made the weather.
That was never true of Boris, for one overriding reason. He never seemed to take himself seriously. Indeed, he often seemed surprised that so many people bought his act. This is a very hard man to read, for there is a constant disjunction between the bumbling, goofish exterior and the inner man, a much more complex, ruthless and insecure character.
There is one bridge across the schizoid divide, which is why he became Prime Minister: driving ambition fuelled by animal energy. David Cameron recognised this and thought that it would help Bojo reach No. 10. That assessment has a piquancy. Boris was so determined partly because he was jealous of Mr Cameron. He almost took it as an insult that a younger schoolfellow should have got there first.
So he reached the top of the greasy pole, a phrase of Disraeli, the premier whom Boris most closely resembles. Disraeli won his overall majority after years of frustration. Boris had a quicker route. But when they got to Downing Street, neither man had a programme. They had sought power. They won it. Then neither of them knew what to do with it.
For most of the time, Disraeli was happy to be a non-executive chairman. He was drawn by glamour: the Queen becoming Empress of India. He also liked grand projects: the purchase of the Suez Canal. But he was not interested in the detail of domestic government. Regularly falling asleep during cabinet meetings, he responded with benign indifference as other ministers pursued their agendas.
Boris would not have done that. The praise, the limelight: that was all for him. He has never been at ease with strong ministers, partly through envy, because they had skills which he lacked, and partly through fear that a successful colleague would automatically become a rival. As he himself does not possess a sub-atomic particle of loyalty in his entire being, he cannot conceive that others might.
He could try to claim that bad luck – the pandemic – was responsible for much of his misfortune. But PMs are there to cope with anything that events fling at them. They need to be able to exert grip. The vaccination programme apart, there was no grip. Boris should have appointed a senior minister to supervise all the non-Covid aspects of domestic policy, so that there was no loss of momentum. He failed to do so. There was no momentum.
Instead, there were misjudgements and lies. As one of Boris’s schoolmasters observed, he never accepted that the rules which applied to others also applied to him. As for truth, in public and in private, Boris has always believed that the truth was what he needed it to be. At times, Tony Blair displayed similar traits. But he was even better than Boris is at convincing himself that he was telling the truth.
I once made that point to Norman Tebbitt in a TV debate, claiming that the then Mr Blair did not think of himself as dealing in falsehoods. As so often, Norman cut to the nub of the issue. ‘That’s too high-falutin’ for me, Bruce. In my book, a liar is a man who tells lies.’
That brings us to the Gray report. If – a very big if – Sue Gray does not prove that Boris lied to parliament, the House of Commons should feel flattered. It would be the one body to which he did not tell lies. The probability is that Ms Gray will not proclaim a verdict. But she will set out the facts that lead to a verdict: a guilty one.
Some Tory MPs seem inclined to think of May rather than Gray and want Bojo to fight the May local elections. If there is a massacre, as expected, then it might be easier to mobilise a large majority against him.
But that would not only be unfair to the Tory candidates who would be punished for their leader’s misdeeds. It would condemn the party to months of ridicule, during which all the opposition parties would revel in the fun of trashing the Tory party’s reputation.
This is no way to govern a country. At home, there are serious economic problems. We urgently need growth; we urgently do not need inflation, which could well lead to stagflation. How can the government steer a course through those difficulties? Does anyone still have confidence in our Prime Minister’s judgment?
Abroad, the world has never been so unstable. There are dangers on every side. In foreign affairs, the UK has usually managed to punch above its weight. Given Mr Biden’s weakness, that is more necessary than ever. Although the US will always be a superpower, despite Biden and despite Trump, Britain could only be taken seriously if we had a serious prime minister. Does anyone believe that this could apply to Boris?
This weekend – such is the vigour of the ear-bashing which they will receive – most Tory MPs will be in danger of contracting tinnitus. Their constituents are fed up with rule-breaking, lying and frivolity. Most of them believe that the country deserves better. If the Tories cannot provide that, many voters will look elsewhere.
Keir Starmer has a certain wooden decency. No one could accuse him of failing to take life seriously, and he gives the impression of competence. If the current mess continues, the Tory brand will be tainted, and the Tories would have only themselves to blame. Tories have always claimed that they are the only party which can be trusted to govern in the national interest. As long as Boris is Prime Minister, they would have to content themselves with another, lesser claim: that they do know how to run a piss-up in the garden of No. 10.
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