What won’t Boris Johnson do next? A new political season is about to begin, and the Prime Minister’s agenda is full of choices to postpone and challenges to dodge.
There is always a back-to-school atmosphere in Westminster in the fall, but it will intensify this year with the resumption of parliamentary work not stifled by the Covid restrictions. The recall of MPs for a debate on Afghanistan in mid-August was a reminder that politics missed the volatile energy generated by a supercharged House of Commons.
For Johnson, who received a barrage of reprimands from his own side, it was a lesson in the solubility of the loyalty of Tory MPs. For the party, it was a showcase of their leader’s flaws. On the accusation of not being ready for the fall of Kabul, he looked guilty; his defense lacked seriousness. History struck and the Prime Minister opened the door with teary eyes, slow to grasp what was asked of him.
Johnson has been doing the job for two years, but still seems surprised by the constant harassment of events. Meanwhile, Conservative MPs are still surprised when their leader fails a leadership test, as if they’ve never met him before and his disapproved streak has been a secret.
In fairness, neither Johnson nor his party could have predicted the intensity of government in the event of a pandemic. It’s no surprise that he looks exhausted, and it’s not unreasonable that he’s spending a few days in the West Country before Parliament resumes. (Number 10 insists that the work will always be done remotely.)
Downing Street then hopes to open a new chapter in history, where the great works delayed by Covid can be recounted.
The Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow in November gives Johnson a global platform to show leadership on an issue of historic significance. There is a clear link with the national goal of “leveling up”. To undo the ravages of the pandemic, Britain will “rebuild greener”.
Johnson’s skills comfortably extend to speech writing which makes that sound easy. As the first Lord of the Treasury, he can also order a wad of public money to back up rhetoric.
If there were just two steps to building effective government – making promises and writing checks – Johnson would be well on your way to the transformational legacy he dreams of. But there are more longer strides, which get harder to do because they go up and the path isn’t lined with cheering fans. This is usually where the Prime Minister’s attention fades.
As Downing Street dreams of fireworks to dazzle crowds, Rishi Sunak worries about the price of gunpowder. The economic recovery has so far outperformed the bleakest forecasts, but the path is uncertain. Britain also has a deficit of around £ 300bn, a full spending review slated for the fall and a chancellor who frowns on borrowing to maintain public services.
It is a recipe for tensions on several axes, as ministers resist cuts in their departments and MPs back down from tax increases (especially those that violate manifesto promises). Political disputes will escalate into public bickering and information wars, made more poisoned by two of Johnson’s chaotic management techniques. One makes worthless promises in private, agrees with whoever pleads in the room just to end embarrassing conversations. Johnson is happy to let someone down, but rarely in the face. The other is to make decisions through a process of attrition, letting the underlings fight and hoping that the passage of time will narrow down the options until a viable path, perhaps the only one that remainder, be clear.
If the prime minister’s grip seems weak and the public mood is sour, the parade of cabinet dissent will turn into a first-round contest of potential successors. It won’t be because the incumbent president is about to fall, but because in the Conservative Party all it takes to spark speculation from the leaders is a fleeting reminder that they all do eventually fall.
Even if Sunak strives to make himself as boring as possible, this effort will be discussed in the House of Commons and received from the paranoid and brooding side of Johnson, as a clever plan to herald the contrast between the two men – boring being the code. for reliable in an emergency.
There will certainly be some sort of urgency, for that is the character of the times, and if things turn out right, Johnson’s careless style of government will disrupt them again soon enough. He already seems to be done with the pandemic before the pandemic is over with Britain. The vaccines eased the burden on the NHS, but failed to confer immunity to seizures once seasonal pressures intensified and the backlog of deferred treatments still needs to be resolved.
It’s a predictable challenge. There will also be surprises, requiring a quick reaction and executive skills backed by a strong cabinet. Without those conditions, it doesn’t matter what the Prime Minister thinks his agenda should be. He can choose what to talk about in the fall and persuade certain audiences that he really means it. But his powers almost run out as soon as the applause stops. This is not a problem in election campaigns, where success can be measured by satisfied crowds. But it is disastrous in government, where decisions have to be made for another purpose. The Prime Minister knows he needs such a lens, but not what it feels like to have one.
The pandemic has been an exceptional event that would challenge any leader, but it is not the freakness of the crisis that is causing Johnson’s difficulties. He struggles because the way he does his job makes crisis the norm.