Last week I spoke to a Minister who told me about the confusion and contradiction that, according to his account, is starting to spread like a political coronavirus through Boris Johnson’s administration.
‘I think the problem is that they had a clear plan to win the Election and get Brexit done,’ he said. ‘But now that’s been achieved, they’re struggling to define how to move forward.’
Which was a polite way of saying what has seemed increasingly obvious to many in Westminster. Having secured a decisive 80-seat mandate from the electorate, Boris and his team don’t know what to do with it.
Last week they were pointing everyone to a half-empty Commons chamber, as Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans formally announced the passage of the Brexit Withdrawal Bill into law.
Dan Hodges on why some Ministers are asking whether Boris Johnson has a clue what to do next. Boris is pictured signing the official European Union Withdrawal Agreement Act
It was greeted with some choreographed cheers from the Tory benches. But no one was fooled. Brexit ‘got done’ by the British people on December 12. And since then, the Government has been in a state of suspended animation.
No clear line on Iran. Uncertainty and continued Cabinet infighting over Huawei. Chaotic briefing and counter-briefing over HS2. Most tellingly of all, little, 45 days in, that even resembles a coherent strategy or vision for the country.
Another Minister painted the following picture: ‘Everything’s just being left to pile up. We had no coherent Iran response for days. We’ve got HS2, another rail report, 5G, something on education, the Budget and nothing’s being decided.’
To understand why this chaos is emerging, it helps to remember something lost in the drama of Election night. Confusion has lurked amid the Johnson administration since day one.
The idea of the Downing Street Grand Strategy was always a myth. Remember what we were told the masterplan was? Boris had learned the lesson of Theresa May’s reckless Election gamble. What was needed was someone who would stare down Brussels, Parliament and the rest of the British Establishment, and drive Brexit through on pain of a No Deal departure.
Jeremy Corbyn then committed hara-kiri by agreeing to override the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and the rest is history
What actually happened was Parliament outmanoeuvred him, the courts outfoxed him and Brussels stood firm. Boris was left with no option but throw his DUP partners out of the balloon and cut a deal with Leo Varadkar.
Jeremy Corbyn then committed hara-kiri by agreeing to override the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and the rest is history. Which doesn’t mean Boris doesn’t have qualities besides winning elections – he has many of them. But again, we have to remember what they are. Or, more importantly, what we were told they were when he secured the leadership of his party.
We were promised the antithesis of the dour administrator Theresa May. Boris was fizzing with energy and ideas. He had the hunger and charisma to drive the Government forward. Like his hero Winston Churchill, he would lead from the front, vanquish the naysayers, and march the nation heroically into the roaring 20s. Yet where are we this morning?
We are told he is minded to rubber-stamp Mrs May’s decision to grant Chinese access to the 5G network, despite shrill US objections. Or he may not. He may axe one of the largest infrastructure projects in British history into which billions have already been sunk. Or he may not. But in any case, according to his officials, whatever is decided, we should not expect to see too much of him over the coming months. His role is not going to be that of a traditional Prime Minister, or even a traditional Cabinet Minister, but more a chairman of the board.
Ask Ministers and officials where the Government’s dynamism and direction will be coming from over the next five years, and you’re met with a shrug. Some point to Michael Gove and what they claim may be a formal or de-facto elevation to the role of Deputy Prime Minister. Others identify Munira Mirza, director of the No 10 policy unit, who has been framed as a firecracker of New Conservatism. But that was also her framing in advance of the publication of the Tory Election manifesto, which turned out to be notable solely for its timidity.
We were promised the antithesis of the dour administrator Theresa May (pictured announcing her resignation)
The name that crops up most frequently is Dominic Cummings, the PM’s ragged-shirted svengali. But his obsession seems to be internal reform of Whitehall, the BBC and the parliamentary press lobby.
All of which may be perfectly worthy. But when I was out on the stump in Bolsover and Bishop Auckland during the Election campaign, people seemed more concerned about crime, hospitals and schools, rather than the disparity between the number of Civil Service science and arts graduates.
One striking example of the dysfunctionality this leadership vacuum is creating is provided by the current chaos over HS2. Boris, who developed a love of ‘high-vis politics’ during his time as London Mayor, is said to favour the project. But key members of his team don’t. So Tory MPs are now receiving calls from No 10 officials ordering them to come to Downing Street to lobby against the scheme. ‘It’s nuts. We’re being told by No 10 to demand to come into No 10 to lobby No 10,’ one backbencher told me.
One striking example of the dysfunctionality this leadership vacuum is creating is provided by the current chaos over HS2
Another is the confusion over the Huawei contract. ‘Everyone is being told our No1 priority is securing that US trade deal,’ says one Minister, ‘and then we’re being told to sign off on Huawei, which is going to p*** off the Americans.’
Some of this turmoil is the inevitable consequence of any change of leadership mid-government. Tony Blair and David Cameron had years to map out in minute detail their first 100 days’ strategy.
Boris and his team had about three weeks between the disastrous local election results that sealed Theresa May’s fate and the announcement of her resignation, which effectively triggered the start of the Tory leadership race.
Another major factor is the identity crisis that has beset Boris since the moment he embraced Brexit and began to position himself for the leadership. As one ally said to me: ‘The reality is he’s a liberal, modernising, One Nation Conservative. People can try to pin whatever they want on him, but that’s who he was as Mayor of London because that’s who the real Boris is.’
But Brexit and the destruction of Labour’s Red Wall were not the product of modern liberalism – they were a brutal repudiation of it. And it’s clear that, unlike Thatcher or Blair, Boris has no ideological GPS to guide him. The master opportunist of British politics is being forced to make things up as he goes along.
Another is the confusion over the Huawei contract. ‘Everyone is being told our No1 priority is securing that US trade deal,’ says one Minister, ‘and then we’re being told to sign off on Huawei, which is going to p*** off the Americans’
Which can have its benefits. Not being weighed down by an ideological straitjacket gives more flexibility to avoid elephant traps and react to events.
And as Sir Keir Starmer continues to position himself as Corbyn with a haircut, there is little evidence that Boris faces a serious challenge from Labour.
But without some sort of framework for how he is to govern, he is quickly going to find himself at the mercy of events. The narrative No 10 is trying to construct is of Boris as some sort of father-of- the-nation figure, stepping in only when required to lay a calming hand on a troublesome issue, or give paternalistic guidance to wayward or squabbling Ministers.
But the danger is he actually becomes the nation’s Baldrick, lurching from one ‘cunning plan’ to another as he belatedly and desperately reacts to the latest crisis.
Boris was elected by the Tory Party to win the Election and get Brexit done. He’s done that brilliantly. His job now is to demonstrate he has some idea about what to do next.