Way back in 1994 I remember introducing Tony Blair to a group of Tory activists in the Commons. He was in a bit of a hurry as he was running (well, more of a jog really) for the leadership. He paused for a moment and switched on the charm. I thought that two ladies of a certain age were going to faint. One grabbed him by the hand, quivering, “well, I hope you don’t win the leadership Mr Blair”.
“Why not,” he grinned.
“Because you will win the general election”.
But one smile and a brief handshake had won them over. And the fact that he bothered to stop and be friendly to a bunch of Tories made a difference. Deep down they were unafraid of what he might do to the country as prime minister. He may not be a friend but he was not an enemy. And he could damp gusset an audience with one smile.
I am sure, deep down, Tory high command realised they faced a serious problem. John Major certainly did. His party was in chaos because of the Eurosceptics as they then were. Brexiteers were to crawl from the primal swamp many years later, first as fish who could crawl onto dry land. Then gradually evolve from the full swept back forehead of Homo Francois to Homo Boris Erectus. But the clear message is simple. The electorate will vote for the leader they are least afraid of. And they were terrified of Corbyn.
What has really surprised me is a recent opinion poll from Sky showing that amongst the Labour membership, not affiliates, Keir Starmer is edging ahead of the continuity candidates for the leadership. There is a very long way to go and anything can happen. Don’t under estimate the primal hatreds of the Corbynistas. In their lexicology Blairites are evil, but the Tories are subhuman. And don’t under estimate the organisational power of Momentum.
There is another poll which should send a shudder through Labour high command, from Conservative Home. The most feared candidate by the Tory grass roots is Keir Starmer. He is bright, he is moderate, he is decent, he is lethal at the despatch box. His problem is that he is a bit of a charisma free zone. But at least he masters his briefs and could give BJ a run for his money at PMQs. His danger is that he just might make the electorate unafraid of voting Labour.
All this is a long way off. In the meantime Johnson has been sensibly conciliatory. He has 109 new members who were parachuted onto the magic carpet simply because of him. They will be constantly reminded that they owe him a debt of gratitude. And they do. I doubt that there will be Tory rebellions of any consequence in this Parliament.
So Johnson has to hit the ground running as his next big test will be the local elections in May. So he has to give the impression of dynamic radicalism. The Disneyland of defence procurement is high on the agenda. Sadly, it always is. Thatcher realised this in 1979 and appointed Lord Levy to sort it out. He did an effective job in holding contractors to account, but then it all became rather electorally boring and the MOD went back to its old ways The trouble with procurement is that the Treasury finds itself fighting arguments between the military egos ten years back. Do we spend money on large battle platforms that can be sunk or do we invest in more submarines not just to protect the carriers? Do we spend more on tank killing helicopters or fast jets? Or do we have a mix? What is the nature of the threats to our security and what should our capability be? It has taken a few years to realise that the enormous spending on two carriers was not the best use of resources. But before we can reform we better have a look at what has been planned, whether we have reached the point of no return financially and what is the relevance to our perceived threats. It must be done, but it won’t be easy. There will be a lot of anguished briefings from admirals and generals. There must be a strong political lead.
I wonder how long it will be before there is a very public miscarriage of justice to make the public wake up to the reality that the whole system isn’t fit for purpose. Crime is rising but courts are closing. It’s all very well promoting rather silly but popular policies about giving the courts powers to increase sentences (which already exist) if the police put even the most serious of cases on the back burner for months. Robert Buckland is a good man and ‘gets it’, he is going to have to make a powerful case to the Treasury.
So now we look forward to reshuffle fever. Well, it’s a fever for those who are nervous and those who are ambitious. Firstly, don’t believe a word you read in the press. Nobody knows. But newspapers have to be filled. SPADS will be briefing for their masters and children at Number 10 love to speculate. And as this is the most unpredictable government in modern times it is going to be difficult to read the runes. Obviously, loyalty will be rewarded. Expect a big heavy lifting job for Gove probably running the trade negotiations with the EU. Best not to have him on the telly too much. He is far too smooth and far too clever. He could argue with great plausibility and passion about putting to the sword the first born male child. To be supported by a cameo appearance of Mogg quoting biblical precedent. And here lies a problem. How does Johnson get rid of the crazies?
Raab will stay, but only for a while, as officials I have spoken to at the FCO regard him as rather dim. He is not too dangerous though. Best keep him off the telly. The rictus death head grimace makes a smile from Gordon Brown and Pope Benedict seem warm and inviting. The Saj is deservedly safe. He knows what he is doing and officials like him. Promotion must be round the corner for Brandon Lewis who looks and sounds human on the media. A safe pair of hands. He could easily replace Priti Patel who is electoral poison. And keep a look out for Rishi Sunak who may be so wooden that you have to creosote him, but is well regarded at the Treasury. And Alok Sharma is a man to be watched. In a nice way. He is rather good news.
Mogg is a tricky one. More electoral curare and would go down like a whippet sandwich in the north. Everyone is signed up to the Johnson Euro plan so he in unlikely to be a problem. But maybe be he will stay a little longer. Although God knows why. Give him a K and let him spend more time with his money.
Williamson though sheer guile and deft footwork will stay. For a while. Then you have to look at those well past their sell by date. Truss, Leadsom, Villiers, MacVey (dear God) and a few of the jestsom and flotsam. And Matt Hancock? Oh, after a team of sniffer dogs have removed his head from the Johnson rectum he’ll probably be there for a little longer. One more toddler on the floor though and he’ll be off.
What will be interesting is that most prime ministers hate the carnage of a reshuffle. Johnson is ruthless enough to regard it as a sport. The night of the long knives may prove to be like Titus Andronicus without the laughs.