It is hard to believe that the general election was only a few months ago. It feels that we are witnessing the slow decay of an era. The gradual decline and fall of an empire riddled with venality, incompetence, cronyism and a whiff of corruption. A government that is limping from crisis to crisis, incompetence to incompetence, scandal to scandal. The rules of political physics have changed. Let me speculate for a moment. What would Margaret Thatcher have thought of all of this? How would she have dealt with some of the problems that have come across Boris Johnson’s desk?
Prime Minister your chief advisor has broken lockdown.
“Really, doesn’t he understand that all of us must be like Caesar’s wife, ABOVE suspicion? The public do NOT like ministers and their advisors to say one thing and do another. What is his excuse”?
When told about the drive to Barnard’s Castle for a sight test there would have been a brief silence, a flash of those deep blue eyes, the threat of a lecture, the beginnings of a raised voice, then a shake of the head and a menacing lower register, “it just won’t do. He has to go”.
‘Prime Minister your housing minister as approved a planning permission against the advice of officials’.
“Well, advisors advise and ministers decide. I don’t see the problem”.
‘Unfortunately the property developer avoided paying several million pounds to one of the poorest boroughs in London’.
‘He is a Tory donor. He sat next to the minister at a fundraiser and was shown a video of the proposed development. They kept in.....’
“He did WHAT? Don’t you know how this looks? How it will be played by the press? How we will be tarnished. The young fool. I want his resignation by the hour. And get Bernard to have a word with David English and Kelvin Mackenzie before this is made public”.
‘Prime Minister I fear that the Home Secretary has committed herself to a policy which will not go down well with our grass roots’.
The lacquered helmet of her hair would have jerked upwards. “Explain”.
‘Well, you know how much we value our health workers?’
“Of course, get on with it”.
‘The Home Secretary has made it clear that overseas health workers will not be guaranteed a right to stay in the UK’.
There would be a shake of her head and a return to her paperwork.
“Tell her to think again”.
And that is leadership. Look at a problem, appreciate the political consequences and decide how to make the best out of a bad situation. Even if it means sacrificing your political friends and soul mates. Cecil Parkinson and Nicholas Ridley to name but two.
It is said that Boris Johnson acts as chairman of the board. Really? If the UK was a public company he would have been sacked months ago. We are promised that he ‘will take back control’, ‘get a grip’, ‘personally intervene’. The trouble is when he does personally intervene it tends to make the problem worse. Careless talk about shaking hands with Covid patients. ‘Independence day’. Hope that ‘it will nearly be over by Christmas’. But when things really get bad, there is a curt, ‘the matter is closed”. Not a thought of how this plays with the public.
There is only one way to get on in this government that doesn’t appear terribly interested in actually governing and that is to be a loyal supporter of the PM and an unflinching, unbending Brexiteer. We are run by an Arselickocracy.
I fully understand that that the machinery of government is not always fit for purpose and that Cummings is right to try and transform it into a fine tuned engine of policy delivery. This has been an aspiration of every government in living memory.......
The trouble is that Cummings and his superforcasting peculiars can sit before banks of a Star Wars style IT flashing up to the minute data until the cows come home. But unless someone, somewhere in government understands the consequences of decisions it is a total waste of time and money. Call me old fashioned but this is called politics. And there is precious little of it in this regime. ‘Ah’, say the clever clogs, ‘what we need is a grey beard in Number 10 to be an early warning system for trouble’. Nonsense. What we need are ministers who can sniff out a potential catastrophe. It really isn’t that difficult.
Does it really need a greybeard to warn Matt Hancock that announcing that a world beating track and trace will be up and running on a particular date is not a good idea if the goods can’t be delivered? Does it need a greybeard to to warn Gavin Williamson that when the National Statistics Society, the Education Select Committee and senior civil servants flag up that the algorithm designed to sort out grades is a turkey it would be a good idea to think again? Of course not.
There is a depressing pattern. The government makes a policy announcement. Most people see it to be crazy and unpopular. It is attacked in the press for being crazy and unpopular.Back benchers begin to panic as their constituents tell them that it is crazy and unpopular. Ministers hold the line. The whips instruct the troops in generic lines to take. There is then a U turn. Then there is a blame game set of briefings. Firstly, the incompetence of the body. Then the fitness for purpose of whoever runs that body. Then a sideswipe at the permanent secretary. Then an inquiry is promised. And these are for the obvious known unknowns. It appears that nobody has even considered the unknown unknowns. Oh, and a warning about the bloody obvious. The new planning policy as it stands is a turkey destined to really, really, piss off the Tory grass roots. And the inevitable but unnecessary curtailment of jury trials is going to cause a furore. There, it’s not difficult is it.
Winter is coming. There could be a nasty bout of flu. There could be a second corona virus spike. There could be a No Deal Brexit. If what I read in the newspapers is accurate this perfect storm is at least being war gamed. Good.
But what about the politics? Johnson doesn’t understand the Commons because he has never bothered with it. Prime Ministers who have spent their lives working the bars and the tea rooms often forget that a pat on the back, a few well chosen words of flattery, the pretence of being interested in the most cranky views of the Parliamentary bore, is gold dust. It allows Colonel Sir Wankling-Madde to dine out on, ‘as only I was saying to the Prime Minister last week...’
It’s a ghastly experience our great statesmen to mix with those who support them on the back benchers. But very, very necessary. Margaret Thatcher was a master at it. Every week a chair would be laid forward, like a German’s towel on a recliner, in the Members’ Dining Room. You knew that backbenchers were going to be rounded up for dinner with her. You knew that if her PPS, Michael Allinson (a kind, decent, and rather shy man), was standing at his place in the library pretending to read the newspapers, it was a sign that a few backbenchers would be asked to go for drinks at Number 10. Of course, it was all bullshit. But good bullshit and even better politics.
Until Boris Johnson makes an effort to understand how parliamentarians tick and at least feign an interest in them, he will Eventually be mortally wounded. Not now. Not for a while. But in time.