It is now time for my annual lecture on the pointless irrelevance of the silly season sport of predicting who will be promoted and who will be parliamentary roadkill in the ‘forthcoming’ reshuffle. Dear readers they are total bollocks dreamt up in pubs and bars by journalists who have to fill column inches when the news desk has run out of surfboarding ferrets and glamorous grannies who have been ditched by their eighteen year old paramours from The Gambia. “He promised me love and the next thing I knew all my life savings had been invested in a failed business venture. I have never seen him again since that fateful trip to the Surbiton Nat West”. Her grand daughter, Chardonnay, an aspiring glamour model and sanitaryware influencer on Instagram is devastated. “My Nan is a very trusting lady. How was she to know that there are no gold mines in Croydon? I blame that Boris Johnson and Brexit”.
Johnson is in a bit of a pickle. Although his party’s ratings are beginning to look respectable, his own are heading south. To just be just ahead of Gavin Williamson and Robert Jenryk in the Conservative Home activist polls must be about as welcome as a rat sandwich. As a general rule of thumb Tory party leaders become unpopular with backbenchers who feel that their seats are at risk but
they still tend to have strong support amongst the activists. When, with a large majority, Margaret Thatcher was being plotted against and finally defenestrated, the party faithful still loved her. Johnson is in the middle of the perfect storm. He doesn’t seem to ‘get’ politics. His crass remarks in Scotland about Thatcher being in the vanguard of the green revolution by closing the pits was both inaccurate and offensive to those in red wall seats who still pick at the scabs of broken communities and divided families. Backbenchers have a genuine sense of dread of what he might let slip during an election campaign. In the last election he hid from scrutiny because party managers knew he would be a liability. He won’t get away with that again.
The only weapon that Johnson has at his disposal is fear. The threat of political executions is very often a potent means of control. But it doesn’t lead to real loyalty, which in politics is usually skin deep. And he doesn’t represent an ‘ism’ to which people can fall behind. He’s a chancer who is ambling down the street to the Last Chance Saloon. The trouble with reshuffles is that the threat is often more effective than the act. When Harold Macmillan sacked a third of his cabinet in 1962 he was gone by the autumn. The trouble is that Johnson is terrified of culling. It is said that he hates conflict and agonises about reshuffling. It makes him look weak. Which he is. We are now told that there may be a reshuffle in the new year. I won’t hold my breath. If he had any balls he’d do it just before party conference. It would spare ministers’ embarrassment and would dominate the news. And make him look as if he is in charge for a while.
Yet, like everything at Number 10, Johnson has the knack of turning a crisis into a catastrophe. To publicly (a meeting of more than 5 is bound to leak even if it wasn’t designed to) threaten Sunak with demotion for ‘that letter’ showed the PM to be weak and frightened. Sunak would hardly be quaking in his boots. Having him on the backbenches would be kryptonite. Oh, and if you think that everything Rishi does or says appears to have been perfectly curated by a team of highly efficient image consultants you would be correct, because it is. This is a man who knows how to play the game.
The really, really stupid thing is that there is talent in the wings. Gove could easily replace Patel as Home Secretary. Nadhim Zahawi deserves a promotion to Cabinet and Kwasi Kwartang, seems to have learned both humility (well, a bit) and how to run a department. And what about Victoria Atkins? Quietly competent and tipped more times than Red Rum.
And then there is the interesting piece in the Times about Kemi Badenoch being mooted to ventilate Williamson from Education. I am always suspicious of these kite flying puff pieces, particularly when the byline is not from the political team. This was written by newly minted Home Affairs editor Matt Dathan rather than that journo destined for great things, the talented Henry Zeffman who was on duty yesterday. But Dathan, the former deputy political editor of the SUN unusually names his sources, Dougie Smith and Munira Mirza. They are married and both work at Number 10, with Mirza, as head of of the Policy Unit, is considered to be a rock of sanity in a sea of incompetence. More important, they are both FOC, Friends of Carrie. Well, I hope Kemi makes it. She is rather good news. But that piece has made her enemies and there will be dirty tricks afoot, particularly from Williamson. Gavin old son, some advice. All former Chief Whips go to the Lords to buy their silence. Don’t devalue the currency and blow it. Bow out with dignity and swear undying allegiance to….well, whoever is in charge.
Which brings me back to Rishi. Johnson has made two powerful enemies of the Saj and Sunak. They are not stupid people. They will bide their time with a smile and the veneer of devoted loyalty. And then they will strike.
So when Johnson finally kicks open the swing doors at the Last Chance Saloon, the Party might just come to the realisation that they’ve had enough the cowboy and it’s now time for the Indian.