Boris Johnson’s First Year in the Job Has Revealed a Man Totally Unfit for High Office
The qualities that served him well in his staggering election victory in 2019 are the same qualities that make him unfit for the task of governing in the current crisis
It’s often said that political leaders should ‘campaign in poetry and govern in prose.’ A pithy reminder that the qualities that might serve a Prime Minister well when campaigning for office are not the same qualities that lead to a successful government. Theresa May and Gordon Brown knew how to govern but were woeful campaigners, Cameron and Blair excelled at both. By contrast, Boris Johnson is a Prime Minster who is never more comfortable than when campaigning, because the art of electioneering entails painting a picture for the electorate in broad brush strokes — something Johnson excels at. Governing, however, requires detail, and it is this modality that Johnson lacks.
Boris Johnson inherited an unenviable situation when he became Prime Minister. Under May, the government had suffered 33 defeats in the House of Commons, including the largest and the third largest ever recorded. The government’s repeated failure to pass a Withdrawal Agreement to take Britain out of the EU was a humiliating shambles. The Conservative Party were in open civil war, with remainer Conservative MPs allying themselves with the opposition in order to inflict defeats on the government. The rebels even took control of the order paper in order to delay and frustrate Brexit and to pass Bills — something that is usually the prerogative of the government. When Johnson became Prime Minister he knew that he was inheriting the aftermath of a referendum that had already destroyed two Prime Ministers and must have wondered if he would be the third.
But Johnson excelled in this first phase of leadership and rose to the challenge of high office, taking on his own MPs, Parliament and even the Supreme Court in order that he could go to the country in December arguing that he needed a majority to deliver Brexit against the wishes of the Remain establishment. In the election he was bombastic and ebullient, dismissing the concerns of the ‘doomsters and the gloomsters’ over Brexit and promising that his government would be different. He repudiated both of his predecessors, promising to ‘Get Brexit Done’ where May had failed and promising that the age of austerity under Cameron was well and truly over. Instead, he would ‘level up’ the country with investment in areas of the country neglected by previous governments.
The result was something both of his predecessors had failed to achieve — a decisive majority of 80. His party had increased the Conservative share of the vote for the sixth election in a row, forging an electoral coalition that led to the toppling of Labour strongholds in the north of England. The Labour Party were utterly humiliated and it seemed, at this moment of victory, that there was now a real possibility that that the country was entering a new era of Conservative hegemony that would leave Labour out of power for another decade. It was an astonishing result and an astonishing achievement. After a long period in office governments are usually punished by the electorate. But Johnson had managed to give the Conservative Party a fresh lick of paint in a matter of months, winning over people who lent their vote to the Conservative Party for the first time in their lives, thereby presenting whomever would replace Jeremy Corbyn with an electoral mountain to climb to win in 2024.
After winning the election, there was a brief honeymoon period for Johnson, but it wouldn’t last long. Even as his government celebrated leaving the European Union on 31st January 2020 the coronavirus may have already been present in the UK. It was this crisis that would be his new administration’s first real test and it was a test they would decisively fail.
As the virus took root in the UK, the Prime Minister was distracted. He was in the middle of securing a divorce so that he could announce his engagement with Carrie Symonds who was pregnant with their first child. In this period he would miss five consecutive Cobra meetings on the threat posed by COVID-19 and would only chair his first meeting on March 2nd, just one day before a Sage meeting would be presented with evidence that failing to lockdown could lead to 250,000 deaths. There followed 22 further days of dither and delay before a full lockdown was finally announced on 23rd March. An unacceptable failure that lead to Britain being amongst the world leaders in the scale of the tragedy inflicted by the virus.
The crisis revealed a man who lacks attention to detail, who was absent at key moments, who ignored early warning signs about the scale of the crisis, who put off making key decisions and who delegated the running of the government to such an extent that, when he was hospitalised with COVID-19, an adviser commented that “I think, actually, the quality of decision-making was better, because there was more of a process in meetings.” David Cameron was often unfairly described as the ‘essay crisis Prime Minister,’ but Johnson was revealed to be a man who was so slovenly in office that at times there would appear to be an almost complete absence at the centre of government. A Boris-shaped hole existed where the Prime Minister should have been standing.
Writing in the Times today, Anthony Seldon argues that “the 55th Prime Minister could well surprise us.” This seems far too tentative a judgement when it’s already evident that the Prime Minister has faced the biggest test he is likely to face in office and failed. What the country needs at the moment is what it had in Theresa May — a diligent workhorse, who was serious about the business of government and who realised that the task of being Prime Minister is often a boring slog through mounds of papers in order to get on top of the detail. What it has in Boris Johnson is a hubristic dilettante, whose passion for high office was not driven by a desire for a life of public service, but by a sense of his own self-importance.
It was all there for us to see in the Conservative Manifesto in 2019. At the time I had thought the lack of detail in the document was a political masterstroke, which would allow Johnson to campaign without being pinned down on the detail as May had in 2017 with the ‘dementia tax.’ What I fear now is that it was an early warning sign of what was to come. Boris Johnson is the best campaigning Prime Minister since Blair, but the reckless abandon that helped him to win in 2019 is exactly the quality that has doomed his premiership. The next test of his leadership will be dealing with the economic crisis and with the final stage of the Brexit process. His failure in office so far reveals that he is not up to the job. The Conservative Party should replace him before the electorate are able to. If they don’t do so, it may well be the Conservative Party who doom themselves to another long spell in the wilderness.