Boris: right idea, wrong execution

A week ago we wrote about the British PM’s move to check an out-of-control Parliamentary watchdog.  It ended in a populist revolt and he sacrificed a former minister, Owen Paterson, to the mob.

This seems to have worked as well for him as it did for Charles II.  One of his Tory predecessors, Sir John Major, broke the first rule of party loyalty by branding the government “politically corrupt”.  And the opposition started baying for the head of former attorney general Sir Geoffrey Cox because, as a backbench MP, he had also worked as a barrister and had committed such heinous offences as missing the deadline to register his earnings.  

It is no doubt a coincidence that Cox and Paterson are prominent Brexiteers (and Major a committed EU Remainer)

Boris knows his Shakespeare and is doubtless aware that sorrows come in battalions, but even he might have been surprised by the abrupt change in marching order.

A few weeks ago he seemed to be rolling down the middle of the road, his party rallied by astute positioning on Brexit and Covid.

Now the loyalist Daily Telegraph is permitting itself headlines such as:

This feckless Tory Government has charted a course to absolute failure”

And 

“Time is running out to end the drift, and prove to Conservatives there is a point to this administration”.

Is this a tipping point?  And if so, why?

Well, the previous political calculus was finely balanced and there has been a slew of shocks.

First, the economy and the workforce are emerging from a lockdown mentality into a more difficult world.  Secondly, the government signalled its big-spending intentions by ramming through one of the largest postwar tax increases.  Thirdly, the conjunction of an energy crisis with Boris’s championship of the COP26 climate carnival has firmly identified his government with a painfully expensive carbon transition.

There’s another thing too – a geekish concern that is in fact rather important.  For some time, there’s been whispering around Whitehall that Boris and company don’t have that strong an attachment to incentives and markets, and really do think that you just need to pass a rule to get something done.  

The jury is still out on this proposition, but the quantum of negative evidence has increased sharply in recent weeks.

Perhaps there are also some more personal factors at work in this seeming-unpredictability? In the last two years, the free-spirited Boris has been confined to the No. 10 fishbowl, swapped friends and advisors, had a near-death experience, lost a much-loved parent and started a second family.  That could change anyone.

Whatever the psychology, the more ideological (or should that be logical) members of the Conservative party find themselves agreeing with Allister Heath in the Daily Telegraph:

“When I then ask … what they think the purpose of the Government is, they look at me with incomprehension, chant their “levelling up” mantra or assure me that things would be even worse under Labour. The latter is right, of course, but hardly a ringing endorsement.”

Perhaps things do need to get worse before they get better.

Winston Churchill is another one of Boris’s heroes.  He opined that you could always rely on people to do the right thing. 

After exhausting all the other possibilities, that is.

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