Boris on the brink

The enemies of British PM, Boris Johnson, smell blood in the water.  They should be careful what they wish for.

A report on partying (social not political) in No. 10 Downing St has been delayed while the police consider the case for prosecution for breach of lockdown regulations; there have been five resignations from his inner circle of staff; and he is being roundly pilloried by the great and good for his diversionary attack on the leader of the opposition Keir Starmer.

According to the bookmakers, it’s odds-on that he will be gone by year end.

The media turmoil is short of perspective but rich in irony.

Those familiar with ministerial crisis will recognize that worktime boozing can reflect the all-consuming nature of the job and lack of home time. The phenomenon is not unknown with other frontline personnel.

Add that to Johnson’s outstanding record in challenging excessively cautious (and damaging) professional advice during the Covid pandemic: softening the rigours of lockdown; forcing last year’s great reopening in July; and resisting the Omicron panic at Christmas.  

But it’s hard to escape the feeling that Johnson’s people – and perhaps Johnson himself – will be found guilty of trying to have some fun.

That’s politics for you.  But the outstanding irony is the lack of understanding of what his departure would mean.

The establishment view is well summed up in the Financial Times: the Conservative party needs a “a new leader but also a new belief system” or, in other words, to be more like the Labour party.

One wonders how sustainable that might be.

It’s easy to lose sight of the extent to which dear old Boris is a soft Blairite compromiser, who most wants to be adored.  

He sought the closest possible relationship with the EU consistent with the national sovereignty people voted for.  He powered through one of the world’s most expensive decarbonisation policies (electricity at 67 cents per Kwh).  He raised taxes to a post-second world war record.

But he’s not feeling the love.

Which suggests that we are near the end of the road for the politics of trying to make everyone a little happy.  And the next logical step would be: No more Mr Nice Guy.

What would then happen with a more austere Conservative party government?  One which eschewed the shell game of just one more dash of money here or another splash of policy there.  And instead confronted businesses and workers with incentives and let them do the job (or not as the case may be).

One might see a real commitment to reducing the burden of taxation, particularly on work.  There would be advantage in a simplified, transparent and broad-based tax and welfare reform, which identified and tackled the most egregious special interests.   There is an overwhelming case for sweeping reform of regulation to see what alternatives market forces might throw up in areas like land use, energy, finance and tech.  And for sustained pressure on state spending in light of the deficiencies exposed by the pandemic, whether in public health, education or state media, which would also take the attack to special interest groups innately hostile to the Conservative project.

Such a cheerless undertaking will only get its chance once the failure of orthodoxy is comprehensively understood.  The last time this happened was in the 1970s.

And whether Boris is the man to convince the electorate that the crisis in government is systemic rather than personal, remains to be seen.  

But whoever is running Britain’s government at the end of the year is likely to find that they must choose between organised systematic and justified unpopularity, or ongoing disorganised serial unpopularity.    Because expectations seem finally to have outrun capacity.

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