Was I wrong about Boris Johnson?

17 August 2019

4:00 PM

17 August 2019

4:00 PM

The Conservative commentariat does not march in step. Myself, along with Matthew Parris, Max Hastings and Simon Heffer are proud, stiff-necked characters who would never make concessions to secure consensus and who certainly do not write to be wrong. Yet in recent months, there has been agreement, at least on one crucial point: we have vied with each other to pour boiling oil on Boris. We all insisted that a Johnson administration would quickly disintegrate into risibility and chaos, exposing the country to manifold perils. Well, that has not happened. It may be that we were all wrong.

I had assumed that although Boris wanted the self-aggrandisement of power, he would not move beyond ‘to be’, because he would have no idea what to do. That turned out to be nonsense. He had prepared for office. From the first moment, he displayed Montgomery’s favourite attribute: grip (which the Field Marshal pronounced ‘gwip’). When Churchill became prime minister, one observer said that the new regime was definitely having an impact: a permanent secretary had been seen running down a corridor. Although senior civil servants may not be bringing trainers and tracksuit bottoms to the office, Whitehall has been galvanised and many officials are cautiously enjoying the process. Good civil servants enjoy a sense of purpose and after the drift and hopelessness of the May years, that has returned.

There might be an explanation for the new focused Boris. In public schools over the years, the authorities have had to cope with incorrigible boys, impervious to threats or punishment. Headmaster and housemaster have a crisis meeting. Is it time for a washing of hands, and expulsion? Instead, they decide on a gamble: make the brat a prefect. It often works. Responsibility can have transformative consequences. Who would have thought it – certainly not this writer – but that could be true of the new head prefect.

There will be problems, some of them arising from the personality of Dominic Cummings. Cummings is a highly-talented fellow. But he has the defects of his qualities. A bull who always carries a china shop around with him, he regards patience and tolerance as among the worst of the deadly virtues. This has positive aspects. He helped Michael Gove shake up education. Emollience would have been little use in that battle. Equally, Churchill and Thatcher were not inclined to patience or tolerance. Neither of them was in the habit of giving a sympathetic hearing to excuses for failure. Before anyone laughs at mentioning Boris in the same paragraph as those world-historical titans, it must be remembered that he has set himself an awesomely radical agenda. Dominic Cummings could help him to fight his way through, as long as he takes note of three points.

First, government is difficult. It is not like zipping around a small harbour in a nippy little speedboat. It is more a matter of steering a 100,000 ton cargo vessel through narrow waters beset by rocks. The bridge has to give the engine room twenty miles’ notice of a change of course.

Second, government is stressful, especially in Downing Street. You need powerful personalities with first-class intellects, which usually means that they will have large egos. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as everything is harnessed to a common purpose. But gratuitous displays of egotism and temper just fray nerves which are already under pressure. Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s nearest approximation to Dominic Cummings, became less and less effective as time went on, because he could not adjust to the disciplines of high advisorship.

Third, the advisors should stay behind the arras. There was a great man who did just that: Michael Fraser, later Sir Michael and ultimately Lord Fraser of Kilmorack, was described by Rab Butler as the Tory party’s finest civil servant. (Chris Patten later ran him close, but had a much shorter innings.) There was a Fraser dictum: ‘The back-room boys should stay in the back room’. That is wise advice.

Various hacks have rearranged their summer plans and are taking a camping holiday, pitching their tents outside the Cummings’ household. He will face incessant door-stepping. There are only two sensible ways to respond. The first is silence. The second, if he is feeling uncontrollably voluble: ‘no comment.’ The Government’s enemies have identified Dominic Cummings as a source of vulnerability. He must prove them wrong.

Quite rightly, the new PM is conveying the impression that he is in control of events. That is not how they see matters in Brussels. At present, Britain’s relationship with the EU has an ornithological quality. Two savage birds are squaring up to each other. So will this end in a fight to the death, or is it a mating ritual? The outcome may not be clear for some weeks.

There is one basic difficulty. In August, much of European high officialdom goes on holiday. It was always said that if you could find anyone to talk to in Paris during August, they were not worth talking to. But there is another factor. From the way some British Remainers talk, one might think that the Euro-nomenklatura had just stepped out of Raphael’s School of Athens, that serene masterpiece, the Platonic idea of classical civilisation. In reality, the EU has recently been involved in weeks of horse-trading, corruption and chicanery. Raphael? It was more like a nineteenth century Punch cartoon of an Irish country fair, and it is not over yet. The newly-elected Parliament has still not exhausted its trouble-making resources.

There are two further factors. The first is Ireland. Hibernia has had a great time twisting Albion’s tail. But there comes a moment for realism. The British Government has no wish to impose a hard border on Ireland. If that were to happen, it would be the EU’s decision; the EU’s fault. Until recently, a lot of people in Dublin thought that Brexit would just go away. Now, they know better. This may help to encourage wisdom.

The second is the economy. Our recent economic figures reflect Brexit uncertainties. But the continent is full of economic doubts. It may be that the long-awaited Italian banking crisis is at last imminent. That said, the Italian banks’ problems have been insoluble for years, without ever becoming serious. Dolce far niente is not how Italian bankers spend August. It is a permanent cast of mind. As with the euro itself, it seems possible to kick the can down the road indefinitely and never encounter a T-junction. All the same, the idea that 27 EU nations are all in a position to laugh at the UK’s self-inflicted difficulties is a Remainers’ fantasy.

Apropos Remainers, I detect a subtle shift in Boris’s favour. More and more Tory MPs now realise that there is no turning back. We are going to leave the EU. Although there is still unhappiness at the thought of no deal, there is even more unhappiness at the thought of a Corbyn government.

Dominic Grieve is an exception, but he is not just a Remainer; he is a Remaniac. He is as favourably disposed to the Government as Samson, eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves, was to the Philistines.

There remain plenty of uncertainties. Yet Boris seems determined to maintain his momentum. A few weeks ago, some commentator – it may even have been me, or perhaps someone else of the same name – likened him to a circus clown. He has now changed roles and become a tight-rope artist, or funambulist, as they are also known. That seems appropriate for Boris.

As he inches his way across, there is no safety-net below him: only a pool of piranhas. But he might make it. With Boris, there were always going to be surprises and shocks. This could be the biggest shock of all. He succeeds.

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