Boris Johnson has been given so many second chances. He hasn’t taken any of them.
Let’s start with his voting for Theresa May’s terrible Brexit deal. Despite this, when Theresa May resigned he was backed by Leavers and became PM. Having become PM he didn’t, as he should have done, back a no deal, and instead negotiated a revised version of May’s deal. Though a huge improvement on her version, it was far from perfect. Leavers backed him nonetheless and he won a large majority in the general election. And for having defeated Corbyn and achieved Brexit he will be remembered as a hero by many Conservatives.
Barely a couple of months after the general election, Covid arrived. He seemed tossed around by events, initially seeming to favour facilitating the spread through the ‘squashing the sombrero’ strategy, then switching to a far too long lockdown, then adopting a ‘something will turn up’ strategy through the latter part of 2020, then new lockdowns. Yet he was immensely lucky, with vaccines turning up just as his strategy was on the point of collapse, giving him yet another second chance.
His reopening roadmap was flawed and too slow but it wasn’t terrible. Labour’s position was much worse. So it was easy to forgive the significant imperfections in Boris’s plan and to give him another chance.
The country reopened. Now was finally his opportunity to do something. What was his vision for the country? What was ‘levelling up’ about? Did he really have some smart way to deal with the dilemma of dealing with climate change? Could we seize the opportunities of Brexit?
But nothing happened. For months we drifted along with no vision. There didn’t appear to be any triangulation on climate change at all – it was all just embracing the Greens at the expense of markets, without any new smart repositioning. The answer to every policy challenge appeared to be spending more money and raising more taxes. Inflation started rising, as it was bound to given all the excess money printed in the Covid period, and the government didn’t have anything to say. But Labour was still demanding extra Covid restrictions and Boris was resisting those demands so he got the benefit of the doubt.
By late November 2021 the Omicron surge was beginning. Would Boris face down those demanding restrictions and press on to try to establish some new policy agenda? No. He imposed new restrictions and seemed willing to impose more. A hundred Conservative backbenchers rebelled against his restrictions. Lord Frost resigned. So he had to take the proposal for more restrictions to cabinet. Truss and Sunak opposed them, backed by various others. So a new lockdown was averted. Omicron fizzled out.
Mutterings had begun that it might be time to looked beyond Boris to a new leader. But with the issue of new Covid restrictions still potentially on the table, having Boris as a weak leader beholden to a cabinet opposed to restrictions seemed a potentially favourable outcome. And he got another chance.
Yet still he produced nothing. No answer to inflation. No vision for the country. No agenda for change. A few encouraging anti-woke noises, but it wasn’t enough.
Then partygate got going in mid-January 2022. This issue proved very divisive. Some of his critics rallied behind him, believing it could harm the party and the country if a PM were removed over matters they considered trivial. Other critics saw a pragmatic opportunity to be rid of him. Others saw his partygate conduct, and that of those under him, as symptomatic of his wider failings. But the Ukraine war began. British policy had been to back Ukraine strongly since Boris’s premiership began. Boris continued with that, whilst resisting the voices of those proposing potentially dangerous over-reach such as no-fly zones. Boris got credit, and survived again.
But nothing ever changes with the Prime Minister, no matter how many second chances he gets. And it seems that nothing ever will. He has never had a vision for the country. He has never had a proper answer to the great political questions of the day. He isn’t the man to take tough decisions to deal with inflation. He just shambles along from one crisis to the next.
Conservative MPs, if they are to lose the next general election, want at least to feel proud about what they have done in office. Boris Johnson does not make them believe they will be proud in defeat. He makes them believe they will be ashamed, and that they will have achieved nothing of value. No Prime Minister can survive that sentiment for long.
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