STEVE ANGLESEY on the reoccurring problems facing Boris Johnson that once troubled John Major.
‘Weak and hopeless’. ‘Ineffective’. ‘A government that can do no right’. They might sound like recent assessments, as Covid calamity turns into Domnishambles, but these critiques of a stuttering Conservative regime blown way off course soon after an election victory are nearly two decades old.
Boris Johnson wrote a book which drew parallels between himself and Winston Churchill, and his desire to radically transform the country by stripping away layers of regulation suggests a typically Tory yearning to pick up Mrs Thatcher’s handbag. Ironically though, the Conservative prime minister in whose footsteps Johnson appears doomed to walk is the one who has called him a ‘court jester’ in whose hands ‘the NHS is about as safe… as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python’ and who declined to endorse him at the last election, saying ‘no single party has a monopoly on wisdom… sometimes you need to vote with your head and your heart for your country and your future.’
Social media, for what it’s worth, agrees Johnson is now a ringer for the Brixton boy who rose without trace. ’23 weeks after he was elected, John Major & Norman Lamont lost the people’s confidence for a generation. 23 weeks after he was elected, Boris Johnson & Dominic Cummings did the same,’ said one tweet, from the bestselling author and criminologist Richard Hoskins. ‘The Major government lost the public in September ’92 and never got it back. It can happen. And Boris Johnson is no John Major,’ wrote the New Statesman’s Jonn Elledge.
The timeline of doom scrolled on and on. ‘This is going to be the slowest of slow deaths isn’t it? With ‘one rule for them, another for everyone else’ doing for Johnson what ‘Tory sleaze’ did for Major,’ said one message. ‘This could be Boris’ Black Wednesday,’ said someone. ‘This is his singing in the bath moment,’ said someone else. And, fatally, this: ‘Boris Johnson makes John Major look strong.’
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Look back at Major’s run from April 9, 1992, to the Black Wednesday of September 16 and its aftermath, and the similarities are easy to draw.
The election won on fear of Labour and the promise of putting the country back together again. The mishandling of an unstoppable international event, the misplaced loyalty in a senior colleague in the face of ridicule when sacking them would have shown strength and a recognition of mistakes made and learned from (it took Major eight months to get rid of Lamont, and the former chancellor’s ‘green shoots of recovery’ sounded just as plausible in May 1993 as Dominic Cummings’ impromptu eye test sounds today).
The country’s most influential popular newspaper (the Sun then, the Mail now) has been lost. Johnson will believe this is only temporary but no doubt Major thought the same, almost up to the moment when Rupert Murdoch endorsed Tony Blair in March 1997.
Which brings us on to Labour, and Johnson is now facing what Major faced with first John Smith and then Tony Blair – a cool and forensic opposition leader who knows when to slip in the knife. Keir Starmer’s echoes of ‘the devalued prime minister of a devalued government’ and ‘I lead my party; he follows his’ are surely not far away.
Johnson has advantages that Major did not enjoy. No 10% interest rates, no inflation approaching double digits (yet). He has a majority of 80 rather than 21, and those who disagreed with him over Europe have been purged.
Yet even large majorities do not disguise the stench of byelection failures (losses in Mid-Staffs and Eastbourne helped push Thatcher out in 1990, but she left with a majority of 102), and Johnson has ambitious Westminster enemies in Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid. His relationship with Matt Hancock is fractious too, and the centralisation of power under Cummings has put other cabinet colleagues’ backs up.
Then we move on to those MPs who have lost faith after Cummings’ excursion excuses, those who bear a grudge against him (including what he called ‘a narcissist-delusional subset of the ERG who have spent the last three years scrambling for the 810 Today slot while spouting gibberish… You were useful idiots for Remain’) and those former MPs like Philip Hammond who can and will do damage from outside the chamber.
It adds up to a sizeable chunk of Tories who will now watch and wait, viewing every poll with interest. Net approval of the government’s handling of coronavirus has moved from +42% (polling undertaken March 25-26) to -4% (May 20-21) and on Monday a separate poll showed Johnson’s approval rating at -1%. It was at +19% four days earlier.
All this and Brexit still to come. And with it too, a growing sense that the country is realising it hired Boris Johnson to do a rebuilding job that he never had the temperament for and now does not have the money to carry out either.
No wonder he has started to look a little grey…