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MICHAEL WHITE: Impossible promises will come back to haunt Boris Johnson

'Introducing King Bozzie Bear' by Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

Out of all the prime ministers MICHAEL WHITE can remember, putting Boris Johnson in Number 10 is the greatest gamble yet.

So the moment we have waited for has finally come to pass. After decades of foot-dragging in the gender equality department at Westminster, the Liberal Democrats have elected a woman to be the party’s new leader. And a Scottish woman too.

Step forward Jo Swinson, first elected MP for her native East Dunbartonshire at 25 and succeeding Vince Cable at 39, a smidgen more than half his age. A new generation steps into Gladstone’s large boots. Excellent.

Well, not quite. Though a little shrill, Swinson is a nice person, one with enough resilience to take back her seat when it was briefly lost to the SNP’s 2015 tsunami and to live with a lethal peanut allergy. She is married to ex-MP Duncan Hames who will protect her back. In these uncertain times, when disaffected pro-European voters may swing their way – again – next time, the Lib Dems might soon find themselves powerbrokers. Her judgement could matter. But Swinson is not a game-changer and her election was the fourth item on Monday night’s television news.

No, this week’s moment of hope, fear and ridicule came when the World King entered his inheritance at the QEII Centre, as he always boasted that he would, even when few believed his extended adolescent fantasy. Whether angry or resigned, Boris-sceptics have long accepted that, barring more spectacular self-sabotage than assault on an unarmed Camberwell sofa, this was likely to happen after the painful deflation of Theresa May’s ill-judged premiership. Even so, it was a jolt, as expected events – a birth in the family or a death – often are.

Johnson won by a decisive, but not overwhelming, 66% to 34% for Jeremy Hunt on an 87.4% turnout among 159,320 members, Brexit Party entryists included. It was big enough to put the foreign secretary’s cabinet future at risk. In his acceptance speech the WK struck an emollient note towards his rival, grace towards the fallen May, and promised the country a feeble joke called DUDE – Delivery for Brexit, Unity, Defeat for Corbyn and to Energise the rest of us. Dishevelled and arm-waving, it wasn’t vintage stuff, but doesn’t mean much and was not obviously well received in the hall. Populists like to be popular.

At this low point it is tempting to resort to some suitably apocalyptic passage from the ancient world where Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – aka King Bozzie Bear the First – feels most comfortable. In an age which has largely abandoned its Christian faith in favour of astrology, Brexit and tattoos, Johnson is our 20th Etonian PM, but our first avowed pagan. In his amorality he does not even pretend otherwise. So let us unsettle him with a Biblical reference – surely unfamiliar – from the distant past. “Now from noon there was darkness all over the land,” reports St Matthew’s account of the Crucifixion.

Tempting to go apocalyptic, but wrong. We only get one prime minister at a time and we should surely hope that King Bozzie’s can-do confidence is not as misplaced as his detailed knowledge of the European kipper trade. Britain is the only country most of us have and we must hope that success allows the better angel of the World King’s cosmopolitan nature to banish Bad Boris to the attic – like Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. Boris as stern Henry V to his own Falstaff.

No, I don’t believe it either. Nor do instant resigners, Philip Hammond, David Gauke or Rory Stewart. The WK’s ex-FCO deputy and self-styled Boris pooper-scooper (cleaning up his mess), Alan Duncan, resigned on Monday to try to force a confidence vote in the Commons before BoJo took his Mojo to the Palace. Plenty of time for that, though Duncan believes the incoming Brexit regime will blow up in weeks. Repentant William Hague, much to blame for our plight, warns in the Telegraph that a “can-do spirit” does not sustain a “fantasy” renegotiation strategy. Something’s got to give.

So we can more easily imagine Whitehall’s current Sir Humphry gently taking King Bozzie aside on Wednesday afternoon. Just back from the Palace, clapped into No.10 by the staff, all the WK probably wanted to do was wash some socks after sofa surfing for weeks. “Very brave, prime minister, but it took longer than 100 days to organise that Moon landing in 1969,” says Sir Hump in between explaining the nuclear codes and how the washing machine works in the upstairs flat. “Ah, but Apollo 11 needed a soft landing. Global Britain doesn’t have to get its Brexit spaceship back. We’ll just build more,” replies the can-do King.

We can all imagine such exchanges because we have all read countless articles about the WK’s ambiguous personality and volcanic temper, his broad-brush aversion to detail and the chaotic opening months of his modest stint as London’s elected mayor. Some analysis has been admiring. Telly dons like Andrew Roberts reach for the Churchill comparison Boris himself favours. David Starkey likens him to the cynical, duplicitous Charles II, a Merry Monarch who cheered people up. In reality Charles was a tolerant man, but dragged to the right by intolerant MPs and financial dependence on France. More sensible Boris fan mail has tended to tail off uneasily in doubt and hedged bets.

My own trepidation has been increased by a coincidence. Writing an obituary, I have been re-reading accounts of Jim Callaghan’s arrival in No.10 after Harold Wilson’s sudden departure in 1976. Europe, Irish Troubles, militant shop stewards like Liverpool’s Len McCluskey, surging oil prices, a Cold War spike, all that and the collapse of Labour’s slim Commons majority. Sounds familiar? Yes, and a looming financial crisis which required a humiliating IMF loan before the year’s end. Far less experienced than Callaghan and his grizzled cabinet, Bozzie Bear may have a cash crunch too if the pound sinks further and public borrowing doubles, as it unexpectedly did in June.

Meanwhile he’s got a mere 100 days – including holidays – to pull off that “do or die” Brexit. Whoops, no he hasn’t. The Gulf oil tanker crisis looks like being an even more urgent test of his mettle, time-consuming too. It could make or break the World King in the public mind, not least because Mr Cake-and-Eat-It is torn between the twin pillars of Britain’s trade and foreign policy, the US and the EU. Was Whitehall suckered by John Bolton’s hawks in Washington into impounding the Grace 1 for suspected oil-smuggling via Gibraltar? The inevitable tit-for-tat is their risky opportunity. That suspicion grows.

The British-flagged Stena Impero is actually Swedish-owned. Like most such tankers, 85% of the oil it carries via the Straits of Hormuz goes to China, India and other booming Asian economies. One third of UK-registered vessels have been reflagged over Brexit uncertainties. Iranian threats will grow that number, weakening another London-based financial service industry.

Where is China’s navy and off-to-the-Moon India’s in this crisis? How dependable will US warships be under volatile Admiral Trump? IDS has already been playing crude anti-Remain politics with the crisis. But this ‘sovereignty’ lark isn’t so straight forward, is it, Iain? Even a reluctant EU is being forced to toe Washington’s line on sanctions: the euro isn’t strong enough to resist dollar power. Sterling certainly isn’t.

Every prime minister inherits big, pressing problems amid countless smaller ones landing on his desk every day. By making so many casual, uncosted promises, the World King has made a stick for his own back, spraying around money we don’t have like Friday night red wine on a sofa. At the weekend Brits were sharply reminded that the Royal Navy’s surface fleet has been cut from 31 ships to 19 since 2005, partly to pay for Gordon Brown’s constituency-built aircraft carriers, partly to pay off the bankers’ crash. No wonder HMS Montrose didn’t arrive in time to rescue the Stena Impero from government-sponsored Iranian pirates.

“Send in the Navy,” cries Austerity Osborne’s Evening Standard. “Certainly, sir, frigates all round.” This is not going to be a fiscally prudent government. Live now, pay later. But how much later if markets lose confidence in Bozzie Bear’s self-confidence? Way down the Bear’s priority list, the Chinese have withdrawn their interest in buying stricken British Steel. And BA pilots are poised to go on strike in August, just as more angry voters find how little they’re getting for their holiday pounds. Tony Blair felt “fear” on day one, Margaret Thatcher “an odd sense of loneliness as well as anticipation”. Welcome to the bed of nails, prime minister. The buck now stops with you. Chinese Huawei 5G technology? Arggh!

Specialists in Whitehall process, like Dr Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government (IfG), identify four critical areas which require clarity and speed if a new team is to establish itself solidly in control of the levers of power available to a British PM, even one lacking the vital component: a secure majority of MPs. They are the transition, the organisation of No.10 and cabinet, the adjustment to awesome responsibility and prior preparation.

Preparation matters and Boris has had months to prepare for the likelihood of the job, without the day-to-day pressures which will now devour most time to reflect. We will soon know if he has wasted them. How much should he try to restructure Whitehall or No.10? How much should he delegate to ministers? How should he use the cabinet, as a real decision-making body or to rubber-stamp decisions made in committees or informal groups, sofas even? What are his priorities and whom should he appoint to run the machine for him?

As mayor, the WK-in-Waiting acquired some experience and has hopefully learned from his mistakes. Ditto the FCO, where his reputation is mud. Sir Edward Lister, his point man at City Hall, is the new chief of staff, but what he has decided to do with cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill is arguably more important when the turnover in senior Whitehall ranks has been so high – and Olly Robbins, May’s Brussels negotiator and designated scapegoat is going. I’d opt for continuity and stability at such a time, but I’m no aspiring World King.

Organisation matters: Where to base himself in the No.10 labyrinth? Who to appoint to do policy, the politics, the comms, the constituency (Johnson has an unusually small Uxbridge majority of 5,000 for a sitting PM), the intimate private office staff? Again, his City Hall years are not encouraging. It was initially a mess, but clever people were willing to work for a clever man who was happy to be non-executive, limelight-hugging chairman much of the time. It will not suffice now that his red boxes will be filled with decisions that cannot wait. What the boss sees and where tricky bits are placed in the pile of paper may be crucial.

A lazy or indecisive PM is soon identified and thereby manipulated. Control freakery is bad. Tantrums don’t fix it and time is so precious. All those decisions, those fearsome nuclear and intelligence secrets to absorb, all those meetings, and all flummery of VIP visitors (congratulatory phone calls on day one), time-consuming prep for PMQs, surely a nightmare for a no-deal bullshitter who is not as articulate in plain English as he may imagine, Then there is the urgent need to shore up support against a no confidence ambush and buy time from the Gaukeward Squad of Tory rebels, it is always harder than even the hard worker anticipated.

What always grabs media attention in the easy-footage television age is cabinet appointments, the rituals of comings and goings, now much truncated to spare sackees pain. Time was, as recently as Mrs Thatcher, when the pieces were all put in place over 48 hours or so before the full team was announced in one go. But the hungry beast that is 24/7 news needs feeding. It is a mug’s game to predict the team in advance, though it never stops us. I always used to say “No one really knows, not even the PM” because it always goes wrong. A nominee refuses an offer and the dominoes fall over.

But ahead of the event we can safely make some general points. Has Sajid Javid become chancellor, as widely tipped? Being an investment banker is no substitute for good political antennae and courage which he is yet to show. How has Michael Gove, the cabinet’s erratic creative been rewarded for good behaviour? Has Amber Rudd survived to provide ballast? Has IDS been left on the beach where he belongs along with that other self-promoting under-performer Priti Patel? Has Liz Truss been kept on a short leash? Nicky Morgan back? That’s OK. Ingratiating Michael Fallon, toppled by a #MeToo journalist, forgiven? Could be worse.

Prime ministers must refresh the mix with new blood to inspire hope, one eye on race and gender. Personally I favour a job for bloodless Jacob Rees-Mogg. At the risk of two bankers trying to bend a powerful institution to their will (they’ll fail), making him Treasury No.2 would be fine. It’s time his large feet were held to the fire and the ERG and Brexit Party bullies held to account. No excuses now, Jake, let’s find out how good you really are, if you can play in a team, that will include Boris’s temporary, campaign landlord, and Rothschild banker turned Sky TV exec, Andrew Griffith as business advisor.

Johnson will be the 11th prime minister I have known, slightly or quite well, since shaking hands with Alec Douglas-Home (1963-64). Only my third Etonian, apart from Blair (Fettes), the rest were grammar and/or comprehensive graduates in more egalitarian times. Six entered No.10 without first winning an election, David Cameron in 2010 the sole Etonian to do so (more or less).

Boris the Pagan Populist is by far the greatest gamble among the 11. But we live in strange times where an obvious fantasist like the convicted paedophile, Carl Beech, can wreak havoc in so many lives while persuading police, politicians and much of the media – suckers for Jimmy Savile – that his improbable claims were “credible and true”. There are obvious political comparisons here, but they are not for today. Wouldn’t it be a relief if the much-trumpeted Boris Magic really could bind up the Brexit wounds.

In one of those interminable ‘who is he really?’ profiles, Harry Mount cites a poignant observation from the new prime minister’s sister, TNE columnist, Rachel, well placed (as ever) over her brother’s shoulder for his QEII apotheosis. “Brexit attracts rebels with the light of distant horizons in their eyes, who hate being told what to do, who probably had dominant fathers or bullying headmasters. Remainers are risk averse, keep-ahold-of-nurse prefects,” she explained. A snap Farage-backed election then? Would even gambler Boris dare. A Churchillian metamorphosis – or a rapid plunge to disaster: Ground Control to Major Tom?

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