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Boris Johnson’s rising tide of troubles

Illustration by Martin Rowson. - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE on the week that Boris Johnson surrounded himself with a cabinet of vassals.

Chinese emperors past and present have traditionally been judged by their people on the speed and efficiency of the regime’s response to the great natural disasters, earthquake and flood, pestilence and famine, which have always beset the world’s oldest surviving autocracy. We can see the process today in the ways Beijing is responding to environmental pollution and the coronavirus outbreak. It imposes drastic restrictions on its citizens, blames local officials for failings which may really be its own fault and uses the crisis to settle political scores. Fingers crossed, eh Comrade Xi.

So I have been watching with interest how our own self-styled World King is using what the Chinese would call The Mandate of Heaven conferred by voters in the December election result. Easily granted, easily taken away. A neglected flood here, a coronavirus outbreak mishandled there, a severe touch of frost that disrupts our comfortable lives (a tough speech by David Frost, the UK’s latest Brexit trade negotiator in this case), suddenly the volatile public mood may change. You’ll know when the tabloids rush to reallocate blame.

Safe in their flood-free homes, many members of the chattering class have spent the last week watching with horror or delight the intrigues among the World King’s courtiers. They have seen an apparently secure chancellor, Sajid Javid, capriciously struck down, replaced by a novice, albeit a smart one, as part of a wider strategy to subdue all opposition, including the cabinet of vassals. Andrew Sabisky, a previously obscure “misfit and weirdo” with a portfolio of obnoxious views, is caught in the crossfire and forced out of No.10 as other designated vassals, MPs and media, hit back.

Chances are that more voter attention has been consumed by the suicide of Love Island star Caroline Flack or the brutal self-harm done to Manchester City by its moneymen than by young Andrew. The oligarchs may own the club, but not the regulators at Uefa who have subjected it to a footballing Mexit from the European club competitions. In the pubs of Manchester, City supporters seem to blame Uefa – “they’re picking on us” – not the club’s owners. It is a very Leave response, but talented foreign players may leave too rather than spend two years outside Europe.

But such dramas don’t impinge directly on most people’s lives in the way that three feet of sewage water in the living room does, or the anxious trip to the GP with a high temperature. So voters’ interest in King Boris is not focused on the finer points of Frost’s Canada-plus negotiating stance. It will be judging how well the WK handles the floods on so many of Britain’s rivers and the rigour with which his ministers and officials prepare to combat the risk of a coronavirus pandemic here.

So far, so not-so-good. George Eustice, the new environment secretary, has been wading through muddy water in wellies – as a Cornish fruit farmer by trade he has his own pair – while the PM was “kept informed”. Not good enough? “Where’s Boris?’ the tabloids have been asking. Skulking at Chevening, the vassal foreign secretary’s grace and favour pad (Chequers has the builders in), that’s where. Hmmm. Didn’t he have a mysterious freebie holiday in Mustique only last month?

As for the government’s lack of solicitous care towards Brits quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise liner and in Wuhan, the stranded Brits have plenty of spare time and the iPhones to pipe their distress and disappointment straight into voters’ homes, courtesy of the hated news bulletins. “Can’t we stop this, Dom,” you can imagine the WK asking his Grand Vizier. “I’m working on the licence fee, but reading Sabisky’s weirdo contributions to my blog has taken all morning,” comes the reply. “No, I meant getting the Brits home.” “Losers.”

Apart from Frost’s talks and the flood damage, possibly that pandemic too, all this is transient trivia, especially self-important Mr Sabisky. But first impressions matter. Gordon Brown won a brief respite with his robust response to floods and a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in mid-2007. Theresa May reinforced an image of insensitive incompetence by her non-response to the Grenfell fire soon after her 2017 election mishap. Flood risk is complex, but floods reinforce the north-south, rural-urban narrative of relative neglect.

Boris’s sluggish reflexes suggest Heaven’s Mandate is already a little tarnished. And so it should be. It is a guiding principle of this column that the World King’s behaviour is not all and always wrong. Nor are all the instincts and actions of his prime minister, Dominic Cummings. A newly-mandated government must seize the honeymoon moment to take hold of the agenda and shake up institutions before the forces of resistance and inertia wear them down. Successive leaders like Thatcher and Blair did that. Shrinking the cabinet from 31 to a mere 26 is sensible too.

But after 70 days, Boris Johnson’s second administration fails to convey any clear strategic sense or grip. Having expelled or sacked experienced ministers last year he now sacks a clutch more while bringing back victims of his earlier levity like Penny Mordaunt in a lesser role. She used last summer’s sacking to display backbench fealty rather than the intelligent independence I’d hoped to see. That is very much the Johnson way of doing business, the Trump and Erdogan way of doing it too.

It works if it succeeds or, more likely, if it cows independent institutions as a precaution… cabinet, Whitehall ministries, the BBC and lobby journalists, parliament and the courts, the CBI, the list gets longer.

So does the enemies list. As Phil Collins, ex-Blair speechwriter, now a Times columnist, explained last week Johnson’s reshuffle has displayed power, not purpose or a plan. The manner of it was an assault on his own party and reflects the World King’s ruthlessness – the vital quality which his gentler biographer, Andrew Gimson, admires – and his willingness to let brutal Cummings off the leash.

So it was surely significant that when he reportedly humiliated special advisers in a private session the other day, before he sacked or reshuffled them, it was another spad who previously worked at the Sun who stood up to him on their behalf. Little wonder that the toady press has not been sounding quite so toady. The pundits have rehearsed historic tensions between No.10 and No.11, rival power centres which corridors link in strange intimacy. They remind readers that many prime ministers have tried and mostly failed to assert politics over economics, or to get the Treasury’s skinflint hands off brilliant spending wheezes (as the People’s Dom would put it). They point out that the Treasury has thousands of staff, No.10 barely 100.

But the Stephen Glovers (Daily Mail), Iain Martins (Times) and Charles Moores (Telegraph), all pro-Brexit and pro-Boris, all end up by agreeing that, if a good working relationship is important, the Treasury’s independence is important too: if Javid could not appoint his own spads, he was right to resign. That was my initial reaction too. Then I wondered if a more experienced and weightier operator – the kind that used to sit in cabinets – might better have said “yes” to Boris, then used the breathing space to organise cabinet resistance to No.10’s power grab. But in a cabinet of vassals who dares resist? Not Grant Shapps, methinks. Not Matt Hancock.

Times man Collins wrote with force that if Rishi Sunak (“Baby CHINO” to the wags) has it in him to become a substantial political heavyweight – there is no telling at this stage, he is just a bright and nimble meritocrat doing Cummings’ bidding – he has immense potential power over No.10 because Johnson can’t afford to lose another chancellor. Bide your time, then pick a fight with Cummings and demand his dismissal, Collins suggested.

Precisely. We know it’s right because it’s what happened last time the “career psychopath” (copyright D Cameron) was unleashed against Whitehall on behalf of Michael “Trust Me” Gove. He picked one too many fights and was sacked, much the same as Blair insisted that Brown sack his turbulent press man, Charlie Whelan, blamed (wrongly) for dobbing in Peter Mandelson over his mortgage in 1998. Come to think of it, in the last dispute Cummings was fighting for decentralised power – education to be run by him and Gove, not No.10. How times change!

At this moment of Cummings’ triumph over Javid the most intriguing question for concerned citizens not obsessed with Love Island or a flooded basement to ask themselves is: “How long will Dom last now that he’s made himself the story?” On Sunday I thought Christmas sounded about right. By mid-week I’m not so sure. Easter?

But the real mistake here isn’t misfit Dom’s choice of weirdo staff or outfit, not even misfit Cummings himself. He’s important because he has the confidence and convictions which Boris the Blusterer lacks, Dom the Disrupter who wants to pull down ‘failed’ institutions as much as any teenage Corbynite.

Boris needs him because he’s a loner with no natural allies, a Heseltine without Hezza’s self-made millions or experience. Cummings is the autocrat’s consiglieri, his office wife.

No, the real mistake is to think you can centralise the reins of government and run the show from No.10. A PM, especially a lazy details-averse one, must trust competent lieutenants, even nurture a few as possible successors, Mrs Merkel.

He or she must also encourage independent thinking, expertise and pushback. Margaret Thatcher, who worked 18 hours a day, fell when she forgot that. What’s more, a centraliser who takes the credit also has to take the blame. Poll tax, anyone? Boris Island? Irish Sea bridge?

The autumn’s COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow – if it stays there – is apparently in poor planning shape, further disrupted by Claire Perry O’Neill’s sacking. If beyond rescue – these events take lots of staff work – it is another opportunity lost to the Brexit vortex. Last weekend, Britain’s Nato allies – Nancy Pelosi among them – commented adversely on its conspicuous absence from the annual Munich Security Conference. Jittery defence secretary Ben Wallace stayed in London and kept his job.

His deputy went, only to be fired. The new boy arrived in time to fly home. Names? It barely matters, the vassal turnover is so high.

Yet friends and allies are people with whom Global Britain needs to make urgent trade deals at a time when events – as ever – are forcing it to pick sides. On Huawei 5G technology Johnson backed China and the EU, thereby annoying Australia (whose MPs cancelled a trade trip) as well as “apoplectic” Trump. So Boris’s early trip to Washington has been postponed. Team Trump casually suggests that Silicon Valley might like to buy up Eriksson or Nokia, the EU firms that can match Huawei, to help the US catch up. Boris is offered a Chinese deal to build HS2 faster and cheaper and boost employment (in China).

Neither of which will happen. But being prime minister is not like being London mayor, a relatively sheltered harbour. Was it Cummings who leaked the budget “mansion tax” idea to weaken Javid among Tory supporters? Some think so. Is it Cummings who is driving the campaign to wreck the BBC, part of the government’s ‘economic shift to the left, cultural shift to the right’ tactics? Tuesday’s edition of The Times led on “Johnson at odds with Cummings over BBC”. This is madness. Different madness from pointlessly moving the House of Lords to York – peers to man the flood defences? – but equally mad in its own way.

David Frost’s aggressive trade talk in Brussels on Monday night is at least substantial. Yet it need not alarm us much at this stage. It is populist posturing for domestic consumption, much as robust noises coming out of Paris this week have been. Frost says the UK wants the same limited free(ish) trade deal that Canada and others have, not “dynamically aligned” to current and future EU regulations and not subject to arbitration by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Given that most of the world accepts ‘equivalence’ standards, he has a point.

The EU27 counters that Perfidious Albion is too big and too near to permit that, fearful as it is of a low regulation Singapore-on-Trent which some cabinet fantasists – Raab and Patel – hanker for out of animal spirits and ignorance. Paris wants to go further than Brussels. Naturally. The French have climate change alignment in their sights, as if Polish coal sold to anti-nuclear Germany and Hungarian climate nationalism are not enough to worry about. Spain wants Gib back, Greece wants those marbles. Is everyone losing theirs?

The posturers are all bluffing because they all have too much to lose. Of course, the ECJ will have a role in arbitrating UK-EU trade disputes, as happens in the Byzantine structures which have governed the Union’s dealings with Norway and Switzerland for decades. The issue will be fudged, as they were when Boris triumphantly fudged the Withdrawal Agreement. Tory MPs will cheer just as Republicans did when President Trump was “acquitted” by a Cummings-like jury. Our economy is fragile but so is Germany’s export-led model in its own way. Emmanuel Macron may be grinding down opponents of his tax reforms, but he just lost his candidate for Paris mayor to a squalid sex scandal.

None of which is to say it might not go horribly wrong. The Treasury has been weakened by Cummings’s assault on its independence and if chancellor Sunak cannot keep the grip on levels of tax and spending then markets will eventually take notice. Like Javid, Sunak is said to be a fiscal conservative who does not want to over-borrow. But both were investment bankers associated with over-borrowing that crashed the global economy in 2008-9. Governments can always rescue the banking system, which is as indispensable to our world as the sewage system, but not so sweet or useful. But who rescues governments when they get it wrong – as autocratic regimes so easily do? They do because they can debauch the tax system and run up debt while controlling the printing presses. You don’t need to think South Africa or Iran. It’s what Donald Trump seems to be bent on doing.

Everyone says Sunak is a nice young man, honest too. Let’s hope so because not many people can have said that about Boris and there’s no obviously wholesome figure in cabinet to hold back his baser instincts now that Geoffrey Cox QC has been replaced as attorney general by Brexit groupie Suella Braverman. As her US counterpart, Trump loyalist Bill Barr showed in his protest against interference by Tweet last week, when the slippery slope to lawlessness gets steeper, it is sometimes too late to shout “That’s enough.”

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